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Movie Ratings and Reviews

Panic Room
Panic Room(2002)

The last thing I was told about this movie was to spare myself and not watch it. I took this with a pinch of salt large enough it fit my hand--after all, this is the work of David Fincher, operating on a script from David Koepp. And yes, Koepp wrote the clumsy script for The Lost World, but he also wrote the one for the original Jurassic Park and wrote and directed an adaptation of Richard Matheson's A Stir of Echoes. I'm actually not sure what it says one way or the other, but the previews included on the DVD are for Taxi Driver, Close Encounters, Midnight Express, Lawrence of Arabia, and Dr. Strangelove. I've got to say--what a weird set of movies to pair this with--though good ones.

Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) are looking for a new home in the midst of Meg's divorce from her husband Stephen (Patrick Bauchau). They are introduced to a four floor home in Manhattan with hardwood floors, multiple bedrooms and bathrooms, a working elevator, and even a yard--certainly a rarity in Manhattan. Of course, it also has a panic room: multiple inches of steel surround the entire room, which has its own ventilation, monitors linked to cameras throughout the house, its own land phoneline, and an automated steel door that uses hydraulics and motion sensors for security in rapid closure as well as protection from closing when it oughtn't. As they settle in for their first night, a man begins to peruse the front windows and door of the home, checking each and every door and window until settling on an entrance in the roof. He comes in down a ladder there, and begins to move through the house. When he finds Sarah sleeping, there's shock on his face. He moves more quietly, and begins to check each room as he goes, and later finds Meg. After this, he moves back to the door we first saw him at, and he lets in two more men: Junior (Jared Leto) and Raoul (Dwight Yoakam). They argue quietly but angry about the fact that there are people present, with the first man, Burnham (Forest Whitaker) insisting that they cancel their plans, but being talked down by Junior--who has brought Raoul without telling Burnham. The promise of $3 million keeps them interested, but the chance witnessing of their presence on the safe room monitors leads Meg to run for Sarah and bring her into the safe room. Unfortunately, the money the men are after is in that safe room, and they have to figure out now how to get the Altmans out.

In the pantheon of respected directors, Fincher is closest to Kubrick, if anything--though he very definitely covers a different kind of territory. Both, though, treat (or, in Kubrick's case, treated) film as a craft. There's rarely any moment in the works of either that feels overly spontaneous or unplanned. It's a kind of art that resembles bland construction in description, but in practice tends to be breathtaking visually: it's not about the fact that the visuals are accurate or clean, it's that they all work in the correct order and spaces. It's the beauty of expert clockwork instead of emotive sculpting. It's a method, and it's the kind that is tight and suspends disbelief if you aren't paying attention, but approaches jaw-dropping when carefully examined. There are some absolutely amazing shots throughout the movie, but none go to the trouble to announce themselves or insist on acknowledgment of their presence. The house is believably placed in Manhattan, but is actually a complicated, fully constructed set. It has the aged feeling of an established building, but the freedom of a constructed set. This isn't one of those movies where "the house is a character", but there's a certain feeling it promotes in spite of that. Space is the order of the day in all moments outside the panic room, space above and around everything--and the feeling of a kind of cold, alien age to the house that keeps it very separate from the family that has only just moved into it. It's helped, of course, by the fact that their recent move means they have not yet fully unpacked and decorated it. A lot of the motion shots imply a passive, impartial observer--unnoticed, yet still almost an sentient entity. It knows what's going on but has no investment in it whatsoever: when Burnham walks to Meg's room and into the doorway, the camera turns to frame him just behind Meg's head, unnoticed and never a focal point. It is actually the "character" that shows us Meg going to sleep and moves into Burnham's original entrance into the house.

One of the most interesting factors is that the attitudes of both the men breaking in and the women in the panic room leave us without any particular feeling of threat--there's a real menace in Howard Shore's score, a serious darkness, but Junior's goofy cornrows (which, knowing Leto's way of dealing with his appearance and hair, especially as vocalist for Thirty Seconds to Mars, where a movie doesn't require him to look any certain way, might have been his idea) and the interactions of the three men leave us not overly concerned for the actual safety of Meg and Sarah. Burnham is insistent that no one be harmed, Junior is a terrible criminal who makes assumptions and is determined to prove his control. Raoul is a mystery, but comes off as someone trying harder to be a badass than his history might actually bear out. Meg and Sarah have a moment when they decide to use the intercom to scare the men off that keeps us similarly relaxed. But when an idea to force them out of the panic room begins to go wrong, Raoul becomes something less of a question mark, and things rapidly slide into actual tension, concern, and fear. The shift of control and power, the continued goofs of Junior and the visible compassion of Burnham.

This isn't an utterly unique plot, but few things are. You're certainly left thinking of Wait Until Dark if you've ever seen it, but this is a quality set of actors we're working with all around--Whitaker is a personal favourite, Jared carries a strong history as well as the charisma that lets him front a band--interestingly shared by solo country artist Yoakam, Foster has no need to defend or explain her credibility, and Stewart turns in a solid performance as the vaguely conflicted, slightly sullen, but otherwise reasonable teenaged girl. There's no stretch into absolute clichés, even if the compassionate criminal is not an overly new idea either. The end result is, as is usually the case (always, in my current experience) with Fincher, a tight and engaging film. It's not the best movie, nor is it his best--probably not near the top at all. Still, it comes together exactly as you can only imagine it was intended to, being a thriller based heavily on suspense. There was one moment featuring Andrew Kevin Walker (author of the Se7en screenplay) in a cameo that was relatively predictable--but, in a sense, this wasn't surprising, as it relied on something that you would not as readily expect from the average person, even if some of the characters do--or at least hope for it.

The Social Network

There are two overriding passions in my life: music and movies. Of late, the former has taken precedent over the latter. I'm not even entirely sure this review will come to anything; the thought has been less than motivating of late. Still, the thing that often drives me is the conflict surrounding a film. Not controversy necessarily, as it tends to relate more to how a conflict exists in film interpretation or reflection. Here, that comes in with the idea of a biopic so convoluted in its aim. It's not a movie about an enormous figure that we all see regularly who speaks to us via interviews on talkshows and performance in movies or recorded music or in government. Sure, Mark Zuckerberg is in the periphery for most or many in that Facebook is and his name is closely tied to it. But it's not a face and personality and idea that we identify so clearly. There are other instances of this, but let's lay the basic groundwork here first.

Opening to find future Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) speaking to a girl, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), and going down in flames. Going home angry, the idea of degrading women in general passes between Mark and a roommate, and he manages to destroy Harvard's network with a brand new website. This snowballs into the interest of the Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler (Armie Hammer for both), who have been working with Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) to create the Harvard Connection, another iteration of internet socialization that gains primarily from its exclusivity. Mark takes the idea and brings it back to his friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and they run with it. They quickly bring up The Facebook, and begin to take the world by storm, eventually flashing forward to Zuckerberg being sued by both Saverin and the Winklevoss twins as the story of the website unfolds, in its effects on these people, and the people who wander in from outside--like Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), alleged co-founder of Napster, who brings flash and world-changing, big picture ideas to the whole thing.

There are, of course, people who circled the film, sniffed it and turned their nose up as they walked away because the film does not represent the real Mark Zuckerberg, Saverin or Parker. Zuckerberg in particular is naturally singled out as the lead character in the film and the most public of all of these figures. Hell, I heard Sean Parker and thought, "Huh? I thought it was Sean something else..."¹ So, with even some more familiar public figures attesting to Mark's personality and the positive qualities thereof, it becomes relevant to some that the film is not particularly flattering to Mark. Well, this isn't strictly true. Allegedly² it mis-characterizes his motivations, and changes all kinds of things, but this comes to the heart of all of it. Ask screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, or director David Fincher, even Eisenberg who plays him--that's not the point. The beginning of behind-the-scenes documentary How Did They Make a Movie of Facebook? is composed of cast and crew noting that it's not "about Facebook." Hammer refers to it as "#5 or #6" on the list of points or ideas the movie is about. And it isn't. This is Aaron Sorkin, he of Sports Night and The West Wing, Fincher of Se7en and Fight Club. Both of them, as pedantic, specific and perfectionist as they can be, are about their art. There is basically no chance they will sacrifice story or art for 'truth' or 'accuracy.' It's not the object for them, and it's not really the object for viewers--unless we're looking at a documentary.³

As entertainment the film is unsurprisingly brilliant. Of course it's not really about the invention of Facebook as a website, it's about the people around it and the ideas of it, and the contrast in the nature of socialization in the world before it and after it, the way it affected the world, the rules, values and injustices of exclusive social circles and systems. It's about isolation, oddly, in particular for Zuckerberg. It's about never learning the social mores, about not understanding the rights and the wrongs of most interactions until seen in hindsight, or misappropriating values from one circle to another, which never works. And Sorkin and Fincher put together a script and film that does all of these things successfully. This isn't a shock from either of them, and Fincher has clearly not lost his most notorious tendencies toward perfectionism: everyone refers to the number of takes for given scenes--often in the high double and near-triple digits. The final effect is fantastic, as he always comes out with movies that feel finely crafted but natural. There is no moment of stilted construction, nor of loose and sloppy film-making. The number of takes manages to bring a familiarity to the actors and an insane level of refinement that simultaneously perfects it.

As one of the formative musical artists of my life, nevermind my aforementioned love of music, it must be noted that Trent Reznor and his frequent collaborator/producer Atticus Ross (who also produced the last album Coheed and Cambria released, which I have to note as they can readily be referred to as my favourite band) produced an Academy Award-winning score for the film. It fits in with Reznor's work for the last two decades, and even easier with the work the two of them have done in the past one. It's a brilliant stroke, which is unsurprising in a Fincher movie, as he almost seemed to single-handedly inform half the public of the existence of the Pixies by either choosing "Where Is My Mind?" as the closer for Fight Club, or at least bringing in the people who chose it. Reznor and Atticus' work has been deeply cynical, dystopian and subtly menacing, and that is exactly what the movie demands. Not because it's humourless, or truly dark and nihilistic, but because of the sense of isolation, the ideas of crumbling relationships and intruding collapse of integrity as Parker brings in the ideas of money and fame and standing over others--"anarchy" in the words of Fincher himself--being the ones behind revolution. Innocence removed, lost or forgotten, trampled in the desire for money and credit and ego. It's carried out but the music makes it clearer, gives us that anticipation and dread the dialogue should not in this context. It's brilliant, and deserving of its award.

The film overall deserves it's accolades, there is no doubt about this. I realize I'm one of the last to see it, but there it is. See it if you would be even more last than me. Make it someone else--and make them get someone else behind them.

¹Shawn Fanning, publicly the equivalent of Mark Zuckerberg if we speak of Napster. To my understanding, anyway.
²I don't know, do I? So, rather than claim that I can either confirm or deny the movie, I leave all of it as alleged for me.
³Debatably, of course. The question rages as to whether the object of documentaries is to be objective or to convey a point of view. Still, people look to those more for the actuality. One hopes more are looking there, at least.

The Chumscrubber

The first thought everyone levels at this movie is the one you'd expect from most synopses, the tagline, the cover art--most things: "Suburbia is a joke." The idea has been covered many times before (most notably, perhaps, in American Beauty), but that's true of most thoughts and ideas in film (or music, television, books...). It's used, like many simplistic arguments, as a way of completely depriving a work of any kind of value, without bothering to first experience it. I'm not going to confidently assert that I haven't been guilty of the same. I probably have, in fact. But, when it does occur, I do my best to try to see and justify how this is a specific and actual failure, showing or explaining why it is that the work brings us nothing new or useful or interesting. It doesn't help anything that, like many movies that address this topic, this is black comedy and at least half-satirical. That works against it in two ways, of course: one, the fact that it's familiar, and two, the fact that it's something that doesn't always work for everyone.

In a small suburban town, the high school is supplied with drugs by Troy Johnson (Joshua Janowicz), who passes them to Billy (Justin Chatwin), Lee (Lou Taylor Pucci), and Crystal (Camilla Belle) to distribute directly. When Dean (Jamie Bell) goes to see Troy one day, he is asked by Troy's mother (Glenn Close) to have Troy turn down his stereo. Dean finds, then, that Troy has hanged himself. When Dean fails to notify anyone else as he backs away and leaves, his parents (William Fichtner and Allison Janney) are unsure what to do with him. Billy and Lee are unsure what to do with their business without a supplier, and their paths begin to cross when their plan to force the assistance of Dean in acquiring whatever remained of Troy's stash goes awry. Eventually, they've embroiled the unwitting involvement of Officer Lou Bratley (John Heard), his ex-wife Terri (Rita Wilson), their son Charlie (Thomas Curtis), her new fiance Mayor Michael Ebbs (Ralph Fiennes), Lee's parents (Jason Isaacs and Caroline Goodall), and Crystal's mother Jerri (Carrie-Anne Moss). Everyone wanders around in their worlds, oblivious to the interactions occuring around them. Dean's father Bill (Fichtner) is devoted to his career as book-writing psychiatrist who has already used his son as subject for previous writing, his wife is devoted to a business selling vitamin supplements and trying to be a family, Lou is lost in the marriage he won't acknowledge the end of, Jerri is trying her best to be her daughter's age, Terri is focused on her upcoming second marriage, Mrs. Johnson is trying to deal with the loss of her son and the absolute lack of attention anyone is paying to her loss, and Ebbs is lost in a spiritual epiphany brought on by Bill's book, The Happy Accident--which is only the start of their interactions.

Director Arie Posin and screenwriter Zac Stanford put together the original idea with each other, and framed it around the central concept of The Chumscrubber, a background fiction that runs throughout the youth of the movie. Dean's younger brother (played by Rory Culkin) and the Bratleys' son Charlie are both seen playing the game based on it, Charlie is seen reading a comic, and more than one of them has a poster for the character hanging in their rooms. The Chumscrubber is from a world that strongly resembles their own suburb, but blown up in a nuclear explosion and left filled with zombies, and he is a teenager himself--but one who woke up without his head attached any longer. But, he took this not as a sign to roll over, but to continue and do what he needs to to survive. I will admit this frame is imperfect, but it's only that it doesn't quite gel and fall into place, not that it feels overly clumsy or forced--the latter being an especially large relief. The shifts between humour and moments of serious tension or emotional understanding are very well executed, as you aren't left disoriented when they occur, instead carried along into each with the proper frame of mind. Of course, the moments of shock and the more sudden laughs are also successful. The inevitable exaggerations and hyperbolic moments of this kind of comedy are noticeably just that, but don't end up crossing the line and ruining the suspension of disbelief so long as you accept the fact that this movie is what it is.

The essential sensibility of the movie is that of failure to connect or interact, visible in everyone and everything, even those attempting to get past those limitations. Bill is beyond narcissistic beyond all reckoning--when he confronts Dean about the death of his best friend, he quickly begins jotting down notes. It begins to lock Dean down in his emotional confusion and pain over the loss of his friend--loss we see on the slow, focused shot that follows him away from Troy's body. Crystal's confused attempts to connect to Dean--which very much mirror Bill's--also force him further away from everyone else. Both of them seem to be legitimately interested in Dean's well-being, but both are poor at hiding their secondary (or, more likely: primary) motivations from him. And we see every character constantly passing by Dean, and Dean passing them, no one noticing. Terri is so invested in her wedding she can't keep track of her own son, or even the man she's planning to marry. Bill fails as a father in his interest in his career. Jerri is lost in trying to be the better teenaged girl than her daughter. Billy is lost in trying to be different from his father. None of them finds the places where those motivations are parts of the lives of others. Dean has long since learned that having no friends is the best approach--not because he's not interested in others, but because he's been betrayed like we see he was by his father, even though he's still trying and willing, for a moment, to think maybe a connection is possible. But these two betrayals renew his decision to avoid connections to others, even as Crystal circles him and they both try to read each other and understand, catching glimmers of truth and flashes of acting.

The movie is like a lot of first time features: Arie and Zac have had their whole lives to put together a script and the ideas for the movie to come from it. They've worked the Chumscrubber in everywhere, even if it's not perfect, it manages to feel natural--and you start to realize it's actually more ubiquitous than you noticed previously. And there are moments where you realize just how interconnected all of these characters are, even though none of them ever realize: other than Dean. It's somewhat ironic, of course: the most emotionally shutdown is the one most aware of others. It's also a neat trick of Stanford's script and Bell's acting that he gains the sympathy of the viewer. There are a number of clever shots--from the one following Dean from Troy's body to others than manage to invert expectations and live by reactions instead of showing us what they are reacting to. There's a moment with Billy that you think will go in a certain direction, and it goes that way--but it stops short. We see how Crystal and Lee react to it, and the point is made. There's a sense, for some viewers, that we're denied the "pay-off" or the confirmation of our expectation--but, truth be told, it's readily apparent. There's no question as to what happens, and it draws your attention to the fact that the important element here is the characters, not the plot itself. The first moment, without a doubt, is where Ralph Fiennes begins his enlightenment. We do see what he is beginning to piece together, but we see it first in his face, and focus on it longer than is usual.

This is a wonderfully quirky movie, but a lot darker and more dramatic than that word might accurately imply. Still, it's worthwhile, if nothing else for the interesting choice to have a huge cast in the parents, and smaller stars for the teens--of course, that follows logically in a sense: an older actor is more likely to have more experience anyway. Still, it means that the teens all look less like stars jammed into roles and more like the characters they're playing.

Heist
Heist(2001)

It's funny to think that by 2001, no one had yet named a film simply "Heist" (okay, there's a forgotten one from 1998, but prior to that, shockingly, none, with a few possible translated exceptions). I suppose it's kind of a post-modern title--forget being poetic or unusual or unique, just go minimalist and directly descriptive, and be relatively original (the first few times at least) by ignoring all those expectations and methods of naming. In that sense, then, it makes sense as a film released in 2001. Of course, heist movies are far older than that--Kubrick's 1956 The Killing and Ocean's 11 in 1960 off the top of my head--but they are a reliable source of entertainment for those who like them, and are generally fun for their cleverness, so long as they succeed at intentions.

One of few heist films that start from a heist instead of building to a brand new one, Joe Moore (Gene Hackman), Bobby Blane (Delroy Lindo), Don "Pinky" Pincus (Ricky Jay) and Fran Moore(Rebecca Pidgeon) are not new to thieving, nor to teaming up with each other. In the middle of a jewelry heist, the aging Joe's face is caught on camera when a few steps go off plan. Joe decides this is the end for him, but Mickey Bergman (Danny Devito), who fences most of their loot, disagrees and insists that, before paying the group, they carry out one last heist: Swiss gold being brought in by airplane. Joe is against it and refuses and argues, but relents, and finds himself stuck with Mickey's rather green nephew Jimmy Silk (Sam Rockwell). Friction is generated between the two as Jimmy and his uncle believe Joe is off his game and Jimmy begins to pursue Joe's wife--fellow thief Fran.

I was reluctant to pick up this movie, on the fence because of the solid cast but familiar plot, until I noticed who wrote and directed: David Mamet. If you like Mamet's work (and you should, really), that's enough there, and when it's combined with something that is usually passably entertaining like a heist film and you're pretty well guaranteed good stuff. He keeps dialogue and plotting kinetic and exciting in whatever he does, and even when he doesn't keep you guessing, he fulfills expectations in the most satisfying ways. Mamet films are absolute pleasure, hitting the perfect balance of skill or talent and entertainment. For those who believe in such things, there is no need to bring up guilt with your pleasure, nor is there a need to worry that it will talk over you or just completely leave you in the dust. Your brain is engaged without being overwhelmed, and your appreciation and enjoyment are both satisfied. Your sympathies are put in the right places without the feeling of outright manipulation, as the characters pop and crackle with Mamet's most famous asset--witty dialogue--and become real enough, or at least strong enough projections, to carry all of their actions easily into the realms of believability. This speed and craft is most evident in a film based on deception and confidence games, as the characters slide from internal and real conversations with each other to blatant manipulation of external characters with barely a notice. And then in the third act, you realize that the internal dialogue wasn't always real either, and these characters are all constantly plotting, preparing and being in place for everyone and everything around them.

This is a potent and enjoyable example of heist films that outshines its fellows and manages to feel fresh and interesting and exciting despite coming so late to the party in a very specific genre, without having to resort to redesigning the concept of a heist film. And in many senses, it also manages to be exactly what its' title purports: a perfect crystallization of what heist films are defined as and should aspire to be.

The Legend of Hell House
½

"How did it end?"
"If it had ended, we would not be here."
In some circles, Richard Matheson is a highly-praised name. However, those circles are often the same who bemoan the fate of his novels in film translation. Those circles tend to be small, being as few could identify the author behind The Last Man on Earth, The Omega Man and I Am Legend--much less that all three were based on the same source novel (itself sharing the name of that third adaptation), changed to great degree in all instances, with not a single one retaining the true meaning of the very title of the book. It's with this in mind that I turn an utterly boggled mind toward the "Fox Flix" trailers chosen to adorn the DVD of one of the few filmings of his horror novels that Matheson has not expressed open dissatisfaction with: Batman: The Movie (1966), Bedazzled (2000), Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, and Big Trouble in Little China. Cheese, comedy, horror-comedy and intentional cheese. What on earth were they thinking? The film itself is, while maybe a bit unintentionally campy, hardly portrayed as or visibly humourous. And yet there almost seems to be enough of a theme to suggest the choices were deliberate. Then again, maybe it was simply minimalist thinking of the worst kind: Michael Gough played Alfred Pennyworth in Tim Burton's Batman (1989), so that explains the first, the second and third involve vampires and the devil (ie, the supernatural) and the last...is from a well-renowned horror film-maker? In any case, those have no relation to even the way that Fox themselves portray the movie in menus and cover art.

Mr. Deutsch (Roland Culver) decides to serve himself and physicist Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill) by exploring the idea of "life after death," through the usage of The Belasco House, known as the "Mount Everest of haunted houses." Barrett brings his wife, Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), and Deutsch sends, additionally, Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowall, who had been making something of a name for himself as the apes Caesar and Cornelius), the only one to survive a previous attempt to spend time in the Belasco House and a self-described medium, and Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), a minister and another medium. Barrett derides supernatural explanations as nonsense, bringing a machine of his own devising that will purge the building of 'electromagnetism' (once a go-to explanation for many things supernatural). Fischer remains in this only for the money, having seen what the House can do and has done, while Tanner believes she can do something for the spirits of victims she believes are amongst those haunting the House. These motivations are all in opposition to each other, as it is a clinical problem to Barrett, a threat to Fischer and a project for healing to Tanner. These thoughts are eventually the defining traits of each character as the House beings to work its wiles on all of them.

As both a novel (Hell House, by Matheson, of course) and a film, there is endless comparison to Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and Robert Wise's adaptation thereof, The Haunting (curiously, an inversion where the longer book title is cut short instead of lengthened, as it is here). While both Hauntings could both be considered restrained and polite, The Hell Houses are neither. The film is deliberately "watered down," as the book's events would thoroughly guarantee an X rating, as well as nausea and outright vomit from all but fans of the work of Jörg Buttgereit (one of which I am not), but is still stronger on both major taboo elements--sex and violence--than The Haunting. Nothing is truly explicit, which is hardly a surprise considering the age of the film, which came out a year prior to The Texas Chainsaw, notorious for its "graphic violence," which, in actuality it lacked. Sure, Herschell Gordon-Lewis had started the subgenre of "splatter" with Blood Feast, and Romero's Night of the Living Dead had its own elements, but it was still a good bit of time before graphic effects became a relatively standard trope (and eventually, for many, a tired one) of horror films. So, for a mainstream film, it was still reasonably violent for its willingness to show blood and its portrayal of sexuality as Tanner suffers a twisted form of psychological torture contrasted with her own sexual nature.

Much ado is often made of the ending's revelation. It isn't a horrifying, enormous, gigantic, roaring secret,¹ but that's almost the point. It's petty and stupid because that's the basis for much evil in the world, especially the worst kinds of violence--the need to show control, dominance and power over others where little exists. By the end, though, it's clear, through this revelation, that, despite an early framing around Revill that Franklin and McDowall have stolen the show. Both act in the extreme, ranging up and down and side to side in any and all moments, bouncing here and there and all over, covering and attempting to make up for the elements of their lives outside these terrifying events. Fischer is especially haunted--in either an ironic or "meta" fashion--by his previous time in the House, where he purports that it almost succeeded in killing him. He's tortured by knowing its power and his arrogant assertion that he knows how threatening it is--especially as he insistently remains despite his attempts to convince everyone they are at risk and that he only wants to get out. Revill and Hunnicutt end up relatively bland in the end, with Revill's rote insistence on "scientific explanation," which may or may not carry weight, but that denies any and all supernatural elements for the explanations.

¹If you've seen this movie, you're welcome for that one.

Zong heng si hai (Once a Thief)

I haven't actually seen many John Woo movies. I own Hard-Boiled, sure, but I've never seen A Better Tomorrow or The Killer or even, as I hoped for a bit while it was in a local theatre, Red Cliff. But this one, being less well-known, I was able to pick up at a serious discount on travels some years ago, and shrugged thinking it must have some kind of redeeming qualities, coming out of the team responsible for so many well-respected movies (I had not, at that point, even picked up or watched Hard-Boiled, so it was as blind a buy, for my personal taste, as could be). The cover art for the Region 1 release is a little out of place, implying a serious action movie filled with gunplay and explosions. It's not explicitly noted that this is a comedy, with simple "code" like "light-hearted" and "mixed with comedy and romance" only just barely alluding to it. Then again, I make it a point to avoid back covers as much as possible, so I was really misled. Or would have been, if I thought cover art was at all representative. I've been known to judge books by their covers (or at least choose whether to read them, most often being drawn in rather than pushed away) but rarely movies. Unless they have an extremely interesting looking monster or creature, but that's neither here nor there in this instance.

Joe (Chow Yun-Fat), Jim (Leslie Cheung) and Cherie (Cherie Cheung)­¹ are three orphans adopted by Chow (Kenneth Tsang) and trained to be thieves. Their current objects of interest are valuable and historic paintings. A crated up Modigliani is their first target, taken only during its transport, in the first of many relatively complicated action scenes. After this acquisition, they take it to its prospective owner, The Frenchman², who wants them to run another job--an extremely profitable attempt to acquire Paul Trouillebert's "Servante du harem," which is also strongly desired by Chow. The Frenchman offers them a substantial sum, but Cherie tries to run interference and mistranslates back to the boys, attempting to discourage the Frenchman and let Jim and Joe believe they are indeed taking up the job. Despite promises to quit, Cherie wants to retire and so Jim starts off to make the theft anyway, though their "Godfather" (Chu Kong) is a policeman who recognizes their good hearts, has also strongly encouraged them to stop. The theft itself is managed quite easily, but the two are caught up in the end and violence ensues, changing how they do things quite thoroughly--in a less light-hearted moment.

I found myself drifting away from this movie at multiple points, perhaps because I was out of practice with watching definitively dubbed movies. By "definitively," I mean that all languages are dubbed, similar to Italian movies in decades past, where all audio is ADR and syncing is not heavily sought after. It's hard to tell if the actors are even speaking Cantonese (the other language track given on the Region 1 release) as there is a slight variance in vocal charater to onscreen character. Of course, it is a Hong Kong movie, so one would think Cantonese was the language of choice, but who knows for certain? No one I can contact, that's for sure. Still, it is a pretty big jump between the two and it made it difficult to concentrate, wondering if I was at least getting a reasonably accurate audio stream to tell me what the intended characters were like, even if subtitles might suffer in accuracy. A nice averaged out medium is often helpful for this, and I had no idea whether I was hearing or reading anything properly. Having the names "Joe" and "Jim" really did not help my impression of the subtitles, as it smacked of laziness in giving the characters anglicized names. In the course of attempting to decipher this, though, I discovered the film is occasionally categorized as "mo lei tau," which is a comedic style most closely associated with Stephen Chow. I have yet to watch his movies, but I always got the impression they were very heavy on comedy. This sort of re-arranged my expectations a bit, though I'd already noticed the movie is heavily oriented in that direction, though it seemed more like a romantic comedy with and action movie jammed into the cracks somehow, which is vaguely disorienting.

The plot is not completely paper thin, but it is still pretty weak and hardly the basis for the movie. It's simplistic heartstring-tugging for all emotional involvement, but it doesn't hold itself as anything more than that. It comes off as a framework to fit in jokes and stunts, a purpose that, in all honesty, it's pretty well suited to. It's fun when it should be, and the action scenes are very Woo, with that hint of reality in amongst the insanely impossible reactions to physics and prescient gunplay from our protagonists (landing and aiming exactly where an enemy happens to be next entering a room, for instance), with bodies that move with the obvious force of physics working against their ridiculously athletic flips and such. A leg that does not maintain a perfect straight line, that sort of thing. It gives it just the right kick of believability alongside everything else to make those scenes that much more exciting.

Overall, it's not a film I am terribly excited about, but there are some gags and stunts that blow the so-so plotting and characters out of the water. Plus, Chow Yun-Fat at the very end is completely worth it.

¹For reasons I looked into but could not find linguistic explanations for, "Joe" is often listed as "Red Bean Pudding" and Cherie as "Red Bean." I'm guessing this is some weird mixed joke where the characters making up their names in Chinese translate as these things but sound acceptable as names despite this. That, or there are actual names there that just translate to this. I have no clue, and not being in on the joke or cultural reference, I'm going to skip doing any more with it than list this information here as a footnote.

²I cannot find any (English) listing for the actor's name, so my apologies to him, but I haven't got a good solution outside of learning Chinese really, reall quickly, which I can't feasibly do (bad at languages anyway) and I am out of contact with the only Chinese speaker I am at all friendly with.

Under Suspicion
½

"The Box." That was the name of the interrogation room in NBC's Homicide: Life on the Streets. It was featured in an episode entitled "Three Men and Adena," where Detectives Pembleton and Bayliss go after the man they most strongly suspect of the murder of Adena Watson, with a twelve hour time limit, during which they try every tactic they can think of to get a confession. This episode began to circle my head very early on in a movie about an unsolved set of murders of young girls, and two cops insistent that they find an answer and focusing on the man they believe is responsible.

Captain Victor Benezet (Morgan Freeman) is a friend of lawyer Henry Hearst (Gene Hackman), but finds his story of the discovery and report of the second murder victim questionable when it conflicts with the testimony of other interviewees. Before Hearst is to give a speech at a charity fundraiser, Victor calls him in for "ten minutes" of questions. It rapidly becomes apparent that Victor's genial tones are just a tactic to keep Henry somewhat at ease and pull information from him. His wife Chantal (Monica Bellucci) waits for him at the charity event, but Victor eventually lets in the more aggressive Detective Owens (Thomas Jane), who makes no bones about his own suspicions. The two of them circle Hearst, whose shifting story and reluctance to elaborate on his life do him no good in his continued insistence on his innocence.

I was relatively surprised to see this movie as, well, not quite panned, but certainly looked-down-upon as it is. I could feel the theatrical origins (admittedly, it has none, but that doesn't stop me) and learned appreciation earlier for the "bottled" drama. Of course, director Stephen Hopkins does not actually keep everything enclosed. After all the characters are rounded into Victor's office from more spacious locales, he makes brief exits to visualizations of Henry's recollections of his memories. Victor and Owens periodically appear in those memories to ask questions or observe the events he describes, scrutinizing them for missed details or discrepancies. Chantal wanders in to the police station eventually, which expands the environment beyond Victor's office just a bit.

Freeman and Hackman are brilliant and play their roles to the perfect point of believable straightness--there is no guarantee of what Hearst is hiding, nor what Victor truly believes or is holding back to sling at Hearst later. Going in, the movie can be seen easily as either an innocent man being worn down by insistent police or policemen attempting to wear down a guilty suspect who refuses to admit his guilt. All of Hopkins' interesting choices, like rapid cuts to frame, reframe or emphasize an element and play it up, or Victor's appearance in the memories of others never serve to encourage one suspicion or the other, and nothing but the facts, opinions and comments are built in to the audience's perception of Henry. The film itself is neutral, only serving to facilitate these things, biasing itself only to the current speaker and his or her feelings within a memory or comment.

There's a strange amount of discussion for a pretty clear ending, albeit one that is not completely spelled out. The issue of guilt is established clearly by the end, through evidence that few could really argue with. Some have come up with cockamamie plots and secret ideas about how the murders were carried out, but none are borne out by the evidence that is put on display. There is a certain ambiguity to how the primary characters interact at the end, when guilt is clearly laid out, but it's conveyed quite clearly all the same.

This is a solid movie, cleverly put together without treating its peculiar choices as gimmicks to ride on, and with very, very excellent performances from Freeman and Hackman, both men so certain of themselves but taken around and around as the story unfolds.

Atlantic City

Defiance of expectation. I'd say that's the basis of appreciation of a piece of art, but there's too much to be found in satisfaction of expectation. Still, it's the basis for a kind of appreciation, naturally the more surprising variety, or at least unexpected. All of us go in to movies or music with the expectation that some element tells us exactly what we should expect, or at least gives us a vague idea. Some of us use a knowledge base that informs us based on a director, producer or other behind-the-scenes element. Some go from trailers, actors, themes, hunches from general experience of movie going, history, descriptions from others, comparisons made and any number of other sources. Sometimes it's bang-on reliable--few of us who know the name "Michael Bay" are ever surprised by a film that comes out with his name attached as director. Sometimes this is a pleasing comfort, sometimes a stimulus to avoid the end product like nothing else. I have a general wariness of French directors with reputations and Criterion releases. I've yet to see any Godard or Truffaut, for instance. This brings us to Louis Malle, who...quite honestly I had completely misplaced, in terms of his filmography.

Atlantic City is one of Malle's films made after a move to the United States. Lou (Burt Lancaster) is a washed up old hood in that famed New Jersey gambling town, acting as servant to a woman with more money than he, Grace (Kate Reid), who met Lou and his pal "Cookie" Pinza in the city years ago. That marriage and her subsequent entry into a beauty contest have left her with the feeling that she is, or should be, a pampered princess. Across the way from Lou is Sally (Susan Sarandon), from Saskatchewan, who is attempting to work her way up to a casino dealer. Unfortunately for the both of them--or fortunately, for Lou, who harbors a voyeuristic yearning for Sally--her estranged husband, Dave (Robert Joy) and the woman he ran off with, Chrissie (Hollis McClaren), appear in Atlantic City carrying a stolen pound of cocaine and seeking help from Sally.

I realized in looking through Malle's work that I had no idea what his filmography consisted of. This is ridiculous for a number of reasons, and interesting for a handful more. First, my aversion to French filmmakers stems from an Italian filmmaker. This isn't due to any confusion between the countries or in which names come from which country or anything more than a mental association that developed behind the scenes. Fellini's Satyricon is one of a handful of films I simply could not tolerate. Finding that Pauline Kael hated it makes me feel a little bit better but does not really resolve my embarrassment over the nonsensical associations I made. It's not totally out of bounds--the logic went: Fellini was an arthouse director, a renowned one in circles that appreciate such films; Satyricon is a well-liked work of his; Fellini is associated with Italian Neorealism; Italian Neorealism is seen as part of the impetus behind the French New Wave; Malle is associated with the French New Wave, having made films in the same time frame and using some elements from it. This isn't really an excuse, just symbolic of the mess of my understanding of arthouse film in the 60s and 70s.* Sorting this out has led me toward Malle's other films, a number of which I would really like to see, as well as one that may finally provide the key to a question amongst friends: Jeremy Irons seems to be pretty awesome, but what on earth ever told us this? His filmography is beyond checkered and is not like that of some other respectable actors where it was solid until a certain point.

But I digress. Severely.

There was a point to that digression, though. The point is this: I expected to have a strangely half-intolerably slow or ponderous, possibly very internal or overly symbolic film filtered through well-known American actors, or techniques from such films shoehorned in to a more "normal" one, or some combination thereof. Instead, I got the elements of La Nouvelle Vague in an otherwise recognizable film. At least, my understanding of them. It was a pleasant surprise in this respect.

I am familiar with Burt Lancaster as a square-jawed man's man-type actor, but have seen him in nothing but The Professionals up to this point. His performance is fantastic, sliding into the necessary roles for any given emotional motivation in Lou's character throughout. He shifts whenever he enters Grace's presence, whatever that presence means to him at that time, and when he sees the chance to win over the woman he desires, he transforms, but believably, into a slick and suave man of culture--or at least the kind with money and influence. It feels like a perfect revival of the young Lou that we never actually get a chance to see. A guy who uses money or knows how to use it, saw it used, to achieve goals without necessarily holding the culture that he conveys. When he finally achieves almost everything he can think of, the chance to prove he finally "made it" to all his old friends--he falls into a laughable-in-a-saw-way braggart. It's not obnoxious so much as sad, we can see that this is what he wanted to be for all his life, and no one else particularly cares, but he acts as though they not only should, but do.

Sally is caught up in him and between her past with Dave and his current state. Make no mistake: Dave is, to quote Sally herself, "a shit." There's no real way around it. He uses everyone around him, and manipulates everything he can find, but is also too stupid to realize that his skills are imperfect and do not work on everyone. For Sally, though, it's bouncing between the well-intentioned manipulator and the utterly selfish one, slowly tearing down the miserable existence she has set out for herself, which is not much to be proud of, but is still something compared to what it could be, and moving along the road to what she does want for herself.

What's fascinating about the film and instantly noticeable as peculiar when compared to the average American-made movie is the slim, trim soundtrack. There's music, to be sure, but most of the film carries those traditions of the aforementioned schools of film-making: very little music except where legitimately present in a scene, and lots of natural light and sound. The absence of music never feels empty or claustrophobic, it just conveys a solid reality to all the scenes, helped along by a muddled set of characters who do not all seem to be pushing a pre-determined plot toward a pre-determined outcome.

I've mentioned before the tendency of people to decry sports films as having obvious endings--but they simply are binary. The team/athelete wins, or loses, most likely. And here, as with most films, we have the major options of primarily happy or primarily sad ending. Which of these it is does not matter so much as the believability of reaching it, whether the steps and the characters seem to deserve this ending--not morally, but in reflection of the actions they take on their journey toward it; does the work put in by these characters justify their reward, punishment, or normalized and continued existence?

This time, it most certainly does. It's a good ending, happy or otherwise--and I think those descriptions would be imperfect and debated anyway.

*I am also well aware that many of those leaps actually do not follow. Satyricon is hardly indicative of Italian neorealism, after all.

Be Kind Rewind
½

I've no idea, really, how Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze came to my attention. I know I saw handfuls of music videos from both of them when music videos used to air regularly, once upon a time. But at the time I couldn't name the directors of any movies I'd seen, barring, perhaps, Steven Spielberg, so I certainly didn't know music video directors. I know "The Directors" label releases caught my attention, but I ignored Gondry and Jonze, caring only for Chris Cunningham--because, of course, he directed some videos for The Aphex Twin. Still, I think the association was enough to catch my attention in all honesty, and I do think, at least, that it's what planted their names so firmly in my head. While both worked with Charlie Kaufman (which generally sits quite well with me), I didn't know his name either, though Gondry and Kaufman were brought most firmly to my attention with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I don't think either name was really entrenched in my list of "names to follow" by the film, but it was definitely a film I recognized at least retroactively.

Mike (Mos Def) and Jerry (Jack Black) have a tendency to hang around the severely outdated video rental shop Be Kind Rewind, owned by Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), with Mike actually being employed there. Being in a slum-like building in Passaic, NJ, Mr. Fletcher is threatened with condemnation of the building he occupies, the birthplace of jazzman Fats Waller according to Mr. Fletcher. He goes off to research the video rental business via big-box rental stores (a la Blockbuster) while Mike runs the store. Neither Mike nor Jerry is terribly bright, but Jerry also happens to be a conspiracy theorist, convinced the local power plant is sending out microwaves that are brainwashing the public. He enlists Mike to help him sabotage the plant against Mike's own thoughts, but finds himself alone in an accident there instead, which magnetizes his body completely, leading him to enter Mr. Fletcher's shop and accidentally erase every tape there. When regular Mrs. Falewicz (Mia Farrow) comes in attempting to rent Ghostbusters, the pair is left with no choice but to find an alternate copy of the film. Being so terribly outdated, finding it on VHS is nearly impossible* and so Mike suggests that they take an elderly VHS-based camcorder and re-record the film themselves with homemade special effects. When another customer comes in demanding Rush Hour 2, they take the successful completion of their rendition of Ghostbusters and continue the process. When Jerry refuses to kiss his mechanic Wilson (Irv Gooch), they are forced to recruit the help of local female Alma (Melonie Diaz). Soon it catches on with the Passaic locals and brings them hope for saving Mr. Fletcher's store.

I think a lot of people took from the trailer that the primary focus of the movie was the versions of famous films the boys film with each other. Of course, they do just that, and they are a strong part of the film, but it's a little more of the "heartwarming save the old homestead" trope. I don't mean that as disparaging--insert discussion of the limited number of stories in existence here--but rather to clarify the film's intents, motivations and methods. The device of the "Sweded" films (their term for these "imported" versions) is part of the whole rather than the whole itself. None of them appears in their entirety within the film. It's really about love, love of film (for the viewer and one suspects the cast and crew), love of home (both Passaic and the Be Kind shop), and losing these things to homogenization, legalities and money in general. There are some rather nasty digs at Blockbuster and its ilk when Mr. Fletcher is doing his research--talking about reducing the store to "action" and "comedies." It doesn't paint "West Coast Video" as anyone in particular, nor does it specifically insult anyone working in the imagined store, so it comes off as a general, cultural criticism rather than an indictment of anyone or anything in particular. It's a little more comfortable for that, feeling like a poke at marketing trends rather than pointing fingers at big business X, Y or Z.

There's a very peculiar nature to the relationship between Mike and Jerry. It's a lot more innocent--as the film itself is--than usual, with a relatively PG vocabulary and less clever sniping between the participants. Both of them are really complete doofuses, though. Not utter idiots, but lacking in some things that just about any average viewer would realize or know better how to deal with. It's not condescending to them, though, nor to the viewer. As long as you are willing to take the film and its characters only as seriously as they ask to be taken, it's a good bit of harmless fun. It doesn't feel like we're intended to point and laugh at Mike and Jerry like they are a trainwreck or pathetic, but at their earnestness and willingness to try. Jack Black manages this--just barely--despite my reservations about him as, well, anything. I don't write him off completely (there are few actors I do, possibly none, but he's way up that list, though this makes three movies I have no real problem with him in) but I am very wary of his over-enthusiastic shtick. Jerry, though, is kind of a jerk, so once again Black's natural tendency to be an ass works for the character instead of against the movie. Mos Def is odd, being terribly subdued and almost comatose in the role of Mike, seeming almost like another local--as there are many--pulled in from the area to work on the film. It never comes off as false, just amateurish, even if deliberately so.

But if you can't accept the idea of a video store existing in the modern age, well, this movie is not going to be for you. It's not about "realism" by any stretch of the imagination, something a little refreshing to me in this day and age, taking an utterly absurd accident (the power plant one) and pretending it could have the absurd effect it does. The whole film is that way--the efforts of the boys to film are simultaneously charmingly homemade and yet unbelievably creative and perfectly made. Gondry's specialty is visuals, though, so it isn't surprising. Of course he can put these things all together properly, and make us both believe in them and marvel at them--which is the reason I check out Gondry's work. It's always simutaneously grounded and whimsically awesome--in the sense of inspiring awe, not being "totally bitching."

*I think my copy is still hanging around, actually.

An Education
An Education(2009)

I had two free passes to the local arthouse styled theatre that were running out Monday, so I decided to go see whatever the heck was showing. One film was House of the Devil, a throwback horror film that I truly loved, the other was a film that I thought sounded like the kind I might pick up on a whim (lo, it was released by Sony Pictures Classics, an arm of Sony I trust pretty blindly to do right by me)--this one. I knew the essence of the plot, but tried to keep my readings vague, so as to avoid spoiling any of it, this being my preference when I see any film. I knew only the name Peter Sarsgaard of the primary cast and had never heard of Danish director Lone Scherfig.

Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a 16 year old prep school student in 1961 Twickenham, London who plans to go to Oxford and then "become French," living in France, reading French literature, speaking French, eating French food, and smoking constantly. Her father Jack (Alfred Molina) discourages her from doing anything that does not further her education (barring those things which are appreciated by acceptance boards at Oxford), even things like playing her cello, which he notes will impress Oxford as a "hobby," but then continues need not be practiced as it is a "hobby." Her mother Majorie (Cara Seymour) tries to smooth things between them as Jenny tests her father's "rules," attempting to reason him into allowing her some ideas. Jenny has a fledgling romance with orchestra-mate Graham (Matthew Beard) until the poor boy makes the mistake of suggesting he might take a year off from school, which does not earn the respect of Jack. One rainy day after orchestra rehearsal, Jenny is approached from a car by a man who offers to at least shield her cello from the rain as she walks home by placing it in his car. Jenny's amused by the man's charm, and he introduces himself as David (Sarsgaard) and strikes up a conversation, eventually getting herself out of the rain alongside her cello in David's sportscar. Slowly taken with him and running into him periodically, Jenny begins to accept offers from David when he gives her the opportunity to experience the culture she so loves and admires--concerts, jazz bars, art auctions and so on. He introduces her to his friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike), and begins to take her further and further out into the world, all the while slowly romancing her. His charm works even on Jack and Majorie, allowing this to happen with their consent. A trip to Oxford pushes at Jenny's principles, but she finds herself torn between a small moral capitulation and the chance to have a "real life."

Of course, once I saw the cast appear onscreen, I realized instantly that there was another name here I knew very well: Alfred Molina. In fact, this knowledge was humourous to me as I watched Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes and the segment with Molina and Steve Coogan showed, where the joke was how unknown Molina was--when the opposite was true for me. Of course, I also know the screenwriter, Nick Hornby, albeit primarily from the Americanized film version of High Fidelity. Still these were primarily passing knowledge, especially Hornsby and Sarsgaard. The synposis I read led me to expect something far more drastic was hiding behind these scenes than actually turned out, so I was surprised in this respect, and it probably helped to keep my understanding of the film "in line" with its intentions. It's worth noting here that it is an adaptation of journalist Lynn Barber's actual experiences, and that this often shores up some seemingly unusual choices.

The most interesting role by far is that of David, as Sarsgaard is forced, as many have put it, to walk the line between charming and creepy. He is charming and does not come across as purely sleazy, despite being a 30-something man romancing a 16 year old girl, though I did spend half the movie with fingertips placed at my forehead in a sort of preliminary (or perhaps vestigial?) representation of the desire to hide the film from my eyes. I was hideously uncomfortable for a lot of it. I was perhaps too charmed by David myself, but could not shake the feeling that something was very, very wrong anyway. I'm a little more open-minded than most, I suppose, as I roll my eyes at those who called American Beauty a sick film about a pedophile, but I had great difficulty stopping myself from slumping down further and further into my seat and squirming at many moments (the scene involving pet names was particularly excruciating). I can't say it was a flaw, but it was a bit of a problem. I suppose I was really directed very perfectly into the place of Jenny herself, torn between the allure of an exciting life and the responsibility of the one that is hard and boring but theoretically the "best" choice. At the same time, there was a definite feeling that it was entirely too easy to see how she was deceived, and yet wish she wouldn't be. Jenny is not stupid, she is very clever in her interactions with everyone, but she's so thoroughly charmed by David that she's easily taken in by him, but especially because he brings her all the things she wants.

The central concept is the variable defintion of "education," being either the worldly education offered by David or that of Oxford, with various tangential definitions, such as learning about life via the parts of David that were not showing originally. It's a valid argument that Jenny gives her Headmistress--that there is no one telling the students why, exactly, they must get an education--except to go on and use that dull, hard, boring education to live a dull, hard, boring life. It makes the choice of David seem obvious, yet, at the same time, we know (hopefully!) is not so simple as all of that. There's no good argument (at least none I've heard) against Jenny's, but at the same time there's an understanding, for me at least, that other paths are more difficult or simply aren't as good as they seem to be. It's nice that the film doesn't attempt to truly explain or answer this question, even if it does show Lynn Barber's actual decisions and life at the end, what she chooses to pursue and follow for her life. She admits that she has aged but not become experienced or wise because of the events she takes part in, which seems a good way of putting it.

The House of the Devil
½

"Throwback" is a lovely little term that is, er, thrown around quite a lot these days. So are terms like "rip off" and "homage," but at least "throwback" is generally a positive term--at least when describing media. I suppose one could use it condescendingly, but it's typically seen as at least neutral, if not generally positive. Horror fans in particular tend to sigh contentedly when using the term to describe a film. Most of us seem to have very set and distinct ideas of what horror film should do based on the ones we saw in our youth. Of course, I was an older youth (if you will) when I began to earnestly watch horror films, so I still can't quite lay claim to such an idea. Still, I was raised less on contemporary films and more on ones made before I was born (or old enough to follow movies). That said, the term usually applies to a tonal throwback, like Wrong Turn (I'm too lazy to double check myself, but I believe I described that film in such terms. You can dig up my review on it if you wish to come back and smarmily inform me I'm mistaken*). This is a throwback of a different kind.

An opening block of text informs us that a great majority of the American population allegedly believed in Satanic cults in the 1980s, and that a large minority believed many of them were covered up. From this, we see young Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) looking at a house she's hoping to move in to under the eye of the home's landlady (Dee Wallace, first of a handful of genre nods in casting). The landlady has a "gut feeling" about Samantha and decides to cut her a deal on the rent and deposit, and Samantha is thoroughly appreciative. As she leaves, preparing to pay the $300 for rent the following Monday, she stops at a public posting board and takes down a slip for a baby sitting job. Calling the number from a payphone in front of her dorm, she leaves a message, only to be called back at the same phone moments later. A polite voice (that of Tom Noonan) answers and agrees to meet her shortly thereafter. She waits and waits, but the man, Mr. Ulman, does not show. She goes to a pizza place to get lunch with her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig), who is protective of Samantha for being mistreated by this callous stranger. When she returns to her dorm room, though, Samantha finds that Mr. Ulman attempted to call her back at the number she left and begs her to come down for the job that very night. Megan takes her out to the isolated house after she agrees, and they agree to split if the family seems too peculiar.

Now, typically, a throwback in the modern age is a modern film that has the sensibilities of an earlier one--avoiding the post-Scream tendency toward self-awareness and "smart" characters (who know not to open "that door" or go down in the basement) and some of the other more cynical elements of modern horror. But they remain very modern films all the same. A huge smile spread across my face as Samantha walked down the street after agreeing to the landlady's terms. Of course, I smiled a little to see Ms. Wallace as well, but it was the opening titles** that really made me grin. They are backed by an 80s synth-beat and matched to grainy stock (I could swear it was 16mm, and a little research confirms this) with periodic freeze frames. I'm not talking "end of a sitcom" freeze frames, so much as the sort of enthusiastic matching of cutting a scene to fit a beat. It's used in a much more hip fashion these days, and often comes to more of a "slow motion" feel than actual freezing, but it's just absolutely perfect. I only smiled more as familiar names bumped in with the clunky yellow credits (the title not being stylized at all, and complete with "MMXVIII" copyright notice at the bottom) that I actually couldn't place at the time but knew I knew. Those names, of course, were Tom Noonan (who has been in a few movies I've seen, but I mostly know as The Monster Squad's Frankenstein) and Mary Woronov (who was a regular cast member for Paul Bartel).

This is a lot of what makes the film. No one is running around listening to 80s hit after 80s hit (only one 80s hit is used, and it isn't one of those intensely iconic ones, though most everyone will know it, and it's used in an appropriate place and way) while they wear Jams, use Valley Girl dialects, feather their hair (okay, hair's feathered, but like it was, not to parody-style excess), play with Rubik's cubes and quote Max Headroom. It looks more like someone found this film in a box somewhere, shelved 30 years ago. It's brilliantly done, with nods and winks, but all of them the kind that you leave you thinking, "Oh, perhaps he was just blinking..." I'd not heard of Ti West prior to this, but I shall have to keep an eye on him. So how does it fit in, really? How is it a throwback? How does it work now? Well, this is a quieter, slower movie (some strange review I read said West seems to want to be "The Terence Malick of horror films," which tickled me endlessly, but seems inaccurate--though I must admit I'd be curious to actually see that, even if I think it wouldn't actually work for horror) and less in the vein of what we often think of as "80s horror movies," and more like the smaller, smarter gems that only horror fans seem to know about. The film that kept popping into my head was the George C. Scott-starring The Changeling, but that was a much bigger film. There are hints of a very competent Last House on the Left, in the sense of not having tons of money behind the film, or perhaps the original The Amityville Horror--as if a director pulled out some competent unknowns and just put together a movie he thought would be scary.

As any review of this film will tell you, the majority of the film is extremely tense buildup. It's "slow" and "boring" if you have that mindset--again, this is why I think of films like the above. This isn't The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, though it eventually builds into that sort of eyeball-clawing tension once the regular suspense finally bursts. It's good to know that going in, I suppose, though I tend to look at any such claims (or the reverse) with a wary eye, as I am reluctant to trust the opinions of others on both what is slow and what is not. But, as the review that mentioned Malick said, faulting the film for being "slow" is silly, as it fully intends to reel itself out slowly. It's not the overly funny (there's not really much humour, unless you just insist on finding the accuracy of it funny for some reason--some think the synth-beat opening is "hilariously hokey" for instance, though I just thought it set the tone perfectly, which does require admitting my ubiquitous soft spot for synth-based scores) sort of horror that we often associate with the 80s, which is why I specifically delineate it as early 1980s, before films like Fright Night took off, and when Friday the 13th was just a single movie. But it's got a little more grindhouse, a little more independence and underdog feel to it to accurately compare to that film (or any other slasher). I also found myself thinking of films like Rosemary's Baby--the more intelligent, less insulting variety of horror that's often occupying unnoticed nooks and crannies of horror shelves in collections public and private. The ones that a big-time horror fan often hands you excitedly and tells you is just fantastic.

It's not amazingly ground-breaking or something fantastically new, but it's something that manages to perfectly achieve the idea of "throwback." The clothing is the way people in smaller 80s films dressed, the camera shots are deliberate and possibly a bit modern, but not distractingly so. The score is good and hits the right notes. The film doesn't wink broadly, nor does it condescend in other ways. Effects, while still physical, are very modern and very well done. It's just right for my tastes, so I'll admit I'm frothing a bit here, in the positive way. I was very excited to see it, and love the fact that a film with such a brilliantly old-school poster (seriously, the poster designs are fantastic, reminiscent, again, of the films it refers itself to) lives up to that feeling of being a lost film from that time. Even Noonan, Woronov and Wallace are just sort of there--as if this was just another of the many genre roles they've taken over the years, and not a clear nod, homage and treat for longtime fans, the way that Tarantino or Rob Zombie might use (and in Zombie's case, has used) them. There's nothing wrong with that approach, but this is something no one else seems to do--truly a "lost" 80s horror movie.


*I know entirely too many people who are now grinning and rubbing their hands together, planning to do just that.
**I've spent the last 20 minutes trying to find out who wrote them, I remember from the credits as I sat in the theatre that it was someone other than the film's primary composer, Jeff Grace, and I found a post by the guy who wrote it on a messageboard, but I can't find his real name. My apologies, sir, I seem to recall you are in fact male (double or triple my apologies if I'm not even remembering that part correctly), but no one seems to list your credit for them!

The Fan
The Fan(1996)

I felt a colossal idiot one day when watching an interview with Tony Scott and thinking, "Gosh, he has the same sort of dialect as Ridley Sco--oh, crap. Of course." Not my proudest moment, to be sure. Still, it gave my brain purchase to help along my appreciation for Tony Scott as a director. It's no secret that I love Ridley Scott as a director, nor is it actually much of one that I really like his brother Tony. However, Tony is less well-regarded, to put it mildly, with films like Top Gun under his belt. It makes it difficult to bring myself into some circles of film fans when I freely admit to my appreciation of the "lesser Scott" as a director. It's an old appreciation though, as I have seen many of his films over the years, often shortly after they came out, and have always been entertained, if memory serves.

Bobby Rayburn (Wesley Snipes, pre-tax problems and associated outrageous claims, pre-R.C.-has-a-personal-bias-against-him-for-appearing-in-a-series-of-films-that-turn-an-interestingly-psychotic-character-into-a-cool-badass) is a heavy hitter recently traded to the San Francisco Giants for a $40 million contract. This excites lifelong Giants (and baseball in general) fan Gil Renard (Robert De Niro), who is on his last legs as a knife salesman in a company begun by his father but traded into different hands to value value over quality. Gil is also on poor terms with ex-wife Ellen (Patti D'Arbanville-Quinn) over custody of their son Richie (Andrew J. Ferchland), mostly regarding poorly kept appointments, an issue with his job, as well. When Rayburn begins to falter thanks to an injury, the player the team replaced with him begins to rise, Juan Primo (Benicio Del Toro, still riding along in accent-heavy supporting roles). When failed sale after failed sale--partly encouraged by the decision to attend the opening day game and run the risk of missing an appointment--leads to the loss of his job, and the same decisions lead to his neglectful approach to taking care of his son and thus the legal removal of custody, Gil buries himself in support for Rayburn. Overhearing conversations, Gil decides the problem is Primo, and confronts him. Lost in a world that he barely had a grip on in the first place, Gil's obsessions with baseball, the Giants and Rayburn takes him into dangerous and violent territory.

What's magnetic and fascinating about this film is the way that Bobby and Gil are portrayed. There's a greater complexity and reality to them than is usually given in most thriller-styled movies. Rayburn is an arrogant git to be sure, but he's a good player and a reasonable guy. He's a loving father and he does what he can to earn his keep, but is "not nuts," as Gil points out, for taking the salary he does. Gil is especially complex. He's not a simple psycho, nor is he a misunderstood simpleton. Gil is not stupid, but he does not understand or empathize with other people. If I had a psychology degree of any kind, I'm sure I could tell you exactly what sort of disorder he is exhibiting. He values important things, though, at least in principle. His frustration with his father's knife company comes from his expertise in the art of knife-making, but he fails to recognize the world--and thus the company, since it exists in that world--has changed. He values his son, and values imbuing in him the principles that he holds dear. He talks baseball up, and tells lies about knowing Mick Jagger (silly Gil, the version of "Start Me Up" that appeared on Tattoo You was not recorded in 1978, nevermind that you weren't there!) and other similar things. He obfuscates his own past and the importance of the knowledge he has, imparting the wisdom of his former teammate "Coop" as regards baseball.

What's important in making the film work is that Gil's son Richie does not outright fear nor fearlessly love his father. He shows signs that he wants to follow and appreciate him, while maintaining that childlike willingness to occasionally say things that are abrasive and abrupt. He tries to emulate his father even as he shows that he does fear him in places. Gil shows how poor he is at recognizing these things, but Richie continues to want to earn his father's approval anyway, even as Gil's temper easily rears its head. Gil's obsession is realistic and acceptable, so far beyond the pale it's extremely uncomfortable to see, yet perfectly real in this context, and utterly believable. This is the kind of role that De Niro is best suited to: a man with serious anger issues who is not particularly aware of them. The way he loses himself in a role, he does not so much subdue his own character as he manages to make us realize just how much the character onscreen is unaware of his own, well, craziness. Travis Bickle, Rupert Pupkin, Johnny Boy, Noodles--they are all characters who are shocking in their relative depravities, even if they might be placed in a way that we sort of root for them. They are antiheroes, to be sure, and we feel sympathy for them because we know they mean well and are just incapable of recognizing the real world and their position in it.

This, of course, is really the point. Scott's films tend to get middling acceptance--"well-produced but brainless fluff," characterizations of that nature tend to stick to them quite thoroughly. But it's about Gil, and it's about Bobby, about living up to absurd expectations and the different ways that people perceive a collective image or idea like baseball. It's life to some ("better than life," Gil says at one point, "because it's fair.") and it's a game to others, like Bobby. Bobby, despite his distance, despite not being as closely involved with his son, is the better father, not just wanting to care but actually doing so. Of course, it's the isolation--however self-inflicted--that so thoroughly ruins Gil's grasp on reality. Bobby has his agent, Manny (John Leguizamo, who was still working very bland characters in mainstream film, supporting and smaller roles), who supports him even in the downtimes and through personal trauma and professional. While he may be doing it for money, there's clearly at least some regard for Bobby as a human behind it.

This is a very solid examination of obsession, managing the right low-key approach to many of the things Gil does (thanks, in no small part, to De Niro's note-perfect performance), while not at all suggesting the actions involved are minimal in their effects. They are normal to Gil, and the film follows things primarily from his point of view, showing how he thinks that he's doing the right and acceptable things, while everyone else clearly sees the danger--albeit, perhaps, not clearly enough.

The Big Blue
The Big Blue(1988)

Luc Besson's name is most strongly associated with films he made in the 1990s, specifically Léon (known as The Professional in many non-snob American film circles) and The Fifth Element. To a lesser extent, there's also Nikita (aka La Femme Nikita) which spawned a lesser-known television series. Besson's name is attached to many projects, often as writer or producer, that occasionally make some wary, but a much smaller percentage of projects with his name on them are actually his directorial work. In addition to the films above, which he at least had a hand in writing in all cases, he also wrote and directed Subway, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc and Angel-A, to name the most prominent adult films. He also wrote this one.

Johana Baker (Rosanna Arquette) is an insurance investigator sent to the frozen nether regions of the world to check on a scientific expedition. Breezing past her is the seemingly inhuman diver Jacques Mayol (Jean-Marc Barr), who is extremely skilled at free-diving. As a child (played by Bruce Guerre-Berthelot), he competed with Enzo Molinari (Gregory Forstner) off the coast of Sicily. Now that they are grown, Enzo (now played by Besson friend and regular Jean Reno) is a competitive diver in contrast to Jacques' pure love for the sea (diving being a simple manifestation of this love, as well as a conduit through which to experience it). He cannot resist his childhood rivalry, though, and coerces Jacques into joining him in the world free-diving championships. When Jacques' natural talent surpasses Enzo's record, both men are driven to go further than ever before, creating increased danger in the sport, as they push themselves to points the human body is not meant to withstand. Jacques is less competitive, but is pulled in by his love of the sea, shown in his companionship with a trio of dolphins, and only briefly interrupted by the interference of Johana's intense love for him.

It would be very easy to simply write off a nearly-three-hour director's cut of a film that's primarily about diving as dull, boring, uneventful and any number of synonyms you wish to throw at it. However, that's faulting an introspective film for not being an action film. It's a forgivable expectation considering the rest of Besson's output, but it's still unfair to the film itself. It's almost always spoken of as "Besson's most personal film," though I'm not entirely sure how anyone arrived at this conclusion--with the possible exception of Besson having openly stated this. Short of digging through ancient interviews to discover this, I see no point in examining this particular detail any further. Still, it is a more introspective film, regardless of who it is examining. Jacques Mayol gave his blessing to being used as the main character when Besson asked, and apparently had an honest love for dolphins (and a respect and admiration for them, exhibited in his book L'Homo Delphinus). Still, I am quite far from an expert on Mayol's life, just as I am no expert on Besson's, and cannot very firmly describe any realistic emotional connections between either man and the film.

What this film is to nearly anyone who watches it is one thing: pretty. Even those who find it dull or intensely boring (I suppose that's almost an oxymoron, isn't it? How IS boredom intense?) will usually agree and admit this part of it. It's (allegedly, for I've not seen it without) best experienced in the "Director's Cut," which appears on the US DVD release and contains Éric Serra's beautiful synthetic score for the film, which is bolstered by a burbling bassline through much of the underwater images. Serra has been a longtime collaborator of Besson's, so it only makes sense that his score would be the best fit for the film. Prettiness aside, this film is an interesting mixture of introspection (I apologize for the repetition, but there is no better word) and romance, leading some silly soul to be quoted in the insert as calling it a "romantic comedy"--not unfair, in that it contains both of these things, but it can't really easily be called that all the same. And of course one has to admit that some of the romance is not between Johana and Jacques, but between Jacques and the sea. There's no question his love for the sea is effectively unbreakable. It calls to him in the middle of the night, haunts him when it takes the lives of those near him, but never loses its calm, alluring mystique.

There's some debate to be had about the end of the film, which is clear enough from the fact that the re-scored, heavily cut American release (which loses about fifty minutes of footage!) contains a different one. It is, however, the right ending, however wrong it may be, however strange or difficult to understand. There's a great degree of ambiguity in it, too, not really endorsing the choices that are made, nor condemning them, nor even really explaining or confirming them. But they are the right actions for the characters involved at that point. It is indeed a beautiful film, but not just for the imagery, also for the ideas that Besson puts into it. It's about finding oneself, about fulfilling life and completing it--not defining how it is best to do so, or saying that this can always even be done, or even that there's a happy ending for every single person around, but about the search for meaning in all of it.

Some Kind of Wonderful
½

Especially of late--considering he now IS late--much has been said of John Hughes. Or at least, I assume much as been said, as that's usually what follows the death of famous people, especially those with at least relatively cultish audiences. I don't pay a ton of attention so I can't really be sure. Still, I'm aiming neither to fly in the face of those words nor trump them. I'm just here to say my own piece and move along. Hughes' films, though, clicked with my generation and the one preceding me (primarily the one preceding me, but I've always been a bit out of place, temporally speaking). I will say I've always been more of a Ferris Bueller's Day Off sort of John Hughes fan than a Sixteen Candles one. Actually, I still haven't seen Sixteen Candles, and only saw The Breakfast Club a year or two ago. The plots themselves are nothing amazing, especially when we get into the territory of the two teen movies he wrote that Howard Deutch directed--this one and Pretty in Pink--there's even less to speak of. Both films have the same basic plot: high school kid from the wrong side of the tracks falls for other high school kid outside their social class, all the while failing to recognize their quirky best friend is already in love with them.

Keith Nelson (Eric Stoltz, post-Mask and pre-The Fly II*) is a high school student who spends his free time working as a 'grease monkey' in a local auto shop. His best friend is Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson), an outwardly rebellious girl with close-cropped hair and a love of drumming, who harbours her own secret love for her best friend, unbeknownst to him, especially. His father, Cliff (John Ashton), is insistent on Keith taking on the family dream and going to college--whether Keith likes it or not--for something pragmatic. Keith takes notice of the most popular girl in school, Amanda Jones (Lea Thompson), and decides to ask her out. Watts is crushed but relatively supportive though cynical, while everyone else is incredulous. First, though, Amanda must lose her current beau: Hardy Jenns (Craig Sheffer, who I refuse to remember did anything else other than Nightbreed, even after I see other things**).

There's always talk of how Hughes (I can't avoid it completely, can I?) managed to properly assess, analyze and convey the interests and motivations of teenagers to teenagers, and this is, well...true. What is important about his approach is that it is neither ultra-realistic nor ultra-dramatized. I don't mean this to say that it's even remotely realistic--it rarely is--but it's of that tone that is so often called "hyper-realism," where the reality of this world seems perfectly accurate despite its heightened everything. Characters are built from archetypes (and stereotypes) but are used to at least expand, if not break, those ideas. This, at least, is more real than many of the more clumsy teen movies that have been released over the years. Characters like Hardy Jenns perfectly encapsulate the feeling of those who lord their wealth, physicality or other attributes over anyone who is found in a submissive position. Yet Hughes imbues even Jenns with a certain level of motivation and complexity--but not so much that he loses that villainous edge. We can see what drives him and why, even understand it, without empathizing so much we lose sight of the fact that he's quite definitely a villainous antagonist. He's a thorough jerk, and this is often excessive to prove this very point. The goodness of characters like Keith is also pushed in the same way. While he comes into conflict with his father over the subject of college, it's never quite so filled with heated moment mistakes as reality is. The conflict is preserved and kept feeling natural, while the inevitable side effects, consequences and fallout are set to the side. All the angst, none of the scars, if you will.

For all that I do like John Hughes, I am pretty frank about my extreme distaste for that other Deutch-directed effort, Pretty in Pink. I didn't like any of the characters, I didn't like the way the film worked out, and I especially didn't like Andie's sack dress. However, Deutch redeemed himself here. I think the film is taken as a sort of mediocre Hughes effort, not inferior but rather less than the 'classics.' Being as I think Pretty in Pink is a few miles from being a classic, I think that's an unfair--even if unemotional and relaxed--malignment of this film. I think I once read, while I was checking out the film prior to even purchasing it (some length of time ago that I'd prefer not to reveal to myself), that this is sort of considered Hughes' "adult" teen film, the most 'grown up,' or some such nonsense. While I will call it nonsense, it really isn't. It's dealing a lot more with the ideas of leaving high school and growing up and giving up the things that one wants for a "greater good." It's not another classic, mind you, but it's worth seeing as Hughes films are, so long as you like that sort of thing, and is a lot less disappointing than you might be led to believe.

*To use my own calendar of events, which may or may not mean anything to anyone else.
**Again, this is how I think of things.

American Beauty

I've seen seven Best Picture winners in theatres before they actually won, but this is the one that was at a point where I was starting pay attention to movies yet still didn't care, worry or know enough about the politics of them to wonder or debate whether they might become Best Picture winners. I just thought it was a movie and my family was going to see it, and I knew my artsier friends were enjoying it, but that was about all. My sister was a big fan of Kevin Spacey, for his earlier work. Like many, it sort of curbed her interest a bit by placing him in a starring role. That never particularly bothered me, never felt he was overexposed, but occasionally thought he might be doing a bit like De Niro and taking on some less than necessary (or even uninteresting) films after this. One wonders why actors seem to do this AFTER big works--shouldn't they have just gotten some bills paid? Still, that's a sidenote to the film itself.

The Burnhams are a pretty strictly familiar suburban upper-middle class (maybe upper-upper) family, Lester (Spacey) entering a mid-life crisis, Carolyn (Annette Bening) failing to cope with this or her own crisis, and mildly rebellious daughter Jane (Thora Birch) revelling in the role of 'outsider' in school, while hoping just a bit to find some companionship outside of it, or even within it. Her closest friend is, somewhat mysteriously, the promiscuous fellow cheerleader Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari). Moving in next door are the Fitts, Colonel Frank, USMC (Chris Cooper), Barbara (Allison Janey) and Ricky (Wes Bentley). Jane's first run-in is with Ricky, who she finds videotaping her form his porch, openly, shamelessly, but without any note of threat. Ricky himself is estranged from his family, his mother lost in her own mind and his father fighting to control his son, who has been involved in drugs and, his father suspects anyway, homosexuality. Lester tries to burn through his own life, his worthless job and his failed marriage, while trying to engage in the fantasy of seducing his daughter's friend Angela. Carolyn attempts to escape by bonding with her real estate competitor Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher). Jane attempts to deal with her collapsing parents while being drawn to the danger and mystery of Ricky.

There's a note, as many films suffer after receiving acclaim, of sour grapes from many people regarding this film--or at least a feeling of contrarian opposition to its acclaim and awards. "Overrated" is thrown at it pretty regularly, with a sneer and typically an accompanying sense of accomplished superiority. Of course, one cannot become superior by anything simply by saying it isn't as good as OTHER people think, or simply that it "sucks." Interestingly the film this reminds me of most (albeit backward considering the timeline along which I saw them) is Ordinary People, which is amusingly appropriate both because it is reviled as winner of the Best Picture Oscar in 1980 (mostly because it beat out Raging Bull) and because apparently American Beauty's first-time director Sam Mendes looked back at that very film for inspiration. Both deal with a level of socioeconomic living that many of us do not experience--somewhat above our own without falling into the absurdly incomprehensible fantasy of the ultra-rich--and the problems that plague the people in it, which differ somewhat little from those the rest of us know.

Once, while watching Donnie Darko, I experienced a rather common reaction to films like this: "But they have money, they can't have problems!" someone exclaimed at that one. I was struck by the absolute absurdity of this idea, but was left pondering the difference. Certainly if we start looking comparatively, any of us (especially anyone who can read a movie review posted only on the internet, or able to read one at all for that matter) can find someone in a worse position than ourselves. Problems are not intrinsically valued or valueless, as dealing with them on a universal scale is inherently absurd. There's no way to suggest that Lester's dissatisfaction with the dishonest approach of everyone in his life is unimportant, because it is important to Lester. Few--if any--can will away problems that are emotionally affecting, and so they become important at least in the context of the person having them and those around him or her. There's a smart approach to this in American Beauty, as there is in the entirety of Alan Ball's approach to the script: characters are all born from existing stereotypes, but all twist and contort them without being flagrant contradictions or sardonic inversions. A dis-satisfied suburban father in a useless job becomes a man seeking youth earnestly and in unusual ways, some expected, some not, and finding it in a place he, himself, would never have suspected. A shrew-like mother who holds her problems over her family but secretly holds this shield of frustration over deep insecurities and depression, who is trying to re-assemble her life and reclaim her role as mother but simply doesn't understand it because she has no concept of herself. An outsider daughter who fits naturally into the role of cheerleader--somehow!--and yet lacks promiscuity, all while secretly planning breast augmentation to attract more male attention, and boost her own self esteem.

The film is not an amazing revelation in thematic terms, though it does have an appropriately post-modern outlook on these same themes and ideas. It has a hint of the dark and a twist of the sarcastic without being overly "hip" or pretentious (though those who are happily embraced it on release). Mendes' direction and the fantasies hiding in the film, specifically Lester's fantasies about Angela, are fascinatingly creative, neither arthouse abstraction nor clumsily obvious symbolism. Thomas Newman's accompanying score for these scenes is fantastically mischievous, recognizing the problematic nature of them, but reminding the audience that this is only fantasy--though not some members, who still oversimplify the film to decry it as being about a "sick, deranged pedophile." His score is hauntingly bittersweet, plucking the right aching heartstrings when witnessing things from the outside, as Ricky often does through the lens of his camera when watching his neighbors interact. The moment where he tapes a silent conversation between Lester and Jane through their kitchen window to only Newman's sweet, sad music captures perfectly the dichotomy between the intense emotional response of the Burnhams themselves and the invisibility of those problems to anyone from the outside who isn't paying attention as most don't.

This is not an overrated film, really. Those who suggest as much either have very specific tastes (which is fine!) or are simply trying to prove their worth by degrading something recognized somewhat widely as being a quality release (which is not so fine). Alan Ball easily proved this was no fluke by going on to make Six Feet Under, while Mendes went on to direct solidly visual and engaging films like Jarhead.

Throne of Blood

As always, the title was changed in translation: "Kumonosu-j?" actually translates to "Spider's Web Castle," the given name of the castle in the film. It's probably criminal to some, but at this point I'm more familiar--in terms of what I have experienced--with the work of Akira Kurosawa than I am with the work of William Shakespeare. In my youth, I picked up a set of his three major tragedies (debateably, of course--but I mean King Lear, Hamlet and Macbeth) but discovered I have no taste for reading plays. I've not seen (nor participated in, with my brief stage "career" in high school) many performances of the Bard, either. As such, there are only the forced readings from school that inhabit my conscious, as well as the film adaptations I've seen (and other alternate-medium adaptations and discussions) that inform my knowledge of Shakespeare. It's limiting to have difficulty reading poetry and plays (yeah, neither!) so I haven't gained much ground on this, either. Still, that list does include Macbeth, actually, which I was fascinated by, and so for once I could watch one of Kurosawa's "adaptations" and think, "Hey! I know this plot!" (which I could not do with Ran and its King Lear-inspired plot, as I've never read, seen, heard or otherwise experienced that play).

Taketoki Washizu (Toshir? Mifune) returns to Lord Kuniharu Tsuzuki (Hiroshi Tachikawa) after defeating the forces of competing Lord Inui, but he and Yoshiaki Miki (Minoru Chiaki), his fellow warrior, are stopped in the forest by the sight of a mysterious and ghostly stranger (Chieko Naniwa). She tells them of their coming glories, that Washizu will become lord of a new territory, and eventually replace lord Tsuzuki, while Miki's son will also eventually take Tsuzuki's place. They are confused and surprised by this, and relatively disbelieving, until their return to Tsuzuki leaves Washizu with the exact titled prophesied. Washizu's wife, Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), begins to play on Washizu's paranoias and ambition, suggesting that he should take an active role in the next part of the prophecy. The visit of Lord Tsuzuki to Washizu's guard brings him into reluctant agreement with Asaji, and so he assassinates the powerful lord and sets into motion a far more obviously unavoidable set of events to fulfill prophecy, as suspicion and conflict return to the kingdom.

Deviations from Shakespeare mostly relate to the setting, in obvious terms at least. However, there is more to it. There's more reluctance on the part of Washizu, there's a different denouement, it's all tweaked and nudged in various directions to suit Kurosawa's own plans. This, of course, is probably its saving grace as a film. Many consider it one of the (if not THE) best Shakespeare film adaptations around. Nothing is sacrificed for 'accuracy,' and nothing is shoved into place despite the film so that it suits the original play. The tone, the meaning, the concept, the idea--this is what is transferred over. A bare skeleton, a basework, from which a new piece of art is created. This is not a surprising approach for Kurosawa, who was notorious for his stubborn vision and tendency toward lack of restraint. What he builds, though, is something that, in losing the language and exact construction of the play, is something that more viscerally pushes the feeling of the play. He imbues it, interestingly, with a native (to him) form of theatre despite the conversion to film, though: Noh. Masaru Sato (who composed for a number of Kurosawa's films) puts forth a Noh-styled minimalist score, very traditional and very sparse. Asakazu Nakai's cinematography is often stark in its contrast, creating deep and clear pools of white for Naniwa's ghostly demon and dark, dense and intricate pools of darkness for the men facing her. Interiors, even more so, bring in this approach. Makeup and lighting gives many of the actors the appearance of Noh masks.

Interestingly, Kurosawa's lack of restraint and sense of majesty and spectacle serves him far better than modern approaches to the same: scenes like the final ones, especially, are impressive even now, as those loyal to Tsuzuki attempt to retake Spider's Web Castle from Washizu and use the very forest to do so, and then as Washizu meets his fate in fearful madness and a slew of arrows. An interest in fog and its usage also serves Kurosawa, when anyone is lost in the protective fog surrounding Spider's Web Castle and finds themselves lost and turned around over and over, galloping in and out of the fog. Any of these things could easily turn out poorly, and the fog scenes certainly walk a tightrope and nearly fall into a place of wondering--wondering, that is, what on earth we're watching them gallop in and out of the fog for. But it never quite falls off into that particular confusion, consistently it's clear that the two men galloping astride horses onscreen are getting lost repeatedly, however theatrically--as if they are trapped in the space of a stage to convey this, despite having an entire real field of fog and the possibility of multiple cameras--and show this perfectly.

This is not my favourite Kurosawa, but that's nearly meaningless. It's still Kurosawa and absolutely brilliant film-making, and certainly an easy place for Westerners to start if they wish for some semblance of familiarity in their first foray into Kurosawa's filmography.

Death Proof
Death Proof(2007)

My strange distaste for Quentin Tarantino is well-documented. It's strange, though, because there are not many of his films I actively dislike, and I tend to like him in interviews (and even in acting roles). Certainly his fans are often a big part of my distaste, many of them thinking entirely too much of the man as a filmmaker. Still, I went to see Grindhouse in theatres for the people in it, and for Robert Rodriguez more than anything else. Death Proof was still interesting because I love Kurt Russell, but I was wary of it all the same. I remember the concept sounded nice, but I remember leaving the theatre with my friends as the only one who hated it and preferred Planet Terror. I picked up both films just for the sake of having them both (since they've continuously failed to release a single cut of the film).

Stuntman Mike (Russell) is an out-of-work stuntman who hangs around in bars* and waits for intriguing victims to appear to sate his bloodlust. The first ones to take his interest are Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier, not to be confused with her father Sidney), a radio disc jockey and her friends Shanna (Jordan Ladd) and Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito). They discuss Jungle Julia's plans for Arlene, who has unknowingly promised a lapdance to the man who gives her the right lines--at least, Julia promised this unknown man said dance for Arlene. Mike asks for the lapdance and Arlene rebelliously accepts his advance. As they plan to leave for a lakehouse, Mike picks up Pam (Rose McGowan), who is in desperate need of a ride and shows her his car--which is death-proofed like actual stunt cars, with a roll cage and everything necessary for Mike to survive about any collision. Pam is dropped into a simple seat in Mike's car, and finds herself rapidly regretting her choice of rides. When Mike chases down Julia and friends, he puts his car's "death-proofing" to the test. Texas Rangers Earl (Michael Parks) and Edgar (James Parks) McGraw know Mike is responsible for the resulting deaths, but lack of evidence (and lack of alcohol in Mike's system) leave them without cause to prosecute him. Mike's next choice of victims is a group composed of Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Abernathy (Rosario Dawson) and Kim (Tracie Thoms). They pick up their friend Zoë Bell (who plays herself, effectively) and discover her desire to drive a white 1970 Dodge Challenger in reference to Vanishing Point. Finding one of them, they play "ship's mast," where Zoë is held onto the car's hood by two belts as Kim drives it down the deserted highways at high speeds. Mike and his car begin to "toy" with the girls until they decide to turn the tables and pursue him.

There's a simple and obvious problem with this film, and one I simply cannot get past: Tarantino and Rodriguez stated that their intention was to make a modern grindhouse experience, but what Tarantino did was make, well, a Quentin Tarantino movie. This isn't necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but the grindhouse setting fails to set the film apart from any of his others--which are all similarly inspired (not always specifically by grindhouse, but always with his affection for the "genre" somewhere inside them). The two groups of women go on and on and on and on (and on...) about various pop-culture oriented topics, from Julia's snobby comments on Pete Townshend (hopefully deliberately inaccurate to show her snobbery) on to discussions of whatever other banal topic crosses their minds. Zoë's group goes on and on about stunt driving and classic car films. It all feels simultaneously natural and contrived: speaking to the skill of the actors involved and to the monotony of Tarantino's dialogue when unrestrained. It's wearing thin after 15 years to hear the same kind of dialogue, which was once interesting for its unusual and fresh nature, repeated yet again by another set of characters. It's becoming unnatural for so many characters to speak this way, and to watch their endless conversations. This is not a grindhouse movie, not a parody of one, not a modern version of one, it's just yet another Quentin Tarantino movie. I references grindhouse movies, it pays homage to them, it has actors from them, it has stunts and cars from them, but it's another Quentin Tarantino movie--and none of those things is exclusive to this particular one.

There's a moment, after the initial chapter about Jungle Julia, where the film goes black and white for no explicable reason and in the process loses all of the elements of intentional grindhouse damage, the film suddenly stunningly clear and bright and clean, as if it suddenly remembered, "Oh, right, I'm not REALLY a grindhouse movie." It's jarring and unpleasant, and really kind of a let down after a pretty decent opening. Tarantino apparently decided he couldn't make an actual slasher movie, so the description of the plot falls through the cracks--it's not really a slasher about a guy who kills with his car anymore, it is a Quentin Tarantino movie that happens to have a guy who happens to kill people using his car. It's taking the grindhouse motivation--gimmicks!--and forgetting to make the gimmick the central point. Of course, gimmicks were often lost (think of any cult/horror/sf fans you've ever known who talk about fast-forwarding to the "good parts") to banal plotting and dialogue, but they were never treated quite so much as a deliberate, thought out focus.

Of course, the real killer (sorry) for me, is Tracie Thoms is unforgivably obnoxious at the end of the film. When she finds her angry spine, she turns into a caricature of the "Oh no you di-n't!" angry black woman and spouts unnatural, pointlessly profane and sexually suggestive dialogue. Stuntman Mike has turned into a "total bitch," as Tarantino himself puts it, and in the process my own jaw drops as Quentin shows absolute ignorance of all film since the 1970s and a complete lack of understanding of the majority of cult fans. Everyone LIKES the killer, even though they aren't "supposed" to. The "inversion" has been done to death. Nothing new here, yet the film--and some rather worshipful fans--act as if it is some kind of revelation that the tables are turned. When Mike turns into a blubbering coward, I was tempted to turn the movie off (which was very difficult in the theatre...). I just felt, as Tarantino says, like I was watching a totally different movie. Except I didn't like this one at all. I didn't feel sympathy for the girls anymore, as they quickly became intensely annoying as they repeated the same initially stupid dialogue over and over. I wanted Mike back, but he was gone, and I was left with another twenty minutes of film I had no interest in, after the beginning had such a tenuous grip in the first place.

What a waste. It would have been more interesting as a strict slasher. And poor Kurt Russell...I love him still, and even loved him as a silly blubbering coward, and loved how much he threw himself into the crying loser, but the movie didn't support me in this and acted as if I should now suddenly root for his destruction. An epic failure of understanding of the entire convention the film is supposed to reference, pay tribute to and emulate. Bizarre coming from a man who has such an encyclopedic knowledge of these films. And yet another point I can effectively notch against Tarantino in dealing with his more obnoxious fans.

*Please, no Python jokes.


Initial commentary:

"Meh. If I hadn't already seen inversion of these clichés, I might have liked it more. It also dragged on and on and on for the first hour, failed as a "grindhouse" movie, and didn't properly build my sympathies."

Roger Corman's Frankenstein Unbound

How did this start again? Was it when I read Brian Aldiss' novel? Or did I read that because I read about the movie? To be sure, a strong impetus behind my decision to view it (and debatably behind reading the book it is based on) is the presence of INXS' late vocalist Michael Hutchence. Many people who know me know I love INXS like nobody's business, so this shouldn't come as a big surprise. A starring role for John Hurt and a villainous role for Raul Julia doesn't hurt anything either, naturally, but it was definitely the presence of Hutchence in one of two film roles that drew me to it. And, of course, we can't completely discount the name of Roger Corman.

In the future, Doctor Joe Buchanan (Hurt) is attempting to develop a weapon so powerful that it ends wars by simple threat of its existence. Unfortunately, operation of the weapon leads to erratic weather and "time storms," rifts in the time-space continuum that occasionally displace people and things. Caught in the middle of a severe one, Buchanan is sent back to Switzerland in the early 19th century, where he rapidly discovers not only the real Doctor Victor Frankenstein (Julia), but eventually the author who made him famous--Mary Wollstonecraft (Bridget Fonda). Frankenstein's younger brother was recently killed, and witchcraft is suspected. Horrified, Buchanan attempts to gain the help of Frankenstein in clearing the nanny being held responsible, both of them knowing his creation, The Monster (Nick Brimble) is the true culprit. When Frankenstein refuses, he goes to Wollstonecraft, who has an interest in the proceedings herself. Buchanan finds himself caught in the scientific debate of morality, and of "playing God," as he attempts to convince Frankenstein to come forward, or at least to destroy his creation before it kills more. Unable to do so, he must resort to attempting to use the side effects of his own weapon to stop them.

Roger Corman's films have a reputation as pure schlock, cheaply and quickly produced, generally entertaining but showing their budget like people who are utterly unaware of their body types show skin when they make poor fashion decisions.* It's not a flattering description for anyone's approach to film, but Corman himself has never seemed bothered by it. Still, I have my own approach to film, having no interest in watching a film to laugh at its limitations (the ones where I will not grant the creators grace, ie, there is a budget and appropriate technology at hand for them, I just get annoyed by). Frankenstein Unbound I seem to recall reading reviews of as a book (after I read it myself, I think, or perhaps while I was reading it) and hearing it labelled the author's smutty fantasy of sleeping with Mary Shelley. This isn't an unfair description of that subplot (which seems unnecessary, and is only briefly touched on in the film, anyway), but it's hardly a characterization of the entire story. Corman's film, I think, suffers similarly. There's laughter (amongst the boring, as far as I'm concerned) to be derived from a moment here or there, but it's hardly a knock against the movie as a whole, really.

The film is actually quite well shot, with a very smart eye for cinematography and solidly paced action from Corman himself, in his last time in the director's chair to date. Julia and Hurt are unsurprisingly excellent in their roles, with Brimble giving a nice sort of confused but lethal gravitas to the Monster. Hutchence (who plays Percy Shelley) and similarly-briefly-appearing Jason Patric (who plays Lord Byron) flit in and out of scenes they are in without thoroughly establishing themselves, giving it that moment of "Neat!" without dragging things to a halt by getting hung up on their limitations. Hurt and Julia carry most of the film, not only in terms of skill, but, appropriately in light of that, in terms of screen time. Julia is viperously dangerous and manipulative, with momentary glimpses of sanity or humanity, while Hurt is sufficiently both a scientist and a solid protagonist.

One of the most surprising things about the film is that the settings are quite believable. I'm sure if I knew much about 19th century Switzerland I'd have issues, but to the untrained eye it looks believably 19th century, and the future is not embarrassingly dated. The budget certainly shows in the design of the future objects, but it isn't as cheesily obvious as it often is. There's a stream-lined efficiency to it, a relative disinterest in gimmick-ing up any of the objects from the future that serves the film very well. The most obvious piece of the "future" present is Buchanan's computer-enhanced talking car, which sounds like a dreadful Knight Rider-style horror, but actually works pretty well. It does look rather 1980s, but not familiar, which is really probably the best approach to creating the future: not trying to guess at future approaches to design, but instead building from current ones to arrive at something unusual. The gore, too, is unusually good for what people say about Corman's films, though I should know by now that such mentalities are derivative of a genuine love that has been misappropriated by the cynical and postmodern into an attempt to prove oneself "better" than some films by mocking them (I mean nothing against Mystery Science Theater 3000 if that is crossing any minds--I'm quite a fan).

There's a solid bit of weight behind the film's concept and themes that betrays this whole schlocky mentality that people have about Corman's films, and there's an absolutely fantastic set of title credits to back the whole thing up. What Corman is known for is efficiency and industry in his work, and he makes a miniscule budget work for this film--he can't hide everything (because there's not enough money, of course!) but he makes a fantastic use of what he has, and puts very strong actors in to sell what doesn't work. Really, this film should be given a much better chance--but it's typically, it seems, swallowed up by those of us who are curious about Hutchence as an actor and those who want a "stupid" movie to laugh at. A shame, really, as it does well with its subject matter.

*I'm not sure where this peculiar simile came from, but it makes sense in my head.

Young Guns
Young Guns(1988)

Now, it's easy to get me to watch a number of movies. Name the right actor, and I'll be less than concerned with what exactly the movie contains. Many, many actors fall into this group, but one of the easiest is either of the Sutherlands. I've been a fan of Kiefer for longer than I can remember, long enough I can't really nail down exactly what film made him for me. It's a good bet it was a mix of Flatliners, The Lost Boys and eventually Freeway. But, I'll hesitate just a bit unless you drop in other actors to draw me in. These don't have to be up to the level of one who actually snaps my head around to make me pay attention, but they have to be of some kind of interest to me. The rest of the main cast easily fits the bill here: Emilio Estevez and brother Charlie Sheen, and Lou Diamond Phillips especially. I can't say I dearly love any of these three, but Charlie, for some reason, has always stuck in my head, and sometimes I sort of feel bad for Lou Diamond Phillips, who has that inescapable reputation of "b-movie" (or, worse: "television movie") star. Heck, I watched Route 666--and liked it all right.

On a remote ranch in New Mexico, a rather effete Englishman named John Tunstall (Terence Stamp) takes on the rather wild and often orphaned (or at least away from home) gunslinging boys he finds and works them on his ranch. He attempts to both educate and civilize these boys. Unfortunately, his land is coveted by fellow rancher Murphy (Jack Palance), who is far less scrupulous than Tunstall. They conflict regularly, much to the chagrin of Tunstall's boys, the rather stupid "Dirty Steve" Stephens (Dermot Mulrooney), the boastful Charley Bowdre (Casey Siemaszko), the proud Chavez Y Chavez (Phillips), the literate Doc Scurlock (Sutherland), the leaderly Dick Brewer (Sheen), and the newly recruited William H. "Billy the Kid" Bonney (Estevez). Murphy is happy to end the conflict by killing Tunstall, which sets the boys into a rage that leads them to pursue justice through lawyer Alex McSween (Terry O'Quinn, whose role as Peter Watts in Millennium is unfortunately going to be clearly erased by his time as Lost's Locke). They are eventually deputized, which Dick sees as cause to be "Regulators" of the law, and Billy sees as cause to execute all the men responsible for Tunstall's death.

I was rather expectant of this movie, being as it comes from the late 80s, has quite a "Brat pack"-ish cast (even if it lacks more than one person from the "actual" brat pack), a ridiculous synth-based score and a mentality that suggests a rather rapid-fire approach to a historical story. Perhaps I was spoiled by Walter Hill's star-laden and "gimmicky" (in the sense that it is filled with actual brothers, thus also having pre-viewing interest driven by the cast) The Long Riders, which is absolutely fantastic. Perhaps I was spoiled by the many westerns I knew so well, even classic ones, prior to viewing this. Perhaps I simply don't like mainstream 1980's westerns (I liked Silverado "all right," you might say). Regardless, this was a pretty serious disappointment. Allegedly, it is reasonably true-to-events, but it sure feels like an over-slick pile of nonsense historically. The entire story feels contrived and worked out, even as it winds its way through actual events. John Fusco, who wrote the film, doesn't exactly have an amazing list of credits to his name, as I've heard less-than-pleasant things about the Jet Li/Jackie Chan team-up The Forbidden Kingdom (with many of its failings hanging, I hear, on a poor script). I'm not amused to find him working on a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, either, but perhaps that will change before said film is produced. Director Christopher Cain isn't exactly swimming in good will from his directorial past, either. I can't claim to have seen his other movies, either, but none of them jump out and scream to be seen, really.

One of the major problems is the way the actors seem to be swimming through the muck of poor writing and direction. There's enough space for them to build characters into vague lines and actions, but not enough that the characters they come up with necessarily work or fit. Sheen does well enough at delivery, but fails to create much of a character in Dick. He's "a decent guy," but that's about it. Mulrooney is comic relief as the idiotic and vulgar Stephens, Siemaszko has a solid footing (leading to the line that was sampled by Warren G for his song "Regulators," no less) but nothing amazing, and Phillips overreaches himself just a bit as always, seeming just a bit too self-serious, yet working charismatically enough despite that. Kiefer is a little confused in the role of the rather poetic Doc, seeming out of place in the role, and a bit like he's trying too hard to erase his nasty, villainous past in many other movies. Even when he's heroic--and he can be--he works best with an edge, some darkness or some conflict. Doc's a little too goody-two shoes, in a sense. The worst offender, though, is definitely Estevez. Suddenly Billy the Kid is completely crackers, rather unsympathetic and just difficult to get a grasp on. I keep getting the feeling we're supposed to like him and root for him, but all I can think is that he's completely insane, stupid, manipulative and leading them all down a very self-destructive past. He gets in that killer last line (which, of course, I won't repeat) before the film ends, but even the punch of that is sucked away by the fact that his character is unsympathetic and rather unlikeable.

It's not a film I'd jump out and say could be improved by this or that, because it fits very well into its time period, and would be a silly waste without the original cast at that age and time. Just a shame the script and direction were in the hands of two people who functioned but just didn't do much more.

Eddie and the Cruisers
½

The random decision to pick up Streets of Fire was based in Walter Hill's other work and its vague relation to The Warriors. I ended up liking it a lot more, so when I wandered across Eddie and the Cruisers and saw that it starred Michael Paré, who starred in Streets, I was suddenly more interested in it. I was reluctant to watch it when it came up in my personal "queue" (which is nothing like a NetFlix queue, because I own all the discs and can change my mind and grab something I just picked up instead if I really want to, but I try not to) because the concept was not grabbing me, and sounded like it might end up something iffy or boring that I was riding for actor charisma more than anything else. Still, I decided I'd give it a go and watched it when the urge struck.

It's the 1980s, and almost 20 years earlier in 1964, the biggest hit in the country was Eddie and the Cruisers' "On the Dark Side," but now it's a hit again thanks to a revival. A television magazine latches onto this anniversary and decides to look into the band again. Reporter Maggie Foley (Ellen Barkin) suspects even that Eddie Wilson (Paré) did not die in the car accident that he was reported killed in in 1964, but wonders, more importantly, what happened to Season in Hell, their sophomore album that was never released. The tapes for it disappeared and were never released when the label shelved it for being too "out there"--now believed to be "ahead of its time." She begins to hit up the Cruisers, all wandering off to different places--Frank "Wordman" Ridgeway (Tom Berenger), the keyboardist who wrote their lyrics and has become a high school English teacher, Sal Amato (Matthew Laurance) who works in a club as head of a "tribute" band, manager Doc Robbins (Joe Pantoliano) who now DJs in Asbury Park where they all came from, and the more estranged female vocalist Joann Carlino (Helen Schneider), drummer Kenny Hopkins (David Wilson) and the more definitively deceased saxophonist Wendell Newton (Michael "Tunes" Antunes). The former Cruisers all recollect the events that led to their success--Ridgeway recalls being found in a bar, discussing lyrics with Eddie, a gig at Ridgeway's own former college--while they are all re-ignited with an interest in whether Eddie (whose body was never found) is perhaps actually still alive, and what happened to the tapes of that last album.

I'll be straight about this: this is not the first review I've done for this film. The other, however, was purely audio, completely off-the-cuff and not easily returned from its current location (and, in fact, it may actually be gone from the world already). The ideas I put forth in it, rapid and condensed though they were, are the same ideas I have now, though. This movie really got to me, in a good way. I expected to just sort of like the music, maybe appreciate the cast (Pantoliano, Paré, Berenger) and have a decent time watching it. Far from it. I really enjoyed it, actually, more than I was even expecting. I won't say that it was flawless, because it wasn't. The intro of the magazine staff discussing the Cruisers and watching archival footage sets up the plot perfectly, but it's pretty clumsy and awkward, so even though it puts forth exactly the right information in exactly the right amounts, it's not wonderful at the delivery. But it sets the plot up so well that it's easily forgotten. The transition between contemporary and flashback footage is spot-on, both in terms of being fluid and in terms of being appropriately paced. It never goes on long enough to confuse us, make us forget what movie we're watching, but always goes on long enough to fully establish a flashback's time and events.

What's most important is that the movie perfectly creates Eddie Wilson. Paré is--inevitably, considering the time the movie is set and the exit of his character--not the star, Berenger is. It's the perfect window into a rising band, showing us their way from bar band to new hot thing, with someone who has never heard of them being brought into their inner circle, and brought in far enough that he contributes in a meaningful way. Eddie is a distant thing, an enigmatic, charismatic and emotional star. He's kind of an asshole sometimes, in the way that most big talents seem to be in music, and yet sympathetic and clearly driven and tortured by a need to do what he does. We're brought to wonder what happened to him, brought to both possible conclusions: that he took that car off that bridge and went with it, that he made the whole thing up. He's close enough to be interesting and magnetic, but distant enough to be a mystery. He almost becomes a real rockstar--even though Paré is only lip-synching, no less--almost inspiring curiosity about what actually happened to Eddie Wilson, until you remember there isn't one. It feels like a real biopic, almost more authentic because he doesn't exist and there are no facts to point out as being misrepresented.

Berenger has an interesting role, actually. I'm used to him playing Sgt. Barnes or "The Substitute" (though I've never seen it) and the like, but here he's a poetry-reading English major, a kid in a bar who interjects his knowledge of cæsura into an intra-band argument by reading from Rimbaud. I was happily surprised to find Berenger does not have to be a gruff, dominant alpha male, and is actually pretty good at being a slightly arrogant bookworm, proud--perhaps too much so--of his upbringing and education. His character isn't the only perfectly defined one though, all are given strong motivations, and are the kinds of people that someone like Eddie draws around him as help to enact his need to create art--a manager who knows how to talk and who is driven and dreams, a bassist who writes their early lyrics and who wants nothing more than to be a star, a saxophonist who just means the music, and a drummer who knows his instrument but doesn't need to shine ahead of everyone. This is, however, a very rough caricature of each of them--even the egocentric Sal is shown in a contemporary moment to be conflicted. He confesses his anger at Eddie for disappearing and denying him fame, but he's clearly still suffering the loss of his bandmate and friend.

As far as the music, some people can't tolerate its anachronistic flavour--the Asbury Park reference definitely solidifies a feeling of E Street Band origins to the music, and director/screenwriter Martin Davidson has admitted that Springsteen was an influence on the style of the band's music (which was written and performed by John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band). Of course, it's acceptable because, for one thing, it reflects the sensibilities of the era in which the music was actually recorded (it was the production style, to be sure), and in another because it does reflect more a bar band than a cleanly produced pop band from the 1960s. Much is made of it being ahead of its time, anyway. It's also, of course, a fantasy world, and this is the most important element. The songs are good and strong without feeling like they're reaching too far. They're not supposed to be the best songs ever written, but lost hits, which they easily could be--and in fact were, a few months after the film was released, in a strange sort of parallel "art imitates reality" story.

This may be one of the best rock and roll movies I've seen about a band, barring those that were actually OF a band (which hold a different allure) because it feels most true and real for its lack of necessary factual grounding.

Clerks II
Clerks II(2006)

I always put my foot in my mouth just a bit when talking about comedy, especially modern comedy. I insist that I have no taste for the modern style of overly-raunchy comedy, and find none of it funny. This isn't strictly true (though I do strictly hate Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller, only making exceptions for movies they are in, never for their roles in them--unless they are, perhaps, not intended to be comedic) because I do like Kevin Smith's movies. I freely admit to a strong distaste for Chasing Amy (for reasons that would spoil the movie if you haven't seen it, but that are well known to anyone who brings it up around me) and find both Mallrats and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back leave me shrugging, neither loving nor disliking them, but sort of letting them be reasonably enjoyable. I really like Clerks. and Dogma quite a bit though, so I was happy to go see Clerks II in theatres--obviously, though, this was three years ago. I picked the DVD up about two ago and got around to re-watching it just recently.

Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson) are still hanging around Leonardo, NJ ten years after the events of Clerks., but when a fire takes out the QuickStop, they move on to fast food chain Mooby's. Despite ten years passage, the two of them have not changed an awful lot, Dante being insistent on complaining about his life failing to meet the expectations he has of it and Randal turning up his nose at anything and everything, but especially the "normal" life. Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) have taken up the Mooby's as their place to hang out, lean on a wall, sell pot and dance to music. Dante, though, is now engaged to Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach, later Jennifer Schwalbach Smith--Kevin's wife), the ex-prom queen who has decided she is tired of going through the "hot guys" and settled on the "nice guy." There's a bit of friction though, as Dante and Randal's boss is Becky (Rosario Dawson), with whom Dante is clearly pretty close, and who has a pretty clear interest in Dante. Added to the mix, though, is the young, sheltered Elias (Trevor Fehrman), who is less-than-prepared for Dante's willingness to discuss anything, nevermind Randal's willingness to open any topic for discussion. Dante's engagement, though, makes this his last day in New Jersey, which is straining things even further--but doesn't stop the periodic flow of customers that are so familiar to the pair of them, and always a source of derision for Randal.

This is the right way to do a sequel. Smith makes a script that contains the same characters in a similar environment and a similar sort of life situation, but he tweaks elements of these to both fit the changed characters and to bring something new to the film. But the characters aren't abandoned. Randal and Dante are still themselves, as are Jay and Silent Bob, pop culture references (especially geeky ones) are just as present, as are frank discussions of sex and especially taboo and, uh, unusual subtopics thereof. The fact that Dante and Randal are still themselves does not mean they haven't changed though. They're older, dealing with new things in different ways--and some things in exactly the same ways. It's just the right mix of faithfulness to the original that ties it to it with just the right addition of new material to feel fresh. It also doesn't make the mistake (at least, it's usually a mistake) of looking like it's deliberately trying to "outdo" the original. It certainly does in some respects (the going away present for Dante would be the obvious way in which it does...) but it never feels like it's deliberately reaching for that.

O'Halloran and Anderson are also improved as actors--in the original they were amateurs, still rough around the edges, though nicely settled into their characters. They're even more settled this time, and it ends up sort of "meta," with actors grown into roles that have grown in and of themselves. Both still have the marks of their roots, but as before it makes them more endearing. A lot of this is, of course, credit to Smith's writing, which is sort of the raunchier version of John Hughes, if you will--I don't mean that as literal or exact comparison, because I hate those comparisons. Still, it's something like that because his characters are always familiar despite their excessiveness. They're endearing even when they're jerks, they're relatable and sympathetic even when they're exasperating. One character can hate another and we can like both, one can treat everyone like dirt and say horrific things (obviously, I mean Randal) and we still like him because Smith and Anderson build real, solid characters into this, but without going too far with the drama and drawing the tone too far outside comedy.

It's a worthy sequel, something that doesn't happen often, and happens even less often with comedies and even LESS often with small independent ones. It was a risk, but it works out. Is it better than the original? Not really a relevant comparison. They're too different despite their similarities, because they are made so differently and about different things. One is coming into the "real world" and being aimless, one is having been that aimless person and realizing that things aren't just going to change of their own accord, no matter how long you wait. Oh, and it has King Diamond's music in it. I was intensely excited by this in the theatre, though there was no one I saw it with (and few people since) to explain this excitement to. It's awesome, though, to hear his voice coming out of a theatre's sound system, without a doubt.

3-Iron
3-Iron(2004)
½

The title actually translates to something more like "Empty Houses," by the way, rather than "3-Iron," which seems to reflect differing naming conventions by culture. Or maybe the title was not picked by an American distributor as I cynically think, and is not intended to re-frame the focus from the airy idea of transience to the visceral physicality of an item used repeatedly as an expression of anger in the film. It's anyone's guess until someone comes forward, and I'm unlikely to hear it when they do, so I'm going to grimly stick to my theory there, and suggest that the translated title would, in fact, be more appropriate.

Tae-Suk (Hyun-Kyoon Lee) is tasked with taping restaurant menus to the doors of residences from his motorcycle, but takes this job--if indeed it is an actual paying job--as a method of serving his true way of living. Waiting to see if the menus, all placed over the doors' locks, are removed hours later, he determines which houses are empty. Those which are empty he enters and enjoys, fixing broken mechanics and washing clothes by hand. He makes use of food, toiletries, beds and appliances, then disappears with no clear trace of his presence. At the first house we see him marking, he has a brief exchange of dark looks with the home's owner, Min-Gyu (Hyuk-Ho Kwon), before the two go their separate ways. When he comes back later to find no one has re-entered this house, he goes about his normal activities, not noticing that Min-Gyu's wife Sun-Hwa (Seung-Yeon Lee) is still there and shadowing his movements, smiling when he fixes their scale or peruses their art. Tae-Suk finally recognizes her presence when she finds him in bed, and Tae-Suk quickly leaves. After pondering his decision, Tae-Suk returns and finds Sun-Hwa sobbing in the shower, her eye still bruised from what can only be the less-than-affectionate attentions of Min-Gyu. Creating a more comforting environment, Tae-Suk tentatively shows a more respectful approach to Sun-Hwa, until Min-Gyu returns and finds them both. Tae-Suk disappears before Min-Gyu sees him, but does not leave, instead convincing Sun-Hwa to leave with him and try his own way of living.

I've been reluctant to watch this, knowing what I did about it. First I have to be in the mood to be stationary enough for a subtitled movie (some foods are complex to eat when you need your eyes on the screen consistently), and then I have to be in the mood for something arty, and, as memory told me, nearly silent. If I'd really thought about it, I might've put these two ideas together and realized there weren't going to be many subtitles when the protagonists are indeed silent through the majority of the film (and, in addition to that, often the only presences on-screen). Still, when I thought of watching it today, I thought, "Why not?" and pounced, determined to avoid losing a willingness on my part to see it. I was a little worried that, despite the minimal running time of 84 minutes, it would be slow (as it has been described as such). Apparently, I needn't have worried, because it's far from slow. If you can't tolerate the idea of a film with almost no dialogue, you likely will find it interminably slow and frustratingly incomprehensible. There are ridiculous reviews claiming that there is no characterization and no way to identify with the characters because they don't speak. This is the sign of a pretty limited view of people (and probably not the best sign for reading people around you). It's very clear what kind of characters these two are, insofar as the relevance of this definition to the film. It's not perfect and complete rounding, but that's very difficult to do in the space of a movie anyway--and it isn't always the point.

There's also raging debate as to the reality or believability of the film, which is somewhat frustrating as it's yet another limited way of seeing things. It's not that one can't prefer a naturalistic or realistic approach, nor even that one can demand that of the films they like or watch, but it's not the only approach to be taken, nor the only one that can be successful--just the only one that can be successful for those who demand it. It's not intended to be a perfectly realistic film, asking for a relatively large degree of suspension of disbelief, but not in the sense of suspending what is possible in reality so much as suspending the belief that you are watching reality. This is a dream-like world, but not in the stream-of-consciousness sense so much as a floating, ethereal one. Tae-Suk is unnaturally good at sneaking around people and their homes, but at the same time does do enough that one would think someone might at least notice that he had been there, even if he wasn't found while there. There's a further debate on the subject when the end is reached, and some feel that Tae-Suk has become a literal ghost, where others feel he has become, well, a ninja, if you'll pardon the tongue-in-cheek interpretation of the film. It's got a sense of humour though, so I suspect writer/director Ki-Duk Kim does as well, and thus won't mind. I'm in favour of the second interpretation, though also not opposed to the more open interpretation that these are not distinct or "real" people in the first place, and identifying along such lines is moot.

This is, as you might guess, a pretty visual movie. Many, even those who hated the movie, have noted that Korean film has a distinct tendency to be well-filmed. I'm inclined to agree--all the Korean films I've seen, as well, seem to be pretty beautifully shot. There's a careful attention to reflections and framing, making it always look intentional but never artificial, a difficult but very aesthetically pleasing balance. The pacing around this, as well as the camera movements that support this pacing and aesthetic, is well-balanced and keeps things moving even through relative silence (pierced only by environmental noise and the odd bit of music). It's cut perfectly to never make the protagonists' silence too questionable, and to keep any scenes with such kinds of silence from becoming uncomfortable or unsettling. Even when someone is speaking to them, it comes off as believable, at least in this film's world, that they will not respond, and so it maintains the right sensibility to propel a rather unusual film forward. It's quite pleasing as a film, touching and easily affecting, even with the detached eye of Eastern film that always seems to nudge at me when I watch a film made in eastern Asia. Definitely worth your time if you have any romantic proclivities, and a willingness to experience a movie that does not rely in the slightest on dialogue.

A Hard Day's Night

The Beatles become a more and more curious subject as time goes on, especially in the circles I run in. I grew up listening to them, and never thought a thing of judging their music. I always liked it, which is no surprise if one knows that the 1968 animated film Yellow Submarine is one of my all-time favourite movies. I've got some of the figures produced from that film hanging about my apartment, as well as a well-worn shirt advertising the film. It was one of my earlier DVD acquisitions, before it went out of print. However, it was not until sometime in college that I began to learn that there were actually people who flat-out disliked or even hated the Beatles. I had no idea, and honestly still don't quite understand the people that do. Generally, it seems that this opinion is more response to response than response to the original stimulus (that is, their music). Obviously there are going to be people who just dislike their music, but mostly I find people who have been annoyed by how much other people like them. It's really a shame, but it is the nature of people to form such opinions (and I'm not immune to them myself, though I tend more to exaggerate dislike when things become more and more popular, but never move from like to dislike over it) so I suppose we're best off accepting it. Obviously if one took the concept of reviewing this movie and the concept of not talking about the Beatles' music and put them in a room, they'd not shake hands or greet, they'd stare in slack-jawed wonder at how you put them in the same room. I'm not planning to review the music or discuss it in detail, but I'm not going to skip around it either.

The Beatles (John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Richard "Ringo Starr" Starkey, if you somehow don't know) are set to perform on television one day in London, away from their home of Liverpool. Coming along with them are their manager Norm (Norman Rossington), road manager Shake (John Junkin), and Paul's grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell). Paul refers to his grandfather as a "mixer" or troublemaker, and suggests that he needs to be watched closely as they go about their busy schedules. Norm and Shake conflict periodically, usually from the subtle incitement of said grandfather. The boys try to escape their responsibilities as stars, skipping out on Norm whenever possible, whether assigned to respond to fan mail or to simply show up for any performance. They wander in and out of situations that they stumble into, while Paul's grandfather attempts to feed his own desires, which are usually a mix of greed and lechery. As a final spiteful act to remove himself from the watchful eye of others, he even tries to incite Ringo to leaving the group because of their relentless mockery of them.

This isn't a plot-heavy film, though it's not quite as plotless as many of the "rock and roll films" that predated (or followed) it. Or, at least, the absence of plot is not so worrisome. The Beatles are all rather charismatic as actors (even if clearly pretty amateurish), and Alun Owen's script serves them well. The words he wrote for them at least some of them agreed were very natural and believable for their real personalities, which was Owen's intention. It makes for a snappy, cracking sort of wit, one-liners, sarcastic retorts and wordplay bandied about without pause for laughter or between funny lines. There's a nice injection of absurdity to it all that gives a lovely hint of a smile with a certain element of snarkiness to all of them, as they find themselves mistaken for people they're not (or occasionally people they are) and they always take advantage of the people making these mistakes. Not cruelly, but often falling into the role they're mistaken for and responding with honest opinion. Nowhere is this more apparent than in George's mistaken appearance in an advertising office. He's taken for a new spokesperson, which he attempts to fight only briefly and eventually neglects to argue with, after which he sparks a bit of fear in the trend-obsessed advertising manager Simon, played by Kenneth Haigh.

Owen's script intentionally and clearly draws a neat little box around each of the boys, with Lennon as the smart-ass, McCartney as the "sensible" one, George as the shy one and Ringo as the good-hearted whipping boy. This is certainly an oversimplification of any human being, but it's appropriate when one is basing a film around a band as a purely business-oriented enterprise. It's not really the place for nuanced characterization and pathos, and it's good not only that Owen made the decision, but professional of the Beatles to accept the roles and run with them. There's no real mean-spiritedness to all of it, with the closest thing to an antagonist being Paul's grandfather, who's made out to be enough of a "rascal" (there's really no better word) that he's still fun, even as we see the havoc he creates. Brambell deserves plenty of credit for this, as his strange character is just a fantastically over-the-top foil for the rather subdued nature of four guys who didn't really do any acting before. Richard Lester directs it pretty brilliantly (nevermind John Jympson's tightly sloppy editing) and keeps everything in control and in place, which makes the whole thing hugely entertaining. While he bemusedly rejects the idea, certainly this film has some part in the origin of the promotional music video, with nicely cut montages and actual scenes behind their songs, from the beginning act of running from screaming fans on to the final television stage performance.

I normally express a general shrugging neutrality about the Beatles' music prior to 1966's Revolver (occasionally scaling it back to Help! or Beatles for Sale, but rarely earlier), often finding it too formulaically poppy and repetitive for my own tastes. I've never quite figured out why, however, but in films a lot of music that I shrug at or like all right seems to strike just the right sound dynamic and image juxtaposition to really make it pop out. I found myself with renewed appreciation for the songs the film contains, and for the greater nuance in the instrumentation than I had previously noticed. Generally one thinks of these songs and their simple and repetitive choruses ("She Loves You," "A Hard Day's Night," "Can't Buy Me Love," etc.) but there's actually a decent amount going on behind them. I'm not saying I suddenly rate it as equally interesting when compared to their later work, but still, it's more impressive than I once realized. It's this that I think is often missed by other people, but plenty of folks simply don't want to see it (or don't care about whether they see it).

What's best about the film, though, is not the music--it's great that a film built to advertise a band was controlled by strong voices like Owen and Lester, who made it an interesting movie in its own right, in some strange paradoxical way making it function almost like the Monkees (whose show was allegedly inspired by the film) in that it could be about a band that doesn't really exist and just happens to hold the Beatles' music as if the actors playing this made-up band were the ones who made it. In essence, the music is good, but separate from the main characters in the film even though it is indeed them who wrote and performed it--and of course that fact adds an exciting note of authenticity and justification to their casting. It's a very tenuous tone and quite a balance to strike, but the film maintains it perfectly, never losing its pace or its sense of humour, never stopping to rely completely on who is in the movie even as it feeds on the energy of that fact.

Killer Tomatoes Eat France
½

"What the hell?" I'm sure some folks are asking, "Why is he reviewing this? It has a 2.5 on IMDb!" I'd point to other films I've reviewed in response to this, but anyone who would say or think that would clearly not be paying close attention to what I review in the first place, so it would not serve as much of a clarification for those folks, who are clearly new to my taste in movies. There's no real good explanation for my taste, there never has been and there never will be one. That aside, this is the fourth and as-yet-final (in all likelihood, forever final--though a remake of the original is rumoured) Killer Tomatoes movie. It follows 1979's Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, 1988's Return of the Killer Tomatoes, and 1990's Killer Tomatoes Strike Back. I've seen them all, the first two numerous times.

Professor Mortimer Gangreen (John Astin, the original Gomez Addams for anyone who doesn't know that name immediately) is up to his old tricks, plotting world domination through the cunning use of fruits cooked as vegetables, but is currently residing in prison in France. He carries a large and dusty tome as he is brought before the prison's warden to be given his final fate. The warden releases him instead, to the confusion of the official who brought him there. Of course, the warden is none other than the Animated Series* villainous tomatoes re-designed: Zoltan, Ketchuck and Viper (who is based on the cartoon's Fang). They all help Gangreen to escape to a waiting hot air balloon, which is of course piloted by Gangreen's faithful assistant Igor (Steve Lundquist), who looks far more like he's a football player of Scandinavian ancestry from the midwest than a hunchback. Their escape leads to dropping a sandbag of ballast onto the face of a complaining actor (Marc Price) who is woken by a French Country girl named Marie (Angela Visser). She asks his name only for him to lie and tell her he's Michael J. Fox. Stumbling onto a plot that involves the kidnapping of Fuzzy Tomato (aka "FT," aka "Le Tomato Fuzzy") in an attempt to manufacture the prophesy hiding in Gangreen's tome that will bring the monarchy back to France--in the form of Igor.

It's stunning sometimes to watch people who don't seem to get that these movies are jokes. One hopes that some of the reviews out there are indicative of some strange subversive attempt at falsely stubborn ignorance that, while not funny, is at least intended to be. If not, there are some pretty horrifically stupid people out there, who talk about how ridiculous it is that anyone would find tomatoes reasonable villains, or wonder how they could keep in a shot of a cameraman tripping down the stairs. Both of these are intentional and intentionally ridiculous. As with the last two films (and unlike the first), returning writers John De Bello (directing as always, too), J. Stephen Peace (not appearing in this film, sadly, perhaps to busy campaigning for his upcoming California Senate seat), and Costa Dillon (who makes more bizarre appearances, this time as a recurring vendor/plot device) work in plenty of fourth wall-breaking material. This time, though, it's a little more surreal, as characters wander in and out of sets, note their presence in a movie and so on. Marc begins the film by bemoaning his b-movie status as compared to the real Michael J. Fox (with whom he shared the small screen in Family Ties). It's never subtle, but nor is it terribly clumsy.

That's the appeal of these films--yes, including this last one--they don't take even their sense of humour too seriously. They know when their puns are bad, and they revel in it. The scenes centered around them have the shrug of resigned acceptance of their ludicrousness mixed with the snap of treating even those puns like any good joke. Some of them can get a pretty good laugh as a result, and sometimes they build on each other in just the right way, or build and build to a lateral move that catches you off guard (Marc's final ascent of the "Tower of 900 Steps" got in the one joke that really took me by surprise and appealed to my referential sense of humour, then turned a corner and really got me with an awful pun--that was also referential). There's a clear intelligence behind even the stupid humour, with too many touches revealing an understanding of their own idiocy to really believe it's actual idiocy. The French accents are deliberately outrageous and over the top (some delivered by the prior film's star Rick Rockwell), with amusing French "rants" that consist entirely of strange sets of words that are commonly used untranslated in English (or at least that are cultural touchstones for English-speaking audiences). There's actually a handy trick to this--any dated reference is not overtly dated because the sense of humour is so consciously over-the-top and "bad." I could go into my rant about how much I dislike the idea of "movies so bad they're good," but I've done it before and I'll just leave it at this: I don't believe in that. These movies are not bad, because they are deliberately like this, but they revel in being ridiculous, and that's just fun. They're good at it, well-enough directed, written and performed to carry their intentionally stupid humour for their running lengths.

Price is a better lead than Rockwell, I must say, with a less smarmy role, one closer to Anthony Starke's as Chad Finletter in Return of the Killer Tomatoes than Rockwell's Lance Boyle. This isn't the fault of Rockwell, he's just better suited to things like a caricature of a French soldier being assaulted with tomato juice than a lead. Price is better as a guide through all of this because he's a little more innocent and wide-eyed a character, aware of how ridiculous things around him are and a little less ridiculous himself as a result, which is a better way to experience humour like this. There are plenty of jokes that falter, but they're all delivered with such gusto--and tongues planted so firmly and obviously in cheeks--that it works anyway, and the film never really stumbles too badly, keeping up its pace throughout a reasonable ninety minute running time. This doesn't mean that anyone would find it as amusing as I did--or even tolerable. I'm not really going to rush out and recommend it to anyone, but I can definitely say its IMDb rating is utterly ridiculous, and most of the reviews on there seem to indicate the reviews come from people who are unaware of the film's sense of humour, despite the fact that it's so obviously on display. Ho-hum. The film's too bouncy and upbeat (even if in a stupid way...) to be let down by this, but it's a shame for the voices behind it, who are doing what they want how they want, nudging at other pop culture elements but always showing enough of their own sensibilities to keep claims to relative freshness.

I'll save you any puns about tomatoes and freshness, even if I am talking about rating the film better than it is. But Rotten Tomatoes ought to maybe latch onto it.

*Yes, there was a Killer Tomatoes cartoon. I've seen a few episodes, one of those obnoxiously difficult to catch cartoons of my youth. Absurd hours on Sunday mornings, if memory serves.

Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah - Giant Monsters All-Out Attack

Slowly I'm making my way through the Millennium/X series of Godzilla films, the only series completely available in Region 1 DVD releases. There are notable exceptions from both the Showa and Heisei series over here, unfortunately--well, notably absent, not necessarily notable films--nevermind the releases that fail to have original language tracks or original aspect ratios. Unfortunately even this series suffers from the repellently lazy phenomenon of "dubtitles," subtitles that are merely transcriptions of the dub and thus carry over all its re-written scripting that is designed in a dub to bring mouth movement at least closer to the audio track. Unfortunately it often deviates a fair bit, to the point that at one point I could swear a character cursed and the screen read, "Excellent!"--when cursing would have been more appropriate for the context. I caught on much earlier, though, when I began to hear words I knew--the light curse of knowing a smattering of Japanese and watching poorly translated subtitles--and saw nothing resembling them, even in spirit, in the subtitles. A quick change of audio tracks confirmed my suspicion, but dubtitles are better than the treatment alluded to above for other films, at least.

Fifty years after Godzilla attacked Tokyo in 1954, rumours and hints of more monsters in the vicinity of Japan begin to come in, worrying Japan's defensive forces who repelled Godzilla in that first attack. Low rent sci fi production company BS Digital Q is filming one of their typical productions only to be rocked by an earthquake. Their reporter Yuri Tachibana (Chiharu Nîyama) is present for this, and glances over to see a strange old man (Eisei Amamoto) who disappears when she looks back. She's taken in by him and the earthquake and pursues the idea until she digs up information about the "Guardian Monsters"* Baragon, Ghidorah and Mothra. Brief appearances by all are seen when a motorcycle gang goes joyriding and finds a tunnel collapsing on them, while some thieving youths find themselves unsettled on a lake. Yuri is able to find the old prophet she saw before at a police station, identified as Hirotoshi Isayama. He tells her that she must wake the "thousand year old dragon" to defeat the returning Godzilla, who he tells her was created by nuclear energy but is imbued with the anger of the souls lost in the second World War, angry at Japan itself for forgetting them. When Godzilla resurfaces, he takes to his old stomping grounds, heading immediately for Tokyo, with the curious new monsters attempting to stop him, from the quadrupedal, tunneling Baragon to the floating and graceful Mothra on to Ghidorah himself. Yuri's father is SDF Adm. Taizô Tachibana (Ryudo Uzaki), who is proud of his organization's role in repelling Godzilla originally, critical of Yuri's company and worried about the oncoming attack, while science writer for BS Digital Q Teruaki Terada is clearly very interested in Yuri.

Shusuke Kaneko's only Godzilla film, he is responsible for the admirable revival of Gamera in the 1990s, directing the entire trilogy of films that came out that time period (which I own but have only seen one of) but only taking this one opportunity to direct Gamera's far better known daikaiju "relative" (in the loosest sense, since they aren't even related by rights). It, like most of the Millennium series, is a direct sequel to the original 1954 Gojira and has no interest in any of the films that followed it. Godzilla is returned to his malevolent roots, while King Ghidorah is re-purposed into a mystical protagonist instead of a horrific alien experiment to create the ultimate monster--this is most definitely not the Astro-Monster/Monster Zero. Mothra remains as aloof and benevolent as ever, though Kaneko firmly notes that these monsters are here to protect the land of Japan, not the people or society on top of it. This makes for a pretty tense chunk of destructive action, because not only are the "good" monsters unconcerned about the humans around them, Godzilla is outright evil this time. Normally an unstoppable force of nature driven to destroy, this Godzilla actively pursues the destruction of people in some pretty dark moments, and always acts to retaliate against any one or anything that attacks him or tries to defend itself. As a result, there's a much greater intelligence to all of the kaiju that is usually not seen. Fights are less "choreograph it with the limitations of suitmation in mind" and more "find a way for these beasts to fight each other with the powers and design each of them has." This does mean, of course, that Toho had invested in a bit of CGI by this time (though not for the first time--but it's a pretty CGI-heavy Mothra appearance).

The story is even more closely tied in to the kaiju action than the last film I saw (Godzilla Against Mecha Godzilla, which actually follows this one in terms of release, but bears no relation to it otherwise), this time being more of a window into the human world in a world that is really centered on kaiju. They are mystical as Kaneko made Gamera, elder spirits designed to protect our destroy, infused with the souls of people long dead for either revenge or protective purposes. They are bigger than us in both the literal sense and the sense of "meaning," their conflicts beyond our means and understanding, to an extent. Yuri and her father are the only really big human characters, and they both act primarily by responding and reacting to the conflicts. This is actually sort of interesting when one considers that this is film chooses to show more thoroughly the effects of Godzilla's destructive nature on people. It's clearly stated that numerous people die over the course of the film, rather than seeing a building destroyed without any real explicit declaration of its occupants (or a lack). It does make things a little darker than usual, while paradoxically adding this human element to a world largely unconcerned with humans.

This makes for a pretty darn good Godzilla movie, albeit one that is clearly a deviation from most expectations (to the annoyance or disgust of some). It's interesting to see a Godzilla so clearly and actively motivated, though the design for this Godzilla is a bit off, being extremely dumpy and given creepy solid-white eyes that only enhance the malicious emphasis of the character this time around. Mizuo Yoshida is not to be criticized for his work, though, nor Fuyuki Shinada for his designs, at least not harshly. It's actually very well sculpted, and mostly works for this evil Godzilla, but is just a bit too tubby to be appropriately menacing from some angles Kaneko chooses. Still, it's good that the design differs as it does, because between the character changes, the varied approach and the new designs--all set to an unusually electronic score, albeit an effective one--gives the film the feeling of what Godzilla movies might be in an alternate universe, still entertaining and well-made, but different enough to remain recognizable but also recognizably different.

A very good entry in the series, but a very unusual and somewhat out of character one.

*A lame translation I'm guessing--either overly literal one or someone's idea of something that sounded "better."

Taps
Taps(1981)

"Tom Cruise in his second film role!" a sticker proudly proclaims on the 25th anniversary release of this film. It seems to have been added later, possibly to push sales of the film by riding the name of the biggest star of the lot. Sort of a shame, because the film has some better actors in it--Timothy Hutton (fresh off of his Oscar-winning role in Ordinary People), Sean Penn, George C. Scott, Giancarlo Esposito, Ronny Cox. Unfortunately (?) none of them ever wandered into the "movie star" realm (except a brief flirtation in the 1980s for Penn) that means that you just plaster their name all over things and people take interest, whether it's good or not. I'm not saying Cruise is necessarily a bad actor, or even that his role doesn't intrigue me, but simply that this is just a tag that screams of marketing over anything interesting in the movie itself. At least Cruise's role is reasonably large and it isn't jumping on a cameo to sell it.

At Bunker Hill Military Academy, Brian Moreland (Hutton) is part of the rising senior class, attending a brief and intimate dinner with the parting Cadet Major and the commander of the academy, General Harlan Bache (Scott), where he is promoted to Cadet Major, the head of the student body, for the next year. After this honour is bestowed, Moreland returns to his dormitory to see his roommate, Alex Dwyer (Penn) and fellow rising senior David Shawn (Cruise). Shawn has his company of "red berets" perform a drill in the hallway to honour Moreland, while J.C. Pierce (Esposito) congratulates him and offers to gather food for him from the care package fellow student Shovel (Jeff Rochlin). At the parade that celebrates the end of the school year, Bache announces the bad news--the school is to be closed in one year. Distraught but confident after a speech Bache gives Moreland in private, the students finally attend a last dance. Resentful "townies" catcall the dates the cadets are bringing and harass them from just outside the school grounds. A scuffle turns into a brawl, which Bache wades in to try to break up. When one of the locals jumps on Bache's back, he reaches around him and draws Bache's sidearm, the trigger squeezed in a brief moment, killing one of the locals. Bache is shocked that he managed to leave a round in the chamber and is carted away by the police. When a news report announces that now the school is to be closed immediately after this event, Moreland makes a plan to take back the school and hold it until they are given a chance to fight for its continuation. Many of the students who were to stay for the summer session join him in this, including even the youngest of cadets like Charlie Auden (Brendan Ward) and Derek Mellott (John P. Navin, Jr.). They take the arms that were stockpiled and hold the school against the police, accepting attempts by parents--including Moreland's own father, Master Sergeant Kevin Moreland (Wayne Tippet)--and eventually even the National Guard, represented by Colonel Kerby (Cox) as they doggedly fight to keep their school open and alive.

It's interesting enough to hold a position like I do on the military, never really able to discuss it logically with many, and yet another to see a film like this. I am neither the overtly militaristic type nor the anti-military type, and don't get along terribly well with the most fanatical elements of either. I think that the overly emphatic beliefs of those who devote the entirety of their minds to the idea of war are disturbing and out of touch with reality to a dangerous extent. I do not mean those who devote their lives, necessarily, as it is one thing to devote a life, and another to devote one's mind entirely. The opposite side has this silly idea that somehow you can have a country in this world and not maintain a military, or criticizes the military for forcing soldiers to accept killing and death. On the first thought, it's absurd when you live in a world where there are other people who will only respect or give pause for competing power. It can incite and promote conflict, to be sure, but it's highly unlikely that any country would be let alone--especially one that maintains a large role in world affairs--if they did not keep any form of defensive force. It wouldn't necessarily have to be used, of course (such as in aggressive actions of any kind), but the absence seems absurdly naïve to hope for. The second note, of training soldiers to accept death, is only logical: it's the only way to perform that job. This is a very strange position to hold, it seems, neither sneering at soldiers nor feeling the urge to salute their "endless, amazing, perfect duty and sacrifice" or what have you. I am opposed to conflict, but not to the idea of a military.

That's a pretty long discussion of my personal beliefs on the subject, I realize, but there's a reason for that. This film shows an interesting point of view on military training (even if it is technically civilian military training), with General Bache suggesting that Moreland should never be ashamed of humanity, and that it is humanity that keeps any leader from being a tyrant. The students are not all automatons or typically divisive. Shovel--whose name almost definitely comes from the idea of shovelling things into his face--is not constantly abused and taunted for his weight and eating, but neither is it ignored. "Plebs" (the new class of students) are harassed, but the understanding motivation of it, the idea that this is simply ritual, is actually conveyed to these new students instead of just openly abusing them. Few seem to be on power trips, or of that dangerous sort of future soldier that just wants to shoot things--with the notable exception of the overly aggressive Shawn. It's a view that building military leaders is an honourable affair, not something derided by director Harold Becker for its "insane militarism" nor steeled to a sharpened edge of "awesome badassness." Shawn is shown as dangerous--as either side of the issue should think he is--but nearly everyone else is muddled. Dwyer is not quite the sharp student that Moreland is, but Moreland is truly friends with him and respects him. He's also not a slacker in an open caricature sense, having a greater sense of humour and a more open conscience than anyone else, but never derided as a poor cadet for this reason.

It's a fascinating approach that makes the films points a lot easier to understand and digest. This is a stance that is rarely taken, with films usually either promoting the military agenda or slaughtering it wholesale, in either end case only ever preaching to the converted. The military and the building of officers is treated with respect and honour, drills, marching and the skills and leadership the school builds and maintains all being portrayed as affairs of disciplined and honourable intention. The military approaches Moreland begins to use to control the campus are not ruthless or bloodthirsty, and are rooted in this sense of honour he was given by General Bache. His motivation is solid and good, his intentions as well, and his actions, while not terribly smart or good, are generally well-carried out and reasonable, insofar as such actions can be. It's only after they've hold up in the school for multiple days that it begins to come clear what the movie is saying. This isn't a deplorable action by rebellious students as the outside world thinks (the outside world being a little cartoonish, but this is offset when it is contrasted with the cadets), it's a misguided action by cadets who mistake themselves for full soldiers. They have enough training that it ends up a relatively professional affair, but they are still young and not yet ready to take on the responsibility of the entire action for themselves. Most of the adults from the outside world bear nothing of Bache's respect for his students and deride them openly as insane or mere children, with only Kerby attempting in any fashion to actually understand and reach Moreland. He treats him with respect without pretending his actions are acceptable, but that only proves that Moreland is too lost in his nebulous definitions of "honour" and "duty" to really perform any action so grand.

For a cast this young, this is very well carried out. Scott (who, of course, is one of the ones who isn't young) has an unusually pleasant warmth to his role (at least, as compared to what I've seen him in before), being truly fatherly and kind to his students, respecting and honouring them in everything he does without going terribly lax on the discipline they are there to learn and receive. Hutton has wandered into a role that is pretty tough and full right after a similarly difficult one, and he proceeds admirably. A verbal confrontation between Kerby and Moreland through a fence manages to highlight both the skill of Cox and Moreland and of editor Maury Winetrobe, with some nods to Becker and those behind the cameras. There are lingering shots of purely physical emotional reactions on these characters that don't feel forced but contain no words, showing that Moreland is losing his grip on his belief in the righteousness of his cause just as he attempts to deal with the grief of the unfortunate happenings that have led to this conflict in the first place. It's a telling shot for Hutton especially, showing a fight to maintain the emotional neutrality that will allow him to carry this out as his grief and frustration fight to break him down. Penn is caught in that most interesting role, the slacker who is not quite a slacker, who is respected even by the best students, a truly good friend despite whatever flaws he has as a student. Cruise is the most caricatured of the characters, a hothead who wants nothing more than to be a soldier--so he can shoot things. He treats the whole thing like kids playing war, never fully recognizing the reality of actual conflict and death, the thing that Moreland struggles to acknowledge maturely despite never being given the chance to deal with the idea. Cruise is very solid and believably out of control, but isn't doing anything terribly complex at the same time. Evan Handler (who would go on to various sarcastic, vaguely-weaselly roles in the last decade or two) portrays yet another of the commanding officers, Lieutenant West, who is torn by a devotion to Moreland and a recognition that this is all out of their control, possibly the most mature of all the responses any of them has to the events. Esposito is a sort of a sidelong mirror to Penn, playing J.C. not as a polar opposite, but as another cadet who respects, admires and likes Moreland and does his duty, but does it more as a duty born of respect than friendship. He is not dropped completely into the role of regimented soldier, but he's edging more toward a soldier with hints of civilian than Penn's openly civilian attitude.

This isn't a perfect movie, of course, as the entire concept raises some questions as to what on earth would possess anyone to think that taking a school by force was a good way to be heard, but that is sort of the point at the same time. Even the very young Ward and Navin manage to bring a lot of character to their roles as "pleb" freshmen, mixing that growing sense of pride and duty with the fear of very young children. It's disconcerting to say the least, but that's the point as well: these are kids-in-training, not full-fledged soldiers, and they are not really prepared emotionally for this, no matter how well-trained they may be. The film is absolutely successful at this, and clever at choosing a back door into this idea and message, avoiding insult to the cadets it's portraying while criticizing them harshly but reasonably.

The French Connection

On a message board I used to wander daily, there were a number of action film fans, and the subject of the best car chase ever filmed often came up. Naturally this was often down to some famous contenders, and two titles in particular tended to stick in my mind, being some of the most renowned for their car chases in general: Ronin and The French Connection. I'd never seen either, but when they kept coming up, the titles would get just a little more firmly ingrained in my mind, and I'd at least be overtaken with curiosity by wondering what exactly these movies consisted of, and how one rated these car chases as better than any others. I saw Bullitt a few years back, so I've already seen that chase, as well as Ronin's (which I also saw a few years back). Now I've completed the trio of films most recognized and, more important for me, the pair that I heard about so many times.

Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy "Cloudy" Russo (Roy Scheider) are two cops in Brooklyn who work in narcotics, who are trying to get somewhere nearer to an actual source of heroin. Popeye's pursuit of the job even in the face of time off leads them to a bar where a man flashing money around catches his eyes. The men he's with are familiar faces to Popeye, so they begin to tail the man, Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco), until they stumble into Weinstock (Harold Gary), a man who smells dirty to everyone but comes out clean every time. They convince their superior Simonson (Eddie Egan, the actual cop Popeye is based on, his partner Sonny Grosso appearing as Bill Klein) to let them pursue things further, and find that the source is a Frenchman, Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), who has arrived with actor Henri Devereaux (Frédéric de Pasquale) as a cover and cold-blooded assassin Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi). Two wiretaps are how they luck into this and a meeting time for Boca and this source. Simonson gives them federal agent Mulderig (Bill Hickman, an actual stunt driver), who dislikes Popeye--who has no love for Mulderig either--and reveals Doyle's iffy past with "hunches." Charnier is smarter than the folks that Doyle and Russo are used to and easily makes them, making things difficult for everyone. Now Charnier has to find a way to make his deal with Boca in time for a real estate deal back in Marseilles, France, while Doyle and Russo must catch Charnier, Devereaux and Boca.

The only other factoid I had about this film as I sat down for it was that the chain of Popeye's restaurants actually had nothing to do with E.C. Segar's amusing cartoon strip creation and everything to do with Gene Hackman in The French Connection. This was news to me when I heard it a couple years back, and was almost the most intriguing thing about it. I never really connected the film as a Best Picture winner (or Best Actor, Best Screenplay and Best Director, really), and understood the car chase to be a car chase with two cars. I didn't remember the Academy Awards until I had already finished watching the movie, and had no idea about the chase until I saw it. I knew Hackman and Scheider were in it (which is fine by me, I like both of them a lot) and that Friedkin directed it, but Friedkin I know in a strange way, as I didn't enjoy The Exorcist when I watched it some years ago, and I've only seen Sorceror since then, and To Live and Die in LA, which I was severely disappointed by (though more because of a lead I disliked than anything else). Still, I have an intellectual respect for Friedkin by reputation that comes from respectable sources, so I counted it as a plus anyway.

As soon as it starts, the movie is filled with an immediacy driven by an unusual score from Don Ellis (who composed the soundtrack for the also-Scheider-starring The Seven-Ups, though that score bothered me) that is very light on melody, heavy on rhythm and sound. It's perfectly in keeping with the "induced documentary" feeling that Friedkin says he aimed for in making the film. It's an accent and a supporting prop, loud and brassy without being obnoxious or off-putting. It shows up momentarily and often almost out of the blue, playing underneath scenes that don't immediately show a need for that emotional intensity, thus giving it to them, being uncommon enough to let us know that this is something important without giving the slightest hint of what's about to happen. It's a pretty amazing effect, especially for a film nearly forty years old, because no one seems to have undercut this effect by overusing it--though I do feel like it has been tried. It makes you uneasy and uncomfortable and ramps up the tension even when nothing about the way things are acted or cut changes the feeling of what is being visually portrayed.

From there, it's clear that Friedkin has made a no-nonsense, perfectly economic film. Never is any time wasted, but at the same time it's not rapid cutting and brief, terse moments for cuts or scenes. Each cut and scene lasts just as long as it needs to for events to roll along and put forth all the information necessary to understand them. Similarly, dialogue is not built purely for exposition, but never lingers long enough to fall into any kind of forced, intended characterization. Friedkin does come from documentary work, but I almost disagree with the tone he says he intended. As I watched, I did not get the idea that this was documentarian, but at the same time it had the right tinges of it to build a fictional-story-based-on-fact into something that screamed of reality even as it was clear that it was only something that resembled it. The camera doesn't seem to know where everyone is going to be, or even everything, yet at the same time they're edited in to cut out the chaff of pondering a building while we wait between moments that drive the story. It's a perfect line between pure fiction film and documentary, creating some strange amalgamation of the two that is utterly fascinating for its hook of dramatic tension and the exciting tinge of real events--the reason people see a movie "Based on true events" or studios market them as such. It almost doesn't even matter that it actually is, because Friedkin has perfectly conveyed the idea anyway.

Hackman and Scheider are not used to carry the film because of this, because it would destroy the feeling of reality. Neither one is an actor who tries to steal the screen, though, with Hackman especially more interested and real acting and Scheider always seeming a cool character who just slides into roles and then back out of them and into the next one. It's not quite the same thing as a devoted character actor like Hackman, but it has the same feeling of relaxed reality to it. Their characters are not wonderful people, especially Doyle, and this is something that was once new--not that old at this point, in fact. Doyle is racist and obsessive, uninterested in anything but doing his job. He takes Cloudy along on bar trips to scope out possible targets for surveillance or busts, he criticizes his techniques on the job and spends days and nights on his surveillance without concern for much else. Cloudy is loyal and more passive behind Doyle's crass, smart alec obsessiveness, but strong enough to break up Doyle's conflicts and support his moves. Charnier is a strange counterpoint to this, an ultra-slick, suave and cosmopolitan sort of villain, neither twirling his moustache nor combing it into an ultra-slimy configuration. He knows what he's doing and it's what he does, the only thing he really shares with the two cops pursuing him. Rey is successful despite the mix-up that led to his hiring and his poor--by his admission, at least, prior to the film--French.

So, of course, I started talking about this film by bringing up the car chase. I'd say "you're probably wondering..." but I think things like car chases are silly to talk about, as I know I never got a handle on what was cool about any particular chase that I had never seen, so I don't expect anyone to want to hear what it's like or about. What it IS, though, is absolutely breath-taking. Popeye is not chasing another car but an el train above his car. The filming of this scene is unbelievable, clearly filmed in live traffic and swerving and diving at rapid speed through screeching cars as he lays on the horn. Like many of the truly great chases, there's not much music behind this. It's almost all engine sounds and the constantly blaring horn of Popeye attempting to keep people from driving into his path. Like the rest of the film, there's never a feeling that it's prepared and calculated, even as the camera knows exactly where it needs to be, even if it's just a bit behind or a bit ahead or a bit off. It never looks sloppy, but it always looks like it was dropped into the moment, capturing something already existing, even if it wasn't real.

This film was absolutely amazing, and I don't think I was expecting that. I thought it would be good, I thought it'd be engaging, but it was absolutely thrilling, the way thrillers rarely actually are. Usually they're too slick and calculated and fake to really entangle you, but the effect Friedkin creates is affecting and more than engaging, it's captivating--and I mean that in the sense of holding the viewer prisoner. There's no way out of the scene because it draws you in and locks you down and forces your eyes to watch, not because you necessarily want to know what happens next, though you may very well want to, but because you just absolutely have to know. It's not a possible lack of want that comes from a sick sense of pessimistic unease, but because you really don't know what's going to happen--you can tell it could be just about anything, this is too real to have a calculated ending (even though it does, of course, and a brilliantly enigmatic one--not lacking in closure and yet somehow open and inexplicable) and so maybe they won't catch him, mabye he won't get away, maybe he will--who knows? You have to know, though, because it's so well put together that you can't just turn away and shrug and let it go. Do yourself a favour: let this one drop its hooks into you and watch it straight through. Probably the most frenetic, kinetic film of this laidback kind, that has such energy without forcing it that it's almost unbelievable.

Fiddler on the Roof

I'm always a sucker for any film at least three decades old that receives some kind of special features-heavy DVD release, if it looks like the studio behind it really put their backs into moving things onto the discs. If I've heard of the film, I'll probably pick it up if the fancy edition drops to a price I consider reasonable. It doesn't guarantee I'll like it, but it generally means it's a film I "should" see. It's worse when it comes to musicals, which depend on someone's interest in the songs to a degree, or can, for some people. That means asking for opinions can be an iffy process, and that it's sort of a crapshoot picking such a thing up. Doesn't generally stop me, of course, as I have to treat musicals as crapshoots most of the time since I've watched so few in the first place, due to an early dislike of them.

Tevye (Chaim Topol, usually credited, like here, as just Topol) is the father of five girls in the village of Anatevka in Tsarist Russia. He introduces us to the village and describes its general nature and overall attitude toward the world, any white lies he tells easily countered by the scenery and characters behind him. Tradition is established as the order of the day with the first song, and then there is a brief interlude for the credits, after which we learn of the village matchmaker Yente (Molly Picon) and her news of a match found for Tevye's oldest, Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris), the rich butcher Lazar Wolf* (Paul Mann). The daughters closest in age to Tzeitel are excited at the idea of news for her because it means they're next, and next eldest Hodel (Michele Marsh) and Chava (Neva Small) sing of their hopes, only to have Tzeitel interrupt with her cynical fears that infect the rest. Tevye's wife Golde (Norma Crane) is the one who speaks to Yente and sends Tevye to meet with Lazar Wolf and attempt to broker an agreement for the arranged marraige. Tzeitel, though, wants to marry the poverty-stricken tailor Motel (Leonard Frey). Tevye is confronted with this affront to tradition that he values so much, and has to decide whether to relent, only to have his other daughters follow in her footsteps. Drifting revolutionary Perchik (Michael Glaser) catches the eye of Hodel, while the gentile Fyedka (Raymond Lovelock) catches Chava's. Interrupting this is also the encroaching policy of pogroms, brought about through the local Constable (Louis Zorich), who attempts to be reasonable within an unreasonable set of orders.

There's certainly more to the plot, and of course songs push the running time until it ends up just a tiny bit over three hours in total. This is no surprise for a musical from a stageplay, really, because many of those run such lengths anyway. It doesn't feel too long, though, and in fact runs about as quickly as three hours can. Not exactly "Really? Three hours?" sort of quick, but not "Ugh, is this over yet?" at all. There was complaint when the film was being made that Zero Mostel was not being cast as Tevye, because he had originated the Broadway role, but Topol did at least originate it in London. It was really Topol who put my foot into the door of watching this; I caught a flash of it once, about six years ago, while at the home of a friend of my then-girlfriend's parents** and was intrigued (but more interested, at the time, in my girlfriend and the--I think it was Christmas, that or Thanksgiving--dinner that was awaiting). I found him intriguing and interesting. He's not a perfectly pretty face, but has a strong voice and character. The dancing used in "If I Were a Rich Man" was what I caught, and I found it terribly interesting. Apologies to Mostel, but I can't separate him from The Producers in my head, and that just seems a bit weird for Tevye in my brain (though it probably wouldn't be if I saw it, really).

Topol is definitely the best part of the movie as a whole. When the story shifted to Perchik and Hodel in particular, I cringed a little. Occasionally Glaser looked a bit too much like he was picked for his looks, as did Marsh. Glaser and Lovelock both had the obnoxious--usually seemingly stage-born--habit of enunciating by edging in a hint of a posh British accent (stretched R's, for instance). It's grating, especially when surrounded by people working with Yiddish accents and mannerisms (Picon probably being the most enthusiastic about taking on such cultural mores). Neither really had the charisma, background or fire to really sell this, either, so it's a little nudge at the suspension of disbelief (or maybe a child jumping up and down on the bridge--suspension and all that). And Marsh's singing voice made me think she was only considering the song and singing, and not the character. This is one of the things I find offputting in musicals when it occurs, so it made the scenes with Marsh and Glaser the most uncomfortable. These are just nudges though, thankfully, especially because they are nowhere near the leading roles. Mann is probably the next most exciting actor, with a nice whiplash-inducing mood change in him.

The approach Norman Jewison took in directing this (after reminding the producers who called him in that, despite the suggestive name, he's not Jewish) is the kind that works best in adapting stage musicals: he envelops the feel of the stage musical in film-dressing, giving it the kind of life that preserves its origins while giving it something that original medium cannot. Dancing is never a focal point in a scene (with the possible exception of Topol's solo dancing), nor is singing. It's never framed to say, "And now they're going to dance!" or "Here's an actor singing!" There's no way to make someone bursting into song feel completely realistic or believable (even if some people might actually burst into song in reality, it's rarely so perfectly relevant), but it is possible to make it seem less jarring. That's what's achieved here, with framing and filming done to treat most of these scenes like dialogue in the way actors play and in the way the camera follows them. There's a different rhythm and movement inherent in this because they are singing and not talking, but it's not the rhythm that really draws one's eye to the fact of the song. The minimal dancing usually takes place only where appropriate: characters dance at a wedding, or in drunken celebration at a bar, or to express joy in a way that is not overly choreographed in feeling. Probably the most constructed of these scenes is the bar, where a group of Russians comes in to congratulate Tevye on the upcoming marriage of his daughter. They reel out dances that are widely recognized as "Russian," and often do so in clear lines or groups, but it all comes off through its cultural association as a way of establishing the Russians and matched to the appropriate nature of dancing in the scene, it doesn't come off strangely. It's also filmed from peculiar angles, and always with stationary crowds around watching (usually the Jews, who are somewhat confused by and wary of this intrusion), many from under a table or chair, resulting in a focus on feet without following them in an unnatural way.

The extra techniques included were most clear whenever Tevye was faced with some kind of decision as to whether to let others encroach on the way his life was currently being lived. First Lazar Wolf is frozen while Tevye ponders "aloud"--though the freezing of course tells us it is not aloud at all--whether to agree to let him marry Tzeitel. It occurs again whenever confronted with his daughters, though now, instead of freezing, they are suddenly many yards away from where they just were, which was right next to him. It's a clever method of continuing Tevye's established habit of asides, first with his narration and later with his discussions with God, which is always filmed with Tevye in the foreground and simply looking out of the scene in some direction that is near the camera (without being the camera). It's very effective and feels right for the character--as does, curiously, his tendency to burst into song, or dance (which he mostly just does with "If I Were a Rich Man"). There's a moment that comes from not from the camera or Jewison though--unless he suggested it--but from Topol that was probably my favourite. It's strange and momentary, but it was a perfect encapsulation of the character of Tevye, or at least what I liked about him. He's about to sing "Do You Love Me" to Golde, and he begins to get into the subject by picking aimlessly at a door frame, almost as if he were a child preparing to tell his childhood crush that he liked her. Tevye is like this; he's stubborn and interested in tradition, but is an honourable and good man and measures things, discussing them with God and trying to get a feel for what the truth is--even if it violates his previously held beliefs.

The songs are not all as catchy as the ones that I think are the most famous ("If I Were a Rich Man" and "Matchmaker"), but that may be due to the fact that I have not heard them near so much. Still, none bear the marks of unpleasant musical convention for me--though they often happily end on the horn blast that marks the moment where the cast would freeze in some productions of any musical--perhaps thanks to John Williams' choices in arranging them, but I imagine more due to the songs themselves. This is perhaps the most important element of the film for some people, but not me. I like to think of musicals as a medium in the genre sense--a way of telling a story and conveying an idea (like the changing of traditions and the established way, in this case) rather than a showcase for the elements of the medium or genre. To draw an absurd comparison (albeit one that shouldn't be surprising from me), it's the difference between horror that uses the fantastic for itself and as part of a story, and horror that throws a story out as a showcase for gory setpiece murders. It's possible to blur the line (in horror AND musicals, I mean), but that's not at issue here. This is definitely more a story being told that happens to have good songs in it, which makes sense since it did come from stories originally. Regardless of the detail, though, this is how I like my musicals.

*I harp on the morons who wouldn't stop laughing at the dog named "Homo" in The Man Who Laughed, but I definitely heard this name and thought, "...I did not just hear that." I continued to think that for the rest of the movie, then read the credits and yes, barring a little spelling, I DID hear that. I did not, however, laugh aloud at it--even though I was by myself. It's weird, but it's a name that happens to sound like Laser Wolf. That doesn't mean it IS Laser Wolf. Even if that's exactly what you hear. Over and over.

**Sorry, unless I just made up the relation, I couldn't make that any simpler.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
½

Some have called it one of the worst films ever made, and a Pulitzer Prize winning writer called it a masterpiece. I couldn't remember why I had vague notions of dislike attached to the movie--dislike from others, I mean--until I started wandering around trying to find out why. It wasn't hard; a lot of people seem to think the movie is just irretrievably awful, though it's the only film Sam Peckinpah ever had final cut on, and the one he apparently called his most personal. It's to be expected--just look at the title!--that this is not a film that was going to do anything to shake his nickname of Bloody Sam. I have seen many Peckinpah films, actually, which is unusual when I'm reviewing something by a director whose name is so well known, but this time I can point to reviews of The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Ride the High Country, and say I've also seen The Wild Bunch, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Straw Dogs and The Getaway.

Theresa (Janine Maldonado) is the young daughter of the clearly powerful El Jefe (Emilio Fernández), who summons her with tough guys who say her father is asking for her. She's pregnant and the way she clutches at her belly makes it clear that this child is relevant to her summons. Taken in hand by the two men, Theresa is held roughly and El Jefe demands to know who the father of her child is. Shrinking in no way from finding this out by any means necessary, he pries the name from his daughter--Alfredo Garcia. He offers a million dollars to whoever brings him the head of Garcia, a veritable caravan of eager, greedy bounty hunters leaving his estate to find the man. Spreading out, Quill (Gig Young) and Sappensly (Robert Webber, more on him later) wander into a bar after trying numerous other leads, and find a man behind a piano (Warren Oates), playing and chatting up the customers of the bar. They latch onto this man, Bennie, when no one else will give them any information. They offer him a miniscule chunk of cash for his services, and he accepts, following his own local contacts. He's told that Elita (Isela Vega) is most likely to know Garcia's whereabouts, which leads him to a swearing bout, because Elita is his girlfriend (albeit a prostitute). Elita tells him that Garcia is already dead because of an accident, and so Bennie decides to gamble for more money from the bounty hunters. He argues them up to ten thousand, and heads off. Unknowingly, he and Elita are followed by two of the other bounty hunters already on Garcia's trail.

It's worth noting that the Pulitzer Prize winning writer is deserving of it for his writing skill, but it's also worth noting that he's a colossal moron. I'm speaking, of course, of Roger Ebert. The unfortunate fact of this is that he's not consistently wrong OR right. He hates movies for stupid reasons, or praises them for worse ones. So, that does not mean that I should have felt dread if I'd known he said this was a masterpiece, nor excitement. I don't know Michael Medved's opinions or qualities very well, so I have little to say about his claim that this is one of the worst movies ever made, except that I was pretty sure he'd seen enough movies to have actual bad ones on such a list. Shows what I know about him, I guess.

This (as the "Peckinpah Scholars" commentary suggest repeatedly) is not an easy film. It's not a fun film--though it can be funny--and it's not a pleasant one. It's dark and it's violent (most people expect these things if they know Sam, though, at least) and it's thoroughly unrelenting in its cynical feeling about humanity and the world. Many people die (the trailer claims 25, I feel that's probably rounded, even if it's rounded up, but am not the type to go back and count), there are some unpleasant scenes of brief torture and assault and the like, and a pair of bikers (Kris Kristofferson and Donny Fritts) come upon Bennie and Elita in the wilderness only to take a liking to her--with an obvious end intention. Bennie and Elita are sympathetic characters, even if likable may or may not be the right word, to it's not a hollow or detached set of unpleasant events either. That isn't to say that the film is just crushingly depressing or hopeless in tone, but rather in its "message" about the world. It moves along and doesn't leave you with that feeling that you just want it to end because it's so horrifically awful, but you are still shaking your head and hoping something goes just a little better. There's a secret satisfaction that this hinges on, as we do have a protagonist to get through the whole movie with, after all. We know we've got Bennie to the end for sure, because this story can't continue without him.

Oates is not an actor whose work I know very well. I've seen small roles from him in 1941 (and considering I've forgotten most of that movie, it's no surprise, I think, that I don't remember him in it), Badlands, Shenandoah, Ride the High Country, Stripes and In the Heat of the Night. I honestly couldn't tell you where in any of those, so I'm left primarily with The Wild Bunch, where I still don't have a role held down in my head. He's fantastic here, allegedly playing a version of Sam himself, an ex-pat in Mexico who thinks of himself as a tough guy but who stumbles when faced with actual tough men. He doesn't lack the actual skill (he's pretty good with a gun), but he is miserable at the attitude and the mannerism. Gig Young and Robert Webber show the opposite, both cold and calculating in their approach to the whole business, disinterested in anything else and willing to do anything to get what they want. This was a bit disorienting when Webber's face kept floating through my head as someone with glasses and an easy, friendly manner of speech. I couldn't identify the role until I looked back through his work and there it was: 12 Angry Men. He was the ad-exec with funny anecdotes who didn't pay attention at first. This is essentially a complete opposite role, as he is absolutely creepy and terrifying as a clearly psychopathic sadist. Vega has the right balance to match Oates, an outward vulnerability of sorts--playing on accepted social conditions for women--that hides a superior strength, unlike Oates' attempts to be a tough guy that make him look ridiculous.

There's a lot to be said about the film in terms of its expressions of love lost or unrecognized, the possible costs of greed, the nature of revenge and trying to achieve it (and I mean this in the Chan-Wook Park sense, incidentally). This is most of what makes it unhappy as a film, because we see a certain madness encroach on Bennie, as well as the circling whirlwind of violence that surrounds the search for Alfredo Garcia's head. Not everyone harmed is even involved, some are completely innocent, but the greed and vengeance drive violence into their vicinity and bring violence into their lives anyway. Bennie manages to maintain his "innocence" in the audience's eyes not by avoiding moral transgressions, but by justifying them. Not justifying in a way that makes them acceptable, but in a way that tells us both that he is trying to convince himself and believes what he says after a fashion, and that he is really not completely sure, but has devoted himself to this and to trying to get this, this last chance to escape his dead-end job.

So, was Ebert wrong? Not this time, not at all. The film is clearly doing exactly what it intends to, with all of its violence and darkness, and it does it very, very well.

The Long Goodbye
½

Robert Altman usually inspires a lot of confidence in more "independent" movie-watchers, and is often a bit off-putting for many "regular" movie-watchers. I know my father was in the group of people who cannot stand Altman's habit of over-lapping dialogue. As someone who is often filtering conversations in and out (one might call it eavesdropping in some circumstances, but never anywhere but in public places), this is very natural and lacks distraction for me most of the time. I'd also heard many times that this film was, yes, a Raymond Chandler adaptation, but not in the spirit of any of the other adaptations around, and a more unusual interpretation of them, modern and unusual. So, I did know this going in (thankfully, it seems).

Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) is a private eye in Hollywood, living alone with a cat that refuses to touch any food that is not a specific brand. When a substitute fails, Marlowe goes out to buy more cat food (and brownie mix for his often half-nude neighbors) and returns to find his friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) coming to ask him for a favour--a quick trip to Tijuana. Lennox is scratched up, but Marlowe notes that this is just a result of Lennox getting in a fight with his wife Sylvia again. Two cops wake Marlowe up the next day, though, and arrest him, asking him where he took Lennox. When he refuses, he finds out Sylvia is dead, but knowing his friend could not have done this, refuses to speak against him or otherwise cooperate. Let free after three days, he finds out Lennox apparently committed suicide in Mexico and so the cops are disinterested in continuing any investigation. Marlowe takes on a case listlessly anyway, because of course there's no funding to pursue the investigation on his own. The case, however, is that of Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt), who wants him to find her husband, famous writer Robert Wade (Sterling Hayden)--a couple who happens to live in "The Malibu Colony"--the same complex that the Lennoxes lived in. Marlowe takes on the job for itself, but doesn't resist the urge to poke around and see if these two know anything of Terry and Sylvia. Wade is discovered under the care of Doctor Verringer (Henry Gibson), but entwined in all of this is Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell), a gangster who has unresolved money issues with Wade and lost $350k in Terry's disappearance, leading him to threaten Marlowe's well-being.

Much has been made of the changes and liberties Leigh Brackett (who of course scripted Bogie/Hawks' The Big Sleep, which is also a Chandler adaptation) and Robert Altman took when making this adaptation, some of it appreciative, much of it damning. Many are most displeased with Gould's performance as Marlowe. This Marlowe is not a snappy wit, a sharp dresser or particularly suave. He mumbles and makes smart-ass remarks without regard for who hears them, shambles and stumbles from place to place, though he still seems to know his business well enough to work most people and situations to his advantage--within reason. It's not the Marlowe we know, and that's a given, really. It's not a bad one though; he's an anachronism in one sense, always wearing a two piece suit, smoking constantly and driving a car straight out of the fifties, but modern in his manner and sense of humour. As long as you can deal with these changes, the film ought to do well for you. Why should it do well? A good question, of course, and one I intend to answer as best I can.

Marlowe is, in this transition that traps him firmly in the modern age but leaves his morals, principles and approach to life mired in decades lost, an every day guy. He's not smoother, quicker or better than everyone else, but he's not a total chump, either. He is still the everyman of noir, but without the hard-boiled edge that most of those protagonists had in a decent scrape, even if the best could be gotten of them on occasion. This edge of believability is necessary for the world Altman is putting together (helped by the always able-bodied DP Vilmos Zsigmond and his constantly-in-motion camera chosen for the film by Altman), because it's a world more readily identifiable as "real" for its modernity.We can accept Gould's Marlowe in the real world, whereas we could not accept the Bogart one because it is too pat--it's fun pat, mind you, and not a kind I'm at all opposed to, but one that simply wouldn't fit in a world portrayed as "real." He does have a quickness to his sense of humour that strengthens him into a slightly elevated place where we accept him simultaneously as "a protagonist," though, but in a way that only makes him seem like one of those funny people you might know--or at least one of those people you might know who sure thinks they're funny. It's a strong character and a fun one--as long as you aren't constantly thinking of it as "not the Marlowe I know!" (which is the same approach I take to the upcoming Robert Downey Jr./Guy Ritchie version of Sherlock Holmes--though that doesn't guarantee it will turn out well, it at least gives it the opportunity to).

Surrounding Gould we have a strong cast, from Nina van Pallandt's first English-language role to Sterling Hayden's brilliantly outrageous but tender frustrated writer, storming and ranting with the best of them, but easily showing it's all to make up for an easily wounded sense of pride and easily tarnished sense of self-worth. Mark Rydell, first off, shocked me in his performance. I saw his name in the credits and thought, "Really?! The director of The Cowboys and On Golden Pond?!" and then forgot about it, only to discover he had the role of the psychotic Marty Augustine. The role is commanding and scene-stealing, vicious and cold, but with that demented sense of egocentric humour that makes him all the more scary, and all in a role that sort of made me think of Harlan Ellison (which I mean in a good way to both of them). Henry Gibson starts out the film with the kind of quiet mouseyness that seems to define most of his work, but that turns into a sort of Napoleonic manipulation of power later. And let's not forget a fun little cameo from an anti-establishment cellmate--David Carradine. Only appropriate for me to have stumbled across him today, the day of his death.

The tone of the film is what's most fascinating though. John Williams and Johnny Mercer co-wrote the title theme, and simply re-organized and re-recorded it for all appropriate scenes to form almost the entirety of the film's music. Many scenes are not ended by sharp cuts, dissolves or crossfades, but by zooming in on background details--be they waves rolling in, half-naked neighbors, reflections in foreground windows or anything else--and then choosing one of those types of transitions. The effect is that the zoom is the real end of the scene, done in a way that seems to clarify that there is a world beyond the events we are being told about, much like Altman's over-lapping dialogue approach. Things are going on behind and around our characters that have no effect on them, no relation to them and no real importance to the story, but they're still there. It instills a greater sense of reality, as Altman also records sound at equal volume no matter what the circumstances. When filming Marlowe's interrogation through an observation window, the sound is muffled as it would be from behind that window. Sometimes dialogue is completely inaudible, characters seen speaking through a window at a distance, to reflect the fact that the words themselves are not important in this context, so much as their isolation from the spot at which we're seeing them being spoken--at one point to show Marlowe's hidden position and at another to show what the characters speaking are unaware of. This kind of reality is rarely dealt in, because it's difficult to maintain, off-putting to many and somewhat disorienting for its contradiction of expectation. It works very effectively here, though, highlighting the few instances of out and out violence by making them a good bit more disturbing and shocking for their relatively realistic surroundings.

So, no, this isn't a great "Philip Marlowe" movie, but it IS a great Philip Marlowe movie--it's an updating of the character that acknowledges complete cultural changes, in part by mocking and satirizing them, with knocks at clichés and ideas that were once omnipresent, and in other parts by ignoring them completely in favour of this more modern approach. This may now be my favourite Altman.

Point Break
Point Break(1991)
½

Other than the fact that it has remained a sort of cult favourite of its own accord, I think Hot Fuzz is easily responsible for much (if any?) resurgence this film has seen in the last few years. I know my interest was re-ignited some time ago when I discovered Kathryn Bigelow had directed it, which is a very good thing to me--since she was responsible for Near Dark, in all honesty probably my favourite vampire film of all time. I also saw this movie on TV, sometime shortly after its release, because one of my parents was watching it (I can't recall which, though by the nature of the film I'm more inclined toward my mother, but it's so far back I could only make wild guesses, really). It has its reputation more from its stars than anything else--people think of Patrick Swayze and they think of Dirty Dancing or Roadhouse (though now they may think "pedophile"*), then they think of Keanu Reeves and his horrific accent in Bram Stoker's Dracula, or
Ted Logan--or any of a number of other very wooden roles he's played. Sticking Keanu--with his Ted reputation--into surfing, well, now...it's the perfect mash-up of surfer stereotypes in a character and a film. It's not too hard to understand why the film is, then, snickered at.

Johnny Utah (Reeves) is a newly Quantico-graduated FBI Agent, assigned to Los Angeles and the bank robbery division. His partner is 22-year veteran Pappas (Gary Busey), who is not the favourite agent of their superior Harp (John C. McGinley) or their fellow agents. Pappas has a theory about the incredibly effective team of bank robbers known as the Ex-Presidents because of their rubber ex-President masks (Nixon, LBJ, Carter and Reagan) who have never been caught, despite 27 robberies over three years. Pappas' theory is especially unpopular, because it seems ludicrous and random--he believes the Ex-Presidents are surfers. His plan to prove this involves Utah going undercover as a surfer to attempt to find these guys. The contact he chooses is the person who saves him on his first (untrained) attempt at surfing: Tyler (Lori Petty). Pappas is incredulous at this contact, but she teaches Johnny to surf and introduces him to local surf guru known as Bodhisvatta, or "Bodhi" for short (Swayze). It's with his help that Utah escapes the wild aggression of an extremely suspicious group of surfers--Warchild (Vincent Klyn),** Bunker (Chris Pedersen), Tone (Anthony Kiedis), and Archbold (Dave Olson). Pappas and Utah are given their suspects, and now only need to take them down.

In starting to watch this movie, I knew basically instantly that in fact I was not being set-up for a movie that was just a good action movie, fun, exciting and adrenaline-pumping. A score by Mark Isham opens the movie with beautiful, silhouetted images of surfing set to a dully throbbing, low-pitched synthetic score. Intercut with this are the rain-soaked images of Johnny Utah's test at target shooting. I knew immediately that I was right to have faith in Kathryn Bigelow being behind this, though I also watched as more and more familiar and pleasing names crossed the screen that were previously (and probably still, for most) dwarfed by the two stars. John C. McGinley, who I think is going to be sadly always referred to as "Oh yeah, Perry Cox!" to most people of my generation as if he hasn't done much better work? Gary Busey, known to be utterly out of his mind, but always incredibly engaging as an actor? Lori Petty, who is an atypical choice for leading lady but who has a lot more spirit than many of those simplistic pretty faces? Hell, this doesn't even cover the names I didn't recognize. We have poor baby-faced James LeGros as Bodhi's pal Roach (who is too strange looking to ever have a leading role--I think, but who is continuing on with Bigelow after a brief appearance in Near Dark). We have Lee Tergesen as the psychotic Rosie, who I couldn't place to a specific role no matter how I tried until I realize that, yes, he was the replacement for Bill Paxton in the television version of Weird Science. We have John Philbin, who played the rather geeky Chuck in Return of the Living Dead (but reveals in the special features for this film that he was an actual surfer). Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, for crying out loud. And, of course, a brief (and uncredited) appearance by Tom Sizemore!

Still, the cast aside, what's most impressive about this film is how it does not resemble other action films. Apparently some have said Bigelow gave it a "softer touch" via her femininity, but this is pretty absurd. There's a little more truth to the love scenes, but it's actually a little colder and harder truth rather than a schmaltzy truth. Beyond that, a scene that involves a lawnmower actually made me think, for about two seconds, "Gosh, I wish Bigelow would do a horro--oh, right." "She'd be good at it," I thought in that brief moment. Of course, I was right, but not making the right synapses fire at the right time I didn't realize that I already knew she was good at it because she HAS done it. So it isn't softer, not in the least. There is a shoot-out leading immediately into a car chase leading immediately into a foot chase leading immediately into gunfire. There's even a makeshift flamethrower in the middle of all of this, and it's all incredibly intense. It's filmed in tight shots, especially the footchase, and avoids the usual gag of the innocent bystander sneaking a note of buffoonery into the scene. There is, of course, one bystander who beats at Johnny Utah, but it's not exactly unbelievable since he just destroyed her glass door and a number of items right behind it in his chase. Otherwise, though, faces of the bystanders knocked down and pushed aside are barely glanced at, keeping the focus of the scene on the actual pursuit. It's always right behind the actors (or stuntmen, I think stuntmen did these scenes, but the point remains) and never leaves away from them for a cheap sight gag that interrupts the tension.

The adrenaline junkie activities, too, are well-filmed and avoid any real element of unintentional cheese. Skydiving is often filmed with plenty of room to keep stuntmen looking enough like actors while still showing off the actual skydiving, with close-up shots constructed in a way that is very helpful in tying together the close-ups to the wide shots. The surfing does the same, with everyone filmed in silhouette when their entire body is visible, making it a part of the "language" of the picture that surfers are shown in silhouette and thus maintaining the illusion that it is the same person in the actual waves as the actor we know to be playing the character. The bank robberies are not overly theatrical, but rapidly cut to emphasize their rapidity, and sleek and mechanical without feeling staged to give us the sense that these are professionals. When we learn later that it is a concerted effort to achieve the end goals via pure intimidation and instillation of fear, the scenes fit even better.

It's actually worth noting that the actors in this film, even beyond those you expect (or should expect) to be good, are uniformly pretty excellent, or near enough to it. Considering the wild variance in performances from some over their careers, one is inclined to believe that the cast and crew are very correct in suggesting Bigelow deserves far and away the most credit for this film. Keanu has intensity where necessary, though he does maintain that stoic distance throughout, but a scene where Lori Petty as Tyler calls attention to his distant scowl sort of seals the performance as utterly appropriate for the character, sealing Keanu into that sheath of "Johnny Utah." Swayze is absolutely magnetic as the intensely charismatic and philosophical Bodhi, with an appropriate wildness to him behind the calm Bodhi is known for. Busey is as over-the-top and out there as always, but it's right for the character. His interactions with Reeves and everyone else are so unbelievably organic and natural that it's easy to lose him in the role. He smacks of a guarded man with amusingly open idiosyncrasies who will be prickly until he trusts someone, but who is more than happy to do so. Petty has the kind of defensive-but-vulnerable feeling one feels ought to come from someone who has suffered a loss like Tyler has (one that Utah exploits, no less, thus bringing in the vulnerability), especially when she chooses to run with a group as known for insular behaviour and territoriality as surfers.

I was expecting the film to be better than its reputation with snobs, but I didn't quite expect it to be this good. I'm not surprised when there's someone like Bigelow at the helm--now I really DO need to see Strange Days--but it's still good to see something this stylistic and pretty without it resorting to degradation of its status as action movie. It's not Terrence Malick kind of pretty, it's Bigelow kind--very, very well shot and rich with feeling and suspense in the very colours and images of each frame. It's a subtle art but a very effective one that she uses.

*If you don't know what I'm talking about and your heart skipped a beat, fear not, Swayze is not (to the best of my knowledge) any kind of pedophile, he just played one on TV.
Okay, film, but come on. That just wouldn't replicate the old phrase right.
If you're still lost, Donnie Darko.

**Weird trivia: Klyn played "Utah Johnny Montana" in The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.. Johnny Utah was named a la Joe Montana. Coincidence? You decide.

The Ox-Bow Incident

In essence, the presence of Henry Fonda was enough for me to decide to watch this film. Fonda's the kind of actor who is just always worth watching (at least, in all my experience), and a film like this has a strong enough reputation in and of itself that it made it a no-brainer. Of course, as always, I waited for it to be a reasonable enough price that fell into my hands (which adds that thread of excitement to the acquisition itself) before I picked it up. I was out of the mood for westerns, or perhaps even an impression of the film that didn't match its actual nature, for some time now and so put it off, but (as one might guess from the fact that I'm reviewing it) decided to watch it today.

Gil Carter (Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan) are two drifters who wander into the town of Bridger's Wells, Nevada to find something to do. They happen upon the local bar and ask what there is to do, the local drunk Smith (Paul Hurst) wandering about behind them, and surly rancher Farnley (Marc Lawrence) starting a fight with Gil over the idea that he might be a rustler because he's new in town. When Art takes Gil out to clear his head (and his stomach) after his many drinks and short fight, a rider comes careening into town on horseback only to run full tilt into the bar and announce the death of Farnley's friend and partner Larry Kinkaid. Smith continues his bemused and drunken tirades at this, encouraging the idea of forming a lynching posse to find the men responsible. Others chip in with their own belief that hanging is the best approach, with local shop proprietor Arthur Davies (Harry Davenport) acting as the only voice of the law and reason, suggesting the men should be given trial before a hanging, but finding his voice lost to Farnley's anger, Smith's cold sense of humour, and the voices of many other men who are so fully in favour of it. Davies sends Croft and Carter to bring Judge Tyler (Matt Briggs) and the Sheriff back to talk sense and law into the men. Unfortunately, only the Sheriff's deputy is present, Deputy Mapes (Dick Rich), who Croft and Carter were already warned would be no help. Tyler and Davies are no help in stopping the mob, who manage to ensnare the religious Sparks (Leigh Whipper) as they go to find the three men accused of being responsible in the middle of the night. The lead they gain comes from Major Tetley (Frank Conroy), who brings his son Gerald (William Eythe) and assisstant Poncho (Chris-Pin Martin), who identify three men leading some of Kinkaid's cattle. They find them in the middle of the night, being Juan Martinez (Anthony Quinn), Donald Martin (Dana Andrews) and Alva Hardwick (Francis Ford). A makeshift trial and what can only be described as a kangaroo court proceeds to try the men, to the frustration of the handful of souls interested in real justice.

I shrugged at dropping this disc in today because the running time is only 75 minutes, and that's usually a mark of fast enough pacing that I ought to be drawn in quickly even if my instinct is not to go for a film of such an age, with the expectations that follow it (an extra-staginess being at the forefront, as well as a similar feeling of melodrama). Imagine my surprise to find the film was almost devoid of music, very subdued and terse in dialogue. It's not like other westerns of the time, and it's not really specifically a western at all, though of course it has the setting and the mentality of a world that is still being formed, with civilization meeting the wilderness that lacks a specifically drawn system and clashing over this. There isn't really a starring role, either, for all that it's called a Fonda picture. It drifts in and out of focus on characters, with the interesting feeling that Croft and Carter are our windows into this town and its people, and the events taking place, without having voice-over or other narration to tell us this directly, which allows the film to move completely over and follow another group or pair of characters at any given time. We have our own view of things, but we have the connection of, okay, it is primarily Croft, but still not exclusively.

The film is actually pretty dark, with Smith's sense of humour about hanging being slightly amusing but mostly disturbing (I'll resist the similar sense of humour that wants to call his actions "gallows humour"), and the coldness of Farnley that is borne not of emotionless evil or clichéd "bad guy-ness," but of loyalty to a friend of many years. We're not opposed to Farnley getting justice, certainly, we're just wary of whether this will give it to him, and the manner in which he's carrying it out. Tetley is probably the most vile, using the events as an excuse to try to "man up" Gerald, dressed constantly in a Confederate uniform (that is alluded to be nothing more than gesture, and not the actual relic of his own past battles) to feed his sense of pride, honour and authority, which are all trapped in his clear lust for control and power, to be perceived as something he clearly isn't but desperately wants to be. The sick joke of this is that no one really respects him, despite his belief that his actions will encourage it. Mapes is not much better, also interested in power, but more open and clumsy about it, bear-like in manner and appearance as he attempts to prove that he has authority as a Deputy, even when he doesn't, feeling that somehow being made a legal source of power gives him power beyond the law that bestowed it on him.

Carter and Croft are not saints, either, both being reluctant to get too terribly involved for fear that the mob could turn on them as drifters, while Gerald's growing sense of disgust and discomfort at the events is not enough to give him power over his cowardice. Even Davies oversteps his bounds of goodness as he tries to use a letter Martin writes to his wife to prove to Tetley that the group is innocent, enraging Martin, who feels that the letter is no one else's business. Sparks is the most consistently good, but still does little to actually interfere with the actions that he claims are budging too far into the territory of God. Smith and Jenny Grier (who is played by Jane Darwell) are the most despicable in character, though this relegates them to the role of assistantship to the ones who actually attempt to have control over the mob. Neither seems to feel any concern over guilt, being more interested in actually hanging people than worrying about who to hang or whether they should be hanged.

Performances all around are actually somewhat more in the style that Fonda himself was known for, all very quiet but pointed, with economic dialogue and action. Anthony Quinn manages one of the less embarrassing European-as-Mexican performances of the western era, looking less unrealistically and falsely swarthy, and speaking Spanish well enough to be at least taken as a fluent learner, even if not a native speaker. His character is also interestingly distant, disinterested in defending himself in the face of a group of people who clearly have no interest in doing anything but what they already plan to do, even as the seemingly honest Martin tries his best to answer truthfully and defend the three men, including the extremely confused Hardwick, who makes vague attempts at defense that even he can't keep track of, only to be reduced to begging when convinced they might actually go through with their hanging plans. It's amazing how well-developed and rounded all these characters feel despite the low level of open characterization the film has, which is a credit to the performers and to director William A. Wellman.

Much of the film--forced by wary 20th Century Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck to film on sets despite being set outdoors--is shot with sharp editing (there are not many cross-fades and fades, despite the relative popularity of that approach around that time) and an interesting focus on closeups. There are some especially interesting movements chosen, occasionally focusing on a character as they rant about the justice of hangings as the camera slowly zooms in on them, or occasionally the opposite in other scenes, all serving to push the character into a sort of emotional focus as well, in a way that I don't know if I can fully describe. It just seems to strangely magnify the character rather than the image or the actor, allowing us to see the flaws and imperfections of what they say more clearly, despite the fact that nothing about what they say is being audibly enhanced.

A damn fine movie.

Repo! The Genetic Opera
½

My interest in this film fluctuated wildly as I heard mixed reviews (I think, perhaps, the most mixed reviews I've ever heard--utter loathing and absolute love, but that's probably just the fault of my memory) and saw the cast and watched the trailer. Some faces and names were interesting (Anthony Stewart Head, Paul Sorvino, Bill Moseley, Ogre, I mean, Kevin, I mean Nivek....from Skinny Puppy) and some were not, or were even cause to think about maybe NOT seeing the film (Paris Hilton, Sarah Brightman...).. The concept intrigued me, but I wasn't sure about the musical option--which could be either fantastically engaging or intensely obnoxious and uncomfortable.

Shilo Wallace (Alexa Vega) is the daughter of Nathan (Head), confined to her room by a blood disease, and thus almost unaware of the world around her. It's the distant future, and massive organ failure has led to the rise of GeneCo, a company that leases organs to people. By appropriately swinging their growing influence, the company manages to push through a bill that legalizes the repossession of organs on which loans have defaulted. GeneCo employes "Repo Men" for this purpose, and the most prominent one is Nathan. This is not a simple matter of employment, though, as there is a twisted and tragic story behind Nathan, his daughter, her mother and the current owner of GeneCo, Rotti Largo (Sorvino). Rotti and Nathan loved the same woman, the mother of Shilo. Rotti holds Nathan to an oath over her to keep him in his employ, while trying to contend with his selfish children Pavi (Ogre), Luigi (Moseley) and Heather Sweet (Hilton). Wandering around outside the endless tragedy of these lives, but affecting them, are the Graverobber (Terrance Zdunich, who co-created and wrote the film) and Blind Mag (Brightman), who is GeneCo's face and spokesperson for her beautiful voice.

This is a musical, in case that somehow has not yet reached you. It's also a movie interested in gore (using the name of director Darren Lynn Bousman to market it, because he produced some of the Saw films) and horror and science fiction ideas. It's filled with ideas, really, some of which are rather Grand Guignol--especially the idea of a man who repossesses organs from living defaulters. Drugs marketed specifically to take advantage of their addictive nature but bootlegged by the Graverobber from corpses, addiction to surgery (the phrase alone has tinges of bands like Cannibal Corpse, Pungent Stench and a more clumsy Carcass) and the melodramatic enhanced clichés that make up the Lotti children--Sweet being the surgery addict, Pavi wearing other faces over his scarred one and womanizing constantly. It's all incredibly over-the-top, and one had better know that going into this. It's absurd and ridiculous and there's no way around it. The music is not designed to be like pop songs with clearly rhyming lyrics, though it often has something rather like a chorus.

The sanely critical reviews I read said that the film overreaches itself, has too much for its budget, and this isn't an unfair take on it. It is reaching further than its budget would allow, and it does show, but it does very well with what it has, actually. The world is pretty fully realized (though it often shows that it's indoors, in truth, when it seems like it oughtn't) and interesting visually, all lit in bizarre and garish colours, with costuming and sets all very impressive and unusual. The story is solid and engaging, twisty enough to hold your interest without needing to be as ridiculous as the setting and effects are, which they are supposed to be as well. A lot of the music has a nice tinge of catchiness, with very appropriate lyrics.

However, there are definitely some flaws here. Many of the lyrics are, frankly, juvenile in their angst and melodrama. Some of the music is a little simplistic, too, and that's definitely the biggest failing. It's occasionally a little awkward, though it's all earnest enough in its performance that it usually works just fine anyway. Of course, it's also somewhat humourous (deliberately, naturally) so that can often offset this (with the distinct exception of "17," which is an awful and ridiculous and stupid song), and also offset the other problem: Bill Moseley and Ogre are not opera singers. Really, no one in the cast is except Brightman, and possibly Sorvino--who at least seems to know the style well enough to fake it if he hasn't, and it shows. It's not offensive, but it has the same awkwardness as the occasionally deficient lyrics.

Interestingly, the most exciting roles, at least vocally, were from Sorvino and Zdunich. Brightman and Head have great voices for different reasons, and possibly the most engaging songs as a result, but Zdunich and Sorvino manage to bring character to their voices instead of either performance or trying to push character into the voice (which is what Moseley does--which is actually probably the best approach for a man who strikes me as a non-singer, to be fair to him). Sorvino's menacingly tortured and torturous Lotti Largo comes out in his dark laughter and his well-paced singing, that is close to spoken word in a sense until it comes to appropriate crescendos. Zdunich, of course, is devoted to the role because he originated it, and it shows. He smirks and smiles in perfect ways for his extremely "goth" look, which works very well for both him and the character. His songs make his character very well-defined, and he uses his body and his face to enhance the songs and his singing. Hilton, for the record, is neither offensive nor problematic (and the cast and crew said she was actually fun to work with, even!).

It's a film that trips itself ups a number of times, but it's still a fun experience if you are willing to forgive its limitations and appreciate the insane aesthetic and gory interests behind it.

The Illusionist

After a long hiatus from film-watching, I came back and finished watching this. Of course, it came out at the same time as The Prestige and will likely be forever entwined in the public conscious with that other film. Maybe not "forever," I guess, but certainly for a long time. I've seen The Prestige, saw it in theatres, in fact, and heard long ago that the films really oughtn't be compared. That's not going to stop me, of course, but I am going to note the reasons I don't disagree with the idea that they aren't to be compared, per se (even as I'm doing it). I took interest in the film mostly for Edward Norton, Rufus Sewell and Paul Giamatti, though I'd heard mostly disappointing or middling reviews of the film.

A young Edward, also known as Eisenheim (Aaron Johnson) finds himself friendly with young Sophie, also known as Duchess von Teschen (Eleanor Tomlinson) despite their class differences, and even find themselves drawn instinctively to love with one another. It's not to be, though, and the Duchess is taken away from him before they can escape together. Eisenheim disappears, too, and learns more fully the arts of illusion, returning to Vienna later to practice this art on stage (and now played by Norton). At a show, his volunteer is none other than Duchess von Teschen (now played by Jessica Biel), though she is volunteered rather than choosing the role herself, by her future husband, the Crown Prince Leopold (Sewell). The two recognize each other, and Eisenheim begins to trade wits, pride and shame with Leopold, who is arrogant and cold in his actions, holding pride over all else. Police Chief Inspector Walter Uhl (Giamatti) is set on Eisenheim's trail to disgrace him as fraud, only for everyone's plans to be tripped up by an unexpected accident, leading Eisenheim to act even more outwardly aggressive toward Leopold, who attempts to hold his grown out of his stubborn belief in his own worth.

The similarities between this film and The Prestige are passing and simplistic: both deal in magic and illusion, are period films and work on competition between two male leads. There are other connections to be drawn, certainly, but in general they are entirely dissimilar films. The Prestige--an irony considering its title--is less interested in spectacle and more interested in morality and philosophy, character motivation and depth, setting aside story as the vehicle to examine these things. The Illusionist is all about spectacle; it is entertainment in its entirety, a story told to tell a story, with devices and bells and whistles to give it character and identity. This isn't to say it's utterly shallow or without any thought behind it, but rather that it is not interested in wrapping itself too tightly in such ideas. There is flirtation with the idea of enlightenment and retaliation against this rather pragmatic approach to life and reality, and on the absurdity of class division, but it primarily centers on the idea of illusion or magic (and which Eisenheim practices), and on the story of the love he and Sophie share. It's almost a fairy tale in this respect, a simple love story wrapped behind a simple story spiced with the fantastic.

There's a strangeness to the entire film, being as the real stumbling block of the film is the script. It's not a bad story, nor is the dialogue stilted in terms of word choices, but it is rather bare. Norton and Giamatti actually come off a bit lost with this, trying to bring character to roles that are not written up enough to contain much. Both have strong and clear presence physically, but suffer the De Niro-Period-Effect (which I first discovered watching The Mission, and consists of a feeling of inherent anachronism when some actors perform in period pieces) to a degree whenever they open their mouths. Both maintain their (admittedly light) accents rather solidly, but seem to be a bit too focused on keeping their words short and clipped to match the feeling of the language they are mimicking by accent. Sewell and Biel actually do best in their roles, Sewell simmering and feeling just shy of explosion as the conceited and proud Prince, sure of his own worth and the lack of worth of others. Biel shows a defiance and independence that is matched by her devotion and love for Eisenheim--nothing terribly fancy or complex, but well performed (in spite of my previous impression of Biel, which was probably most coloured by Marcus Nispel's terrible remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre--leading me to write her off as a hollow pretty face).

What makes the film, though, is the experience of it. DP Dick Pope was Oscar-nominated and deserved it, with a very rich, thick feeling of colour throughout the film, often very dark but lit well enough to hold the lines of all the important details, and with little nudges toward elder silent film via iris lens transitions and the occasional circular frame that mimics the darkened corners of the inferior exposure process used in early film, as well as even flickering for the scenes of the young lovers. There's a fantastic mix of stage, screen and painting in many scenes, in the sense that the world feels constructed and planned like a stage show, artfully balanced like a painting and near-real like film. It's quite beautiful, and often just shy of distractingly so. Behind this we of course have the sound of a Philip Glass score, which caught my ear before I even saw his name, and began waiting to see who it was--and was reminded that I, in fact, did actually know this but had forgotten. It matters not, though, because Glass' music is fantastic as usual, and that's more relevant than the fact that it was him who wrote it. It bears that signature repetition of Glass' work, but with that lovely building of permutation that seems almost mathematical and yet perfectly organic--perhaps like the rigid but natural formation of crystal (or maybe the prisms on the cover of his Glassworks are just stuck in my head).

Director Neil Burger has very astutely assembled the parts to make a beautiful film, and one that I didn't see as focusing on plot--though this is harped on most by critics--because it seems consciously hollow of this based on its focus on the visual and auditory experience, which is only enhanced by the feeling that Norton and Giamatti's best work in the film is all visual. Don't watch hoping for or expecting a transcendently original plot, because it isn't about that. Keep that in mind and you ought to enjoy yourself thoroughly.

Total Recall
Total Recall(1990)

When I was younger and this had come out, it was forever "the movie with the woman with three breasts." Most jokes made about it these days seem to reference this, too (or maybe they were just the only ones I got prior to seeing it...), though there was also the Fangoria cover that showed up while it was in production, related to the effects Rob Bottin did. Of course it's another example of the failure to adapt Philip K. Dick to the screen for many people, too, but I've still read the most bizarre cross-section of PKD, one that fails to include the most popular of his works.

Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a construction worker in the future, married to a beautiful wife, Lori (Sharon Stone), and working a simple job. He keeps dreaming of being on Mars with a woman (Rachel Ticotin), but doesn't know why. An ad for memory-based vacations that can be inserted into the minds of clients via the company Rekall inspires Quaid to try and go to Mars in this fashion when his wife refuses to actually go there. His coworker Harry (Bobby Costanzo) warns him that he's in danger of being lobotomized by the procedure, but Quaid finds the prospect irresistible. He picks a vacation that lets him be a "secret agent," and takes on the trip. A strange reaction to the procedure leads Rekall to attempt to bury Quaid's presence and release him with a wiped memory. When he wanders out and Harry asks him how he was, Quaid suddenly finds that everyone thinks he is a secret agent--despite the fact that Rekall has said the implant was never made, in a conversation Quaid was not party to. Now on the run from the people who believe this, he makes his way to Mars to solve the strange dreams, the bizarre reaction and why people are after him.

I don't know what I expected from this movie. I knew going in that Schwarzenegger's lead, Shusett's approach to scripting and Verhoeven's approach to directing would make for a movie that was pure action entertainment, and had little concern for much beyond this. Still, it was disappointing. I know Verhoeven can make a good film, and Shusett has good ideas, and Schwarzenegger rarely lets me down as a cartoonish lead. I dearly love Predator, as well as The Terminator, and like Terminator 2 as well. Something just seemed wrong here though. The dialogue seemed somewhat imbecilic, the plotting was a bit naff and the acting left a lot to be desired. Sure, we're talking about a cartoon, a ham (Michael Ironside, who plays the villainous Richter)--even if it's a ham I like a lot, an actor who mostly worked in television (Ticotin) and a well-known pile of wood (Stone), but still, something was just...bad. Maybe it's that I'm first seeing this now, when I am not as easily amused, maybe I was looking for the wrong thing, I don't know. I started to enjoy it a lot more toward the end, but the Republic serial approach to things was a little tired and uncomfortable, with blaringly obvious villains and ridiculous heroes (I mean...come on, it's Arnold!) mixed into complex and PKD-style twists.

I don't have any hatred for Verhoeven. I've never seen Basic Instinct (barring the infamous interrogation), but Starship Troopers was--I'm not kidding--the first DVD I ever got. I love Robocop dearly. I, um, didn't hate Hollow Man. I know how Paul does things--generally I can hear him saying, "Taste? Restraint? Vut are zeez vurts you speak ov?" (no, his Dutch accent has not lessened over the years it seems). I don't mind that. I'm not Janet Maslin calling the film out on being ultraviolent. I could not care less about that--or maybe I could, because I sure liked Rob Bottin's work (as usual, he's never a letdown). It was made on the cusp of digital, but primarily physical and optical effects were used here, and they're fantastic. They're ridiculous and over the top (in true Verohoeven style), but they work and they fit. I know that's what interests Verhoeven--based on his released work I've seen at least--effects and moving the story. He's not an idiot, he's not bloodthirsty, he's not incompetent, but characterization and subtlety seem to be things he just feels no real need to employ. I don't begrudge him that, but perhaps it's having the ludicrously inhuman Schwarzenegger as "a guy" (basically, anyway) and the unnatural Stone (her mannerisms and voice have no elements of emotional truth to my eyes and ears) open the film, or the clumsy glove-to-helmet caress of Quaid's dream. Maybe it's just that Schwarzenegger is no Peter Weller, or something else entirely. I really have no idea what isn't working here, but it comes off as oozing with cheese, but without knowing it. Despite what some people might guess from my taste, I'm not a big fan of cheese in movies, except the really earnest kind. Verhoeven's work usually just kind of has it dropped along the top and melting down around the sides. In moderation that's no problem...but here? It's just a bit too much. The ultra-evil corporation, the average guy who isn't average at all (despite what Schwarzenegger says, this was not an improvement--I was often left wondering how much better it might've been with someone who at least LOOKED relatively normal)...it's just too much, and something about the way all of these sloppy elements run into each other just glops up the gears of the movie.

I was basically left with an answer to that immortal PKD question of "What is reality?": I dunno, but it sure spurts a lotta blood when it explodes--and man does it look cool.

Good Morning, Vietnam

When I was younger, I'd rapidly develop ideas of which actors were funny. Unlike my modern approach to humour, I tended toward the familiar, and toward the bigger, easily recognized and omnipresent sorts of personalities I would inherit from my parents' viewing. Of course, there was the filter of what I would watch at the time (it would have to be consistent humour, broad humour and in colour), so there were limits, and little was surprising. Sitcoms were funny to me then (which may or may not shock the people who know me now), and I enjoyed them thoroughly. I didn't really get George Carlin (RIP, George, even if I still don't think you're really all that funny) or many of the more atypical comics, but the energetic comedians who were starting to carry movies in the late 80s and early 90s were both familiar and automatically funny to me. It was strange, sort of an understanding of their funniness rather than an actual personal recognition for me. I remember this distinctly because when my parents settled in to watch this and I was about 8 or 10 years old, I didn't get it, even though I "knew" Robin Williams was hilarious. I remember feeling really disappointed that this comedy seemed to be unfunny and wandered away (or at least mentally wandered back into the world of my toys, I don't remember that for sure). It was knowing how much I've changed that I decided to revisit this film.

Adrian Cronauer (Williams) has been shipped to Saigon from Crete to act as disc jockey for the Army's troop radio station, his reputation as a funny man preceding him. Arriving there, he's greeted by Garlick (Forest Whitaker), the rather submissive PFC who is charged with Cronauer's treatment and position. He's introduced to his two superiors going forward, primarily Lt. Steven Hauk (Bruno Kirby), but also Sgt. Major Dickerson (J.T. Walsh). Hauk feels he shares a camaraderie with Cronauer because he has an interest in comedy as a hobby, while Dickerson is very straight-edged and disinterested. Disinterested, that is, until Cronauer's first broadcast. Cronauer begins to play modern music in violation of the standards of prior broadcasts, and use humour that leaves Garlick and fellow troops Pvt. Abersold (Richard Edson) and Cronauer's broadcasting colleague Marty Lee Dreiwitz (Robert Wuhl) in stitches. Hauk is disappointed in the humour and Dickerson is incensed by the subject matter. They bring the matter to the attention of General Taylor (Noble Willingham), who dumps the problem back in their laps because he actually likes Cronauer's approach. Cronauer spends his time away from the mic chasing down Trinh (Chintara Sukhapatana), a pretty Vietnamese girl who catches his eye. He ends up teaching her English class, but runs into the brick wall of her brother Tuan (Tung Thanh Tran), who is protective of his sister and the differing customs. Adrian decides to use Tuan as a way in to Trinh but ends up legitimately befriending him despite this, to the chagrin of his superiors.

The selling point of this film for essentially anyone seems to be the comedy of Robin Williams, especially his "on-air" monologues, which are rapid-fire with their sudden changes in direction and approach. As I say, I was first totally unimpressed, with a slew of jokes that were too referential (and often political) for my young mind to really get. My sense of humour has changed in the interceding years, but I've also become a lot more stone-faced when it comes to humour. It's not easy to get me really laughing, simply because it's difficult for humour to really get in enough of a surprise on me that I can have that instinctual kind of laughter. All the same, I can see a more natural flow and a good delivery and respect it for what it is. A good delivery is still very engaging for me, even when the humour doesn't do much for me, where a bad delivery is repulsive and obnoxious to me (hence my distaste for Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller and a handful of others). Williams, when he was doing so much comedy, was always enthusiastic, warm and natural, and never felt false. This was no exception--even when I wasn't doing much more than smiling at his rapid banter, I was interested in what he was saying.

This comes to the other aspect of Robin Williams that is more fascinating. There's this perception--which I fully admit I might have been alone in--that he was no dramatic actor, or rather, that Good Will Hunting and the like gave him a chance to shine as one. I've since seen a chunk of his work prior to that, some after this and before that, some contemporary to this. There's also this itself. The movie gets a bit darker and more serious toward the end, though Williams' Cronauer remains devoted to humour. He really is a very good lead in all capacities, often doing well enough at it that it's lost behind the bombast of his loud and emphatic comedic senses. It's natural for this character (and I say character because the real Cronauer is very different and has a different sense of humour) to make tension-relieving quips, so that only enhances the moments where he is within the character and responding in less humourous ways to less humourous situations. It makes me regret pigeon-holing him in my youth, unfair though that may be to criticize a no longer existent ten-year-old. It's a very good performance from Williams, not necessarily one I would call his best, as it does still hinge on his comedy more than anything else, but it is one that is never let down.

I do recognize the concerns the studio had at the time, too--a comedy about Vietnam? That doesn't seem like the best idea in the world, not like something that would go over well, but it works, and it works in part because Barry Levinson's direction (including an ironic montage to Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World") and in the other part because of Mitch Markowitz' script. The film itself finally turns and not only becomes darker but becomes a sort of microcosmic examination of the conflict in Vietnam. We see the macrocosmic issue of troop morale, of soldiers dropped in by draft from a life that had none of the hardship of soldiering and how a little familiarity can help with that, but we also see the issues of infighting and generational conflict, as well as the confusion about who has what role in a foreign country, and in what part of the country was on the US' side, and what part wasn't, and what side the US itself was on (if any, sometimes), and just how confusing it was in general. I'm not going to say it was a perfectly accurate discussion of this, nor that it's the best example of it, but it is a nice surprise to see the film manage to work this in organically and address the issue of Vietnam without getting openly preachy or discussing the actual issues. It deals only in interpersonal relationships within the structure of the story, and it manages to use these perfectly to illustrate its points.

This was a lot better a movie than I knew once, and further strengthens my appreciation of Levinson's work as a director.

Red River
Red River(1948)

"Take 'em to Missouri, Matt."

I've heard and read that quote a few times now--first I read it in Garth Ennis' Preacher, one of the John Wayne quotes Jesse Custer's father had him repeat as he tried to raise him with an appreciation for the Duke, and later in The Last Picture Show where the scene containing the line was shown in the theatre. Of course, I was quite miffed, believing I'd just seen the ending scene (something suggested to me this was the ending, mostly the energy of it, but possibly some dialogue) and now knew how the film ended. Whoops. If you're reading this, I imagine you've seen Red River before (as I know few people who would willingly keep reading after "John Wayne" unless they already liked his work), so you know that it's nothing of the kind. It's even fairly early, for that matter. Still, I tried to push it from my mind--forget who said it, whether perhaps it was Montgomery Clift repeating it in "tribute" to Wayne at the end to commemorate his death or something. No, it was that scene from early in the film, and there was no repetition of his lines to commemorate his character of Dunson (who may or may not die--you'll have to watch, sorry).

Thomas Dunson (Wayne) and "Groot" Nadine (Walter Brennan) split from a wagon train to take up land in Texas where Dunson plans to start a ranch. He refuses to take along Fen (Coleen Gray), suggesting the road he's on will be too tough for a woman. She tries to prove in an embrace that she's not so weak as he think, but he is immovable, and off the two of them set. As Dunson makes camp some miles off, they notice that there is smoke in the distance behind them. The Comanche have destroyed the wagon train, and Dunson and Groot lie in wait for them to reach their own, lone wagon. They arrive in small groups, enough for Groot and Dunson to take down, but one is wearing a bracelet of Fen's, and Dunson realizes that she is lost for his decision to keep her back. Out of the distance finally wanders a small boy, Matthew Garth (Mickey Kuhn), leading a cow. He's in shock, but Dunson brings him out of it. They make their way out toward the Rio Grande and Dunson lays claim to the land north of it, killing representatives of Don Diego, who maintains ownership of enormous stretches of land north and south of the river. Dunson plans for his ranch, and creates his brand for the two cattle they have so far, and we come forward fourteen years to see a herd of cattle that numbers in the thousands. Matt has returned older (now played by Clift), and they prepare to drive the cattle to Missouri to bring some worth to fourteen years' work. Gathering gunslinger Cherry Valance (John Ireland) and many restless inhabitants of the dying town, they begin the thousand mile drive. They deal with ranchers whose cattle have wandered into Dunson's herd and a stampede caused by an innocent vice, all of which slowly build into the increased drinking and sleeplessness of the increasingly cruel and strict Dunson, until Matt decides he must take over the drive and leave Dunson's methods behind.

I think I was expecting something entirely different from this, which is something I know I say a lot--but this was indeed the movie my father kept suggesting when I said I was starting to watch John Wayne movies. I think I forgot why over the course of time, and that John Ford said of him after seeing the movie that he "never knew the big son-of-a-bitch could act." The opening scenes in particular led me to low expectations, with some stilted acting, both physically and vocally, from most of the early cast (who left the film after it flashed forward, barring Wayne). I thought I was in for a pretty standard western, with dialogue (based on Borden Chase's newspaper-published story and scripted by Chase and Charles Schnee, whose name simply made me titter as I thought "Snow?" and said "Schnee" aloud for fun) that borders on an intensity of melodrama I really can't quite stomach--"Those two are going to come to a conflict, and it will be something to see," sorts of things, just terribly obvious "foreshadowing" (almost more like in-movie spoilers, really). Oddly, the film seems to wander out of this territory about a third of the way through as Dunson begins to overreact and decide he is judge, jury and executioner, doling out severe punishments for mistakes and offenses that, while possibly horrendous in end result, do not exactly deserve such a response.

Suddenly Dunson is effectively the villain and I'm left wondering why this is a role that fit into the context it was used in by Garth Ennis. This is not a positive role for Wayne as a character, though it is indeed an excellent one for him as an actor. He's stubborn and impulsive, but not in that irascible (but lovable!) way he is in, say, Mark Rydell's The Cowboys some decades later. He's a colossal jerk, and none of the other characters (especially Matt) are unwilling to tell him this. Perhaps this may have some relevance to Wayne's homophobic distaste for Clift, I can't be sure, but it feels authentic and right, and not as if the other characters are misleading us away from Dunson. The film itself condones their condemnation of his actions, and I was quite surprised by this--though of course it was not at the height of Wayne's career, but far enough along that I'm sure he had an existing fanbase. There's a certain level of Ethan Edwards at play here, but more openly and obviously condemned than that role, where I think I expected something more like Rooster Cogburn, Wil Andersen or John T. Chance (as this was, of course, also a Howard Hawks/Wayne collaboration). It was a pleasant surprise really, in, I suppose, the same way it was for Ford himself.

I've talked about the three primary approaches to stuntwork before, at least in action films, but I neglected to mention earlier ones, which tend to bear a resemblance to the approach of 70s film but seem even more ludicrously unsafe. It's as if they turn on the camera and cross their fingers as they set an actor or stuntman out to do something. The stampede is magnificent--brilliantly set up with a tense discussion of how likely a stampede will be, and how scary their results can be--but some of the fear from it is a little knotting of the stomach over wondering what on earth possessed some of these stuntmen to take part in the scene. There's no easy way to control a herd of thousands of cattle (apparently Herefords disguised as the then-near extinct Texas longhorns by putting a handful of longhorns in front of scenes where the herd appears) while making them appear to (hopefully not actually) stampede that I can imagine, but there they are, expert riders or not. There's always that moment of "all-too-visible" danger that looks not even remotely dangerous as they relied on editing (perhaps double exposure) to make it appear that someone falls into the herd, made effective by good editing this time (though not always effective in other instances).

Dmitri Tiomkin puts in an excellent score, too, which is very brassy in that classic western way, but gives itself its own identity at the same time, making this in general an unusual western that seems to nest politely in genre confines like many an animal, circling and rearranging the padding of the box it's choosing to place itself in, but not disturbing the outer boundaries too terribly much. This is probably the movie to show anyone who doubts Wayne's ability, or suggests he always plays the same character. This isn't to say it's without flaws, as I was left a little bewildered by a few dangling threads (what happened to Cherry at the end, exactly? what about Meeker's payment?) and felt that there had clearly been some fat excised from the film, but felt some of it was a little clumsy in its removal, with lead-ins for plots (the claim that Cherry and Matt will come to blows or shots, for instance) that go nowhere, not even with anticlimactic resolution. Still, the film around these odd patches is excellent and holds to itself very well, despite its rocky beginning and becomes thoroughly engaging and interesting.

The Game
The Game(1997)
½

Allegedly based on the real-life puzzle/treasure hunt that has been held annually for 36 years in San Francisco and Seattle, this film bears little resemblance to the descriptions I've read of those games. I grabbed it mostly because it was a David Fincher film, but also for a reason I prefer not to--shall we say--elucidate at this juncture. Or any juncture. Or at all. Let's leave it alone, shall we? Anyway, this is probably the most poorly received of Fincher's films (okay, barring Alien³, I guess--or Panic Room, which I've yet to see), at least publicly. Critics were all right with it (or even quite happy) but it didn't catch on in general. I don't hear much bile spit about it, nor do I hear praise or shrugs (however audible they may or may not be) tossed at it. Still, Fincher's a director I respect more and more all the time, and will happily give his films a go either way (I've even got Panic Room waiting in the wings of my enormously out of control DVD collection).

Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) is the son of a wealthy businessman who committed suicide by leaping from their large estate's roof at 48, right in front of Nicholas' eyes. He's been dissociated from emotional reality since that point, completely enveloped in business and ignoring his ex-wife Elizabeth (Anna Katarina) and brother Conrad (Sean Penn). It is his 48th birthday as the film opens, and Conrad makes a cryptic offer to meet him for dinner via an old, lame injoke routed through Nicholas' assistant. This being the one connection Nicholas is willing to go with, he takes Conrad up on the offer and meets him. Conrad hands Nicholas a card with the number for "Consumer Recreation Services," and tells him this is his present, that he has enjoyed this service himself--knocking down Nicholas' guesses at its identity ("An escort service?"). After a battery of tests that Nicholas reluctantly agrees to, he's met with the image of a fallen body in front of the home that has stayed in his hands since his father was alive, mimicking his father's own fate. Angry, Nicholas brings the "body"--a clown doll--inside, and finds that he was not rejected from "The Game" provided by CRS as he believed. He's now led from place to place by intentionally abstruse clues, albeit ones that seem to find their use quite naturally in Nicholas' regular life. At first annoyed, Nicholas rapidly finds himself fearful of where the Game is taking him, and his fear is repeatedly given cause, only to have it removed.

There are two primary components of this film I feel are worth discussing (or, more accurately, want to discuss): first, Fincher's approach to the story and Van Orton, and second, the hotly contested ending (and its quality or lack thereof).

The thing that caught my eye first--and it was trained by seeing Fincher's careful eye in prior films, which is fed by my understanding that he is a meticulous perfectionist of a director--was the way the film opened. Scored (by Howard Shore) with minimalistic music, but strong enough to carry a feeling of distant, sad memory, is a carefully cut set of 8mm "home movies" of Nicholas' early life. It's bright and sunny, and filled with his birthdays as a child, his brother, his father, their home--and interspersed are elements of his father's suicide. It cuts from this to Nicholas at home. His house is silent, the only sounds coming from a financial television show and the echoes of huge hallways and rooms as he moves through them alone. Douglas' face betrays almost no emotion, and his interactions are clipped and brief. They aren't unfriendly, generally speaking, but they are not warm. Sometimes they're short and snarky, but even outright anger is unusual. When speaking to his wife he is flat and cold, cruel even as he cuts her off and shows a total disinterest in her. The way this is worked together is brilliant: it works in that way that I appreciate, the way a friend of mine has always appreciated music that I never could. In the way that he hears separate instruments, I have one part of my brain looking for technique and ideas and approaches and another actively and emotionally engaged, running separate threads for separate purposes. So long as they never bleed into each other (though if this were done in an interesting way, I suppose I might like that), I am quite pleased. When the part that is looking for technique has to work hard to see what's at work, but finds it easily with a firmer hand, I am impressed. This is what Fincher does: it's so easy and smooth in approach--even when wildly stylized--that you don't see it coming unless you stick a hand right in it and feel around. I don't doubt that, based on his reputation and what I've seen of his work, he spends a lot of time and effort on this, but the results are worth it regardless.

What he manages to succeed at here is to make the film exactly what it is supposed to be for the viewer who comes in unaided by desires or preconceptions about what the film is or "could" or "should" be. Those expecting complete honesty from the film are going to be sorely disappointed. Those looking for outright realism will as well. It's not really about either of those things: it's about a man being faced with his greatest fear, and what that does to him and the people around him, and how it can be used against him, or how he can use it. It's not something everyone will be interested in, or that will work for everyone, but Fincher does it exactly right for what it is. I didn't feel betrayed when it chose the path it did; nor should any viewer, but we are all saddled with preconceptions that are the fault of endless reading and viewing, or with too-strict desires from the same. It's difficult to discuss in detail without revealing it, but I don't really even want to discuss it enough to give it away for anyone. Suffice it to say, the film does pull a good sucker punch on you, or maybe two or three, toward the end. You might see part of it coming, or even all of it (my mother never ceases to amaze me on this front--I wonder how she enjoys anything always predicting the ending just as she wonders how I can enjoy things while analyzing them), but it's unlikely you'd have all of the back alley turns in mind, and they're all important to the film and its concept as a whole.

I'm not sure what I expected of this--disappointment, surprise or shrugging, but I think it was a slow-burning surprise that I got out of it. A good one.

Before Sunrise

My previous experience with Richard Linklater is primarily through Slacker, which I first saw a mere clip of in a class as someone's favourite piece of film. I've also seen Dazed and Confused--two or three times, actually--and The Newton Boys but I feel somehow that this must be mor representative in some fashion of Linklater's tendencies.
Much like Slacker, music does not show up throughout the film except where it exists as a literal part of the scene. This makes the film feel much more naturalistic and real; of course this effect is also enhanced by the fact that much of the dialogue, though written, comes off as ad-libbed, with plenty of placeholders--"y'know"s and "uh"s and "um"s. If it were typical of film, it would be nothing special and would probably be irritating, but here it comes off, at worst, like a play ad-libbed by talented but unrefined actors. Perhaps that's how it should seem--talent being the equivalent of natural thought processes, and ad-libbing from an outline because all interactions are based on the outline of previous experience, even when diverging from them.
It's a shocking style to wander into in some ways, and does take a little while to get used to when the majority of film does not bear this approach. It slides in naturally through, because Ethan Hawke (Jesse) and Julie Delpy (Celine) are very natural in their very natural character roles. Before long the rhythm is easily established and the awkward nature of the relationship of two people who've never met suddenly makes perfect sense, and the flaws and foibles of normal people--earnest and good, but occasionally judgmental, naïve, irritable or short-tempered--come to light. We see why they like each other, even as we see the negative aspects of their characters.

Their discussions are, like in Slacker, occasionally fairly obscure, often philosophical or sociological and might, to some, seem ridiculous and unrealistic, but having had those conversations and thoughts myself, it felt absolutely real, even as it bore a surreal sense to it as well. They discuss the differences in character and interaction between men and women, and find it a frustrating and neverending conversation, Jesse talks about his tangential internal explorations and approach to life, Celine about her insecurities with the way she feels she is and the way she feels she is supposed to be, and her security in what she wants, but her unsure response to being faced with the chance of actually gaining it. We see the places they're both coming from, though it is a fair bit of time before we learn the details and exact nature of those places.

Romance is not clear, simple, straightfoward or bombastic between these two. It is real, and perhaps that reality is enhanced by the absence of music--and most importantly by Linklater's affection for long edits. Most conversations take place in single shots. Probably the reason for the many verbal placeholders, as the two actors do their best to maintain a natural conversation through five plus minutes of uncut time, in massive blocks of text that must seem off-the-cuff to be able to work completely. Sometimes the conversation even continues until the actors have made their way off, or at least nearly off, camera.

One of the most interesting sets of scenes are the two creative panhandlers Jesse and Celine deal with over the course of their one night together. The first is a palm-reader, who Jesse decries, but Celine makes eye contact with and so they are forced to deal with her. Celine accepts her attention and even revels in it, enjoying the positive nature of her claims and the attention itself, thinking positively of the woman, even if she bears no real belief in what she says. Jesse sneers after she leaves, even if not cruelly, suggesting she is completely full of crap and has robbed Celine blind. Celine is slightly offended by this and they get into an argument only to be stopped by a man sitting next to a river who says that instead of simply asking for money, he will ask them for a word and write a poem from it, and if it adds something to their lives, they can pay him.
Here is where the interest occurs to me; I found myself somewhere between the two points of view with the palm-reader. I don't find offense in that sort of thing, but would not give money to such a person either more than likely. But here, here I was skeptical, until I heard the poem. I'm not one for poetry, as most know, but I was actually fairly well impressed by this one--especially one that began so scattershot, which, as a very pragmatic person does not work for me most of the time.
Then, Jesse, after they thank the man and do pay him, suggets that he merely inserted the suggested word into a pre-existing poem (though making the allowance for it being a poem of the man's all the same). At first, I thought I had become a little more bitter, as I've some notoriety for more positive, optimistic interpretations, even in the face of writing that suggests I shouldn't be. Yet, here, I was still thinking positively of someone for no reason, and finding myself vaguely annoyed at Jesse's ruination of the poem.

All the same, both of them maintain complete likeability, and we stay with them for the entirety. A very satisfying film, and closer to the "independent" Linklater than I had been led to believe.

El Topo
El Topo(1970)

My fourth trip into the mind and works of Alejandro Jodorowsky, this is, unsurprisingly, another thoroughly surrealist film masquerading, in some fashion, as a western.

As stories go, there is technically one, as always with his films, but it's a rough and loose one and is, in some ways, inconsequential. This isn't strictly true, for there's meaning behind everything in his works, but the events themselves are, in some manner, irrelevant--it is only the meaning behind them that matters. Still, to sort of underline the point by actually naming the effective run of things, we have Alejandro himself (this time credited as Alexandro, I don't know why he can't pick one or the other himself...) as "El Topo," who is a gunfighter beginning the movie with his son Hijo (Brontis Jodorowsky, presumably Alejandro's son) riding naked with him on horseback. They wander into a town which has been mercilessly slaughtered--eviscerated donkeys, contorted bodies, red pools and bloodied sand litter the streets. El Topo asks a dying man who did this, and the man begs to be killed. Finding no answers here, he comes to a group of bandits and asks again, this time discovering it was perpetrated by "The Colonel" and his men.

If this were a plain western, this would be establishing the villain of the piece who would be pursued throughout the rest of the film. But it's not. Instead, we see the Colonel to the conclusion of his "arc" and move on in less than an hour. Now El Topo has abandoned his son with monks and takes a power-hungry woman with him, who demands that he best four master gunfighters before she will love him. Once again, we are not at the final arc, but I will leave the rest to your imagination or future viewing.

There's little to be said insofar as plotting and acting; they aren't really, as I say, the point. We're seeing the ideas, philosophy and perception of Jodorowsky--each of the four masters espouses some metaphysical technique that proves and enables their mastery and reptuation. The first does not allow bullets to harm him; when shot he barely bleeds, and bears wounds from past bullets that should have been fatal. He's also blind. The second has strengthened himself by building copper objects until he has gained immense dexterity and nimble fingers, able to manipulate extremely fragile objects now without damaging them in the least. He shows the difference between El Topo's desire to destroy and find himself through shooting, and his own desire to disappear and minimally impress his actions on the objects and people he affects. The third espouses the qualities of perfection, of choosing the heart over the head. The fourth tells El Topo what it is to always win; when you have nothing to lose of any value, when you don't even have anything to fight with, you are inevitably winner.

We see that he does not immediately have the skill to best these fighters, but the demands of the woman with him lead him to take sidesteps into glory in besting them, which we see as detrimental to his own self-worth, even as she enthusiastically encourages this. All of it leads to a final change in El Topo's perception of the world as a whole, and the final arc deals with his new way of seeing things--his rebirth, both metaphorically and almost literally.

As someone who rather notoriously hates David Lynch's obscure, pretentious films, it's surprising how much I like Jodorowsky's work, though I think it's easily explained by the fact that Jodorowsky more clearly knows where he's going with everything throughout (I recently read that Lynch, apparently, does not even understand his own films...) and is intensely passionate about the ideas he's conveying. Everything is placed very specifically and clearly with a meaning in mind. This meaning is not always clear to the viewer (it seems I should watch these films again with his commentary to find such things out) but it's clear that there is meaning. Nothing is too obscure to be recognized as a symbol, and it feels out its place, even if the specific meaning continues to remain a mystery. The "sense" of the film, despite the lack of logic and oddity and definitively surreal nature, adds up to a distinct whole. You feel satisfied, as though Jodorowsky has definitely told you something, that you at least understand on a subconscious level, even if you aren't necessarily able to put it into words.

As with The Holy Mountain, it's worth noting that Jodorowsky has absolutely no qualms about violence, and even fewer about dead animals.

Eraserhead
Eraserhead(1977)

Let's get the obvious out of the way for people who've read many of my reviews of any kind of surrealist film: generally speaking, I hate David Lynch films.

Blue Velvet put me to sleep out of sheer boredom. Mulholland Drive put me to sleep, but I woke up and watched it from the beginning and it was boring and dissatisfying. Lost Highway had difficulty holding my interest and just generally seemed totally unnecessarily obscure and uninteresting. His self-described fans make me hate him even more, much the way Quentin Tarantino's fans do. I've actually liked some of each of their work (I did like The Elephant Man and Dune quite a bit, and the great majority of Tarantino's work). I do separate myself from that when I sit down to watch either of their films, but they often suffer under their own weight.

That said, I always kept an open mind to Lynch's work. I tried Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me a few years back, and it, too, bored me to tears. But I always had an eye open for Eraserhead, which I consistently felt was going to be darker in a grittier way, and, if more obscure, then more obscure in a more fantastic and disturbing sort of fashion. I thought its age, certainly, would help things, as my major complaint with the most recent of Lynch's work was the slickness of it, the bombastic images that seemed to carry no meaning--I think the blue-haired woman saying "Silencio!" with such unnecessary gravitas is what completely broke me and perfectly carries across the reason I do not normally like Lynch originals. It reminds me of the parodies of foreign movies floating through sketch comedy and the like--characters saying completely nonsensical lines as if they are the most meaningful thing in the world, seemingly intended to mean something grand but coming off as pretentious, nonsensical, illogical and self-important. I don't like that kind of "mindfuck" movie (as Lynch's are called), especially when they tend to completely lack characters or emotion. By characters, I mean of course people, rather than walking beings who bear the physical characteristics of humans but function primarily as symbols, concepts or images.

Strangely, or perhaps not, I found Eraserhead not to be what I expected. I considered a review with a fun bit like, "This film is about Henry Spencer (John Nance) who lives a simple life, but when invited to his ex-girlfriend's house, he discovers that he is a father, leaving him now to--oh forget it, the story doesn't even matter." Truth is, I don't think the story does matter--at least, not in a way that means I should explain it to you before viewing. It isn't relevant to anything except the overall experience, meaning and message. It is inseparable from those things--at least with the intention of retaining meaning, and an element or three is not clear in its meaning in terms of events.

It's clear--I feel--that part of what is undeniably expressed here is a distaste for sex, coupled with an understanding of its necessity, at least in terms of drive. We see Harry is definitely interested in it, but we also see that the eventual results are not a happy or pleasant thing to him. His world IS a simple one; he wanders around a very empty world into a very empty apartment, shuffling change in a drawer, checking the mail and often staring at his radiator and dreaming. He imagines a woman there, who sings a rather nice song that goes, "In heaven, everything is fine..." implying that this imagined radiator life is the reality Henry would prefer to occupy. He's horribly uncomfortable in the real and empty world; he is constantly surrounded by droning noises of the radiator, elevators, buzzing, humming, clunking, trains and other industrial towns. Never overbearing or rhythmic, but consistent and intrusive all the same. The only other family is the "X" family--his girlfriend of sorts Mary (Charlotte Stewart), and her parents, Mrs. (Jeanne Bates) and Mr. (Allen Joseph) X. Mary is overly emotional and responsive, her mother is overly protective and her father is egocentric and falsely amicable. Not passive aggressive or secretly hostile, but just overly artificial, smiling broadly and shaking hands and speaking of his life and career without regard for the interest of others. Hardly a wonder, then, that another world is heaven. This world, too, is polluted in Henry's dreams, though, when Mary begins to take a larger place in his life and his child appears.

The star is not Nance (though he has a wonderfully and appropriately expressive face, as well as a perfect demeanor of extended neck but pulled-in head, shoulders and arms hunched in, not in bad posture but in a sign of introversion, and an awkward walk that includes high-raised knees similar to the Tramp's walk, but less exaggerated) but the cinematography by Herbert Cardwell and Frederick Elmes. I've had it said and suggested to me that Lynch is an "artist" and not a "film-maker," unless one thinks of "film" as another medium for "art," rather than as a vehicle for story-telling. I'm inclined to agree. Between said cinematography, which reminds me of silent films, especially of the expressionist variety, and the sound design and "score," centered around the aforementioned oppressive machine sounds and what sounds like someone drawing a neverending bow across a cello string and someone else who has fallen asleep on a piano or synthesizer keyboard, we end up with imagery married to sound. Dialogue is used simply because there is motion in film; as if the story and this dialogue are necessary to the artistic medium and film, but should not be something you can separate from the whole product--which, as I've said, is true here.

What probably IS strange to people who know me--or possibly anyone who read the opening paragraphs above and knows those films--is that I did like it. I will say a few things now about what I did think of meaning, concepts and some actions. I think, as per usual for me, I have taken an atypical approach to things and see something more positive than most in a character. When Henry is finally home with the child he gave Mary, she screams at him as he tries to sleep thanks to the constant crying of the rather mutated near-foetal child. Henry's response is to tell her perhaps that when she leaves to go home she should stay there. He then places a thermometer in the child's mouth, and when he removes it finding nothing wrong, it suddenly turns clearly ill (one of only two images in the film I really felt my heart skip a beat for, thanks, in part to a jarring chord-thing--I don't think it's an actual chord, again, it's like someone was sitting next to a piano and put an elbow out to lean on it and stayed there--that strikes as the image of this child-thing turning so violently ill appears) he says "You really WERE sick," with a note, I feel, of concern. We soon see he has dropped a vaporator (I believe they're called) next to the child and sits next to it, calmly and without any air of irritation. He thinks of the item he received in the mail and wishes to check for more mail, but when the child cries every time he tries to leave the room, he stops and sits back down, again seeming relaxed and calm, as if he knows this is where he should be and he's comfortable with it.

He does then attempt to hide it from the woman across the hall who seduces him when he takes her to bed, but not in a way that gave me the impression he didn't care, but simply wanted to satisy his own urge and desire at the moment. His final action with relation to the child I have seen described as vengeful, but I myself didn't see it that way. It looked like a motion of curiosity though I was filled with a sick sense of dread until the ramifications made themselves clear. At that point the movie was nearly ruined I was so repulsed; but Henry has one final response, not one of anger, I think, but of confused and horrified mercy. From there I felt that the movie had found itself again; I had grown to like Henry and was not pleased with what he had done prior, and felt a bit betrayed that the one character I was drawn to was now so utterly reprehensible. But, he redeemed himself in my interpretation, and perhaps even then refined something, the final images seeming to suggest that perhaps the child was in fact himself, or enough of a part of himself--hinted at in dreams anyway--that he had done these things to himself.

What the hell was the bowl of water? What was the dream that gave the movie its title about? Honestly, I have no idea. I feel the dream was to suggest Henry's own feelings of inadequacy, uselessness and misinterpretation by the world, and the bowl was simply a visual quirk related to Henry's approach to things. It felt like a well-produced and proficient student film, essentially, a feel I think I've established as pleasing. The design overall, including Lynch's own production design, was beautiful (as I've repeatedly mentioned of the excellent cinematography and sound) and Nance was proficient as what I think was a representation of Lynch himself (though, as I sort of roundabout implied through my distaste for styles coupled with my appreciation here, he felt like a representation of an actual person instead of something else), but it had the awkward, lively, slightly clumsy but earnest intensity of a student behind it, just an extremely talented one.

I'm still annoyed at people referring to Lynch as "genius," because I think he's hit-or-miss and often at his best in "normal" movies, especially adaptations, or at the folk who like to tell those who don't like the films I don't like that they didn't "get" them, as if all that matters is getting them, not whether any reaction or emotion can be gained from them. The overly immature Roger Ebert criticized Clive Barker for saying that art inspires something, even if that something is a bowel movement. I think Clive was right (this is not a great surprise to many, I'm sure, my love of the man is well-documented) and that is absolutely true. Eraserhead made me react. I had a feeling of tension at the two moments noted, and otherwise was in line in some ways with Henry's own feelings, and felt some empathy with his concepts and worldview. I think inspiring sleep is not one of the things Barker meant, however, and so regardless of meaning, I think those films I mentioned fail. While they don't have to be "entertaining," per se, I think they at least need to be engaging, which this film was. Perhaps the running time helped when this approach is used, but that's not exactly relevant either--it does what it needs to do with all necessary steps.

The Red Dwarf
½

One of the random foreign films I was more hesitant to pick up, even the title reeking of that esoteric odour that is the "arthouse film"--said with upturned nose, and not referring to anything like a comedy, unless it's some strange dadaist nonsense. So it was with trepidation that I decided to give it a whirl while dealing with massive amounts of free time.

Jean-Yves Thual is Lucien L'Hotte, a dwarf who works in a legal office. Our first experience of his life is sitting alone at the end of a workday, finishing typing something as a maid approaches, Lucien nervously stiffening when she comes near his desk and attempts to make small talk. He drops the letter at the front manager's desk and then makes his way out. As he leaves, attempting to mail a letter in a mailbox a little tall for someone of such diminutive stature, a girl walks up and asks if he is a goblin (my French is terrible, so this may or may not be paraphrasing in the subtitles, of course). He smiles (thankfully--this isn't going to be a "woe is the dwarf's lot in the world" movie, at least not through and through) and tells her he is just a "Lucien." The girl, Isis (Dyna Gauzy), works for a circus (the Circus d'Urbino) which is set up right outside Lucien's office, and begins to take fondly to Lucien, seeing him as a sort of guardian angel rather than just a small person. Lucien comes in the next day to his assignment, having written a dirty letter intended to guarantee a divorce for Paola Bendini (Anita Ekberg), he goes to her home to read it to her, in hopes of sealing her divorce with "Bob" (Arno Chevrier), who is a sort of buffoon, with a hat with his name, a goofy demeanour and a stupid sense of humour, referring to himself constantly as "Bob." He manages to seduce Paola though, beginning and intense carnal relationship with her, but unintentionally reviving her previously failing marriage. Jilted, the frustrated L'Hotte decides to win her back, but finding himself out of options, ends up instead in the Circus d'Urbino, there attempting to gain the respect denied him by bosses who were "doing his father a favour" by employing him, a woman who used him sexually for the sheer novelty and a world that in general looked down on him for his genetics.

I suppose, then, yes, this was indeed a "woe is the dwarf's lot in the world" movie, but it was addressed smartly, and not with an overemphasis. Lucien is not a pure victim, though he's definitely sympathetic, even when taking extreme measures against those who have wronged him. His relationship with Isis is not a purely positive one--often leaving her alone, crying and ignored while he finds himself. It's not filmed in black and white, but it is shown as such (it was desaturated, so the booklet tells me, to remove the "bland" colours of everyday life, director Yvan Le Moine apparently said) and it is served by it. While I am inevitably curious as to what the film looked like to the naked eye, the black and white feel is appropriate to the film. The dialogue and style of filming, while definitely coming from a European mindset (and bearing tinges of that "arthouse" mindset, doubtless), are not off-puttingly pretentious, instead seeming to edge more toward naturalistic approach. I've read that it's slow, but most know I'm quite vulnerable to such things, especially in films one might label pretentious in that obscure style I refer to. I didn't feel that at all, being truly interested in the eventual outcome of Lucien's life and ways, and very curious to see how they played out. It was a good little film, and not one I regret seeing, and could definitely see myself re-watching.

Gozu
Gozu(2003)

I've seen two Takashi Miike films before (Audition and Ichi the Killer), plus his episode of Masters of Horror ("Imprint") so I picked this one up because it was on sale--and it was Miike. I can't recall what I heard, though I definitely heard it was one of Miike's films to be seen, so when the person I was watching a movie with today excitedly pointed out the previously half-watched (by her, not me) Gozu, I shrugged and didn't know what to expect--except that nothing would be offlimits as usual, which I threw out as a casual warning (it was shrugged at then later justified).

Minami (Hideki Sone) is sort of an assistant to Yakuza man Ozaki (Sho Aikawa), who we learn is a little...off at their meeting with the Azamawari crew Yakuza boss (Renji Ishibashi), where he insists that he's joking, but proceeds to tell the boss that the toy poodle outside is a trained Yakuza-killing attack dog and proceeds to slam it repeatedly into hard, flat surfaces until he has sufficiently killed it (presumably to death). We soon find Ozaki and Minami on the road to Nagoya, when an unassuming, terribly plain car appears behind them, and with a bolt of fear and slammed-on brakes, Ozaki leaps to defend the two of them from what he maintains is a Yakuza-killing car, retooled specifically for this purpose. He walks up with a gun to the plain-looking, frozen smile of the woman inside, only to be stopped with a body block by Minami, who somehow knocks Ozaki out in the process. Receiving a call from their boss, Minami confirms that he is indeed taking Ozaki to "the dump" near Nagoya--until the road to said town suddenly ends at a river, leading to more rapid braking, seemingly killing Ozaki. Minami stops for coffee after discovering his mentor's corpse, only to look outside and find it missing. Now the quest really begins, as Minami must find the missing body and get it to the dump, all the while following the ridiculous and circular directions of the people of Nagoya, who are all just a bit off, it seems, having incessant phone conversations about the same banal subject--but without even variance in how it's discussed. An innkeeper (Keiko Tomita) comes onto him in a bizarre fashion--offering to wash his back and, uh, if you can believe it, offering him milk--fresh, and not from a cow.

Depending on how you read what I've just written, it either sounds like a Troma movie or a David Lynch movie. No, I take it back--obviously there's too much subtle plotting for a Troma production (and where would the stock footage of the exploding car ramping off another car go?!), but the truth is that it's both anyway. It has a lunatic sense of humour, a visceral edge, a dreamlike quality and an essential incomprehensibility. As I've said many times before, I am NOT a fan of most of David Lynch's films. I find them tiresomely obscure and distractingly pretentious, and usually ploddingly slow AND uninvolving, an absolute death knell for the derivation of entertainment of any kind to me. The difference here is that, despite similar qualities (inexplicable logic of character change, disappearance, reappearance, surreal elements), those elements are all carried off as if this is a world in which such things can happen--not that anyone, especially Minami, expects them to, but they simply can. More importantly though, there's that Tromatic tongue-in-cheek feeling, with some elements of grossness seeming to have no plot importance, existing purely for the amusement of Miike's aesthetics. Here again, though, that rampant vulgarity is taken through a slightly more serious lens, not zoomed in on or shown in all gory details (it's not done with silhouettes or only suggested, but it's not pornographically obvious)--in some ways it has that matter-of-fact eye turned toward it, even as a ladle protrudes from a man's rectum--not as some goofy martial arts finishing move or violent slapstick gag, but for his sexual pleasure.

More importantly--for me at least--Minami is someone we can get behind. We're told he's Yakuza, but when an intended seance turns randomly into inexplicably violent sibling abuse, he backs up to a wall and pleads, frightened, for the abuser to stop. It's ridiculous, mind you, and not just a horrifying instance of this violence, so a sardonic smile is elicited by the scene despite the action within it. We can see that despite the fact that he's a gangster, essentially, he is well-meaning--even informs us in conversation with bizarre guide Nose (Shohei Hino) that he has never killed anyone. In essence, these differences make for an experience like a Lynch film...but enjoyable. Many suggest that Miike was influenced by Lynch, but I can hear his words,the way he talks about just making what he wants or feels is right--and that's what you can see in his movies. He plays around, does what he thinks fits, doesn't think about taboos, going too far, not going far enough or anything else most think of--if the obscure becomes clear, he shrugs and it's simply clear now. When you see ridiculous violence, it seems to just occur, rather than being a set up just so we can have some nice gory effects here or there. It makes for a more entertaining experience than movies that aim for obscure meaning or violent/pornographic setpieces with flimsy plot surrounding them. It can come out a weird mix, a glop that may not even seem to fit together quite right--though this time it does--but we can see the guiding hand of Miike putting all those parts where they are, even if they are not where we expect them.

The Last Picture Show

My father encouraged me to watch this the last time he, himself, picked it up, but I inherited a distaste for starting in the middle from him and, though I'd only missed five minutes, I skipped on it. I vaguely recall some girl may have been involved in distracting me as well, at least in conversational form, but the end result (for whatever reason) was that I didn't end up seeing it long enough to notice anything except Randy Quaid, Cybill Shepherd and Jeff Bridges looking so darn young. I didn't know who Timothy Bottoms was, and I suppose I still don't really. I knew Peter Bogdanovich by name, but I've mostly seen his name, of late, in the film-based writings of Harlan Ellison, decrying Bogdanovich's relation to the auteur theory. Still, I knew who Larry McMurtry was, at least by reputation, even if I'd never read anything of his, nor seen anything based on his work

Sonny Crawford (Bottoms) and Duane Jackson (Bridges) are best friends in the small town of Anarene, TX in 1951, Sonny dating the somewhat homely Charlene Duggs (Sharon Ullrick) and Duane dating the high school looker Jacy Farrow (Shepherd). The town as a whole is annoyed with the boys for their apparent inability to tackle in the last football game they will ever play for their high school, as this is the year of their graduation. Sam the Lion (John Ford standby Ben Johnson) runs all the entertainment in town--a movie house, a poolhall and the café, and otherwise it is an empty, dusty, tiny Texas town, with a population small enough that there are no secrets in town and everyone knows everyone, with Wichita, TX the local "big city" of sorts that is the aim of all those with high-falutin' aspirations or money. A Christmas party sees Lester Marlow (Quaid) begging Jacy to join him at the home of Bobby Sheen (Gary Brockette), where prior years' parties have led to skinny dipping. Duane is left dateless as Sonny stumbles into a relationship with Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), the wife of his coach (Bill Thurman). In their boredom and Duane's frustration, the local boys encourage the mentally handicapped boy Sam takes care of, Billy (Sam Bottoms, brother of Timothy) to lose his virginity to local "woman of ill repute" Jimmie Sue (Helena Humann). And so we watch the slow and awkward aging process of entering society's definition of adulthood for a group of teenagers leaving high school in a small town, and the ways their lives and especially that of Sam affect the town.

This film won itself two Oscars, one for Johnson and one for Leachman, as well as six other nominations, and it started Bogdanovich on a critically acclaimed career that crashed and burned in only a few short years with dismally received film after dismally received film, rendering his name more familiar than his works. I'm working very hard not to perceive Bogdanovich as a great ego, but I think my perceptions have been coloured pretty thoroughly by all the things I've read and heard, though thankfully I forgot he directed this film until it ended and I saw his credit. Still, I actually did end up finding something missing in this film (which was, for the record, the "definitive director's cut," the only way it has been released on DVD), which let it drag periodically. It was never a drag that left me wanting to wander off and do something else, but enough that I occasionally wanted something to happen, or for some greater clarity of character to occur. Sonny is clear, he's sort of the blank slate protagonist that gives the audience a way into the story, well-meaning but naïve, occasionally meaner than we might like but generally a good person. He doesn't seem to ever deliberately take advantage of anyone though, and is more guilty of failing to do things he should than choosing to actually do things he shouldn't. Duane, too, is pretty clear, acting to contrast with Sonny, interested pretty purely in himself as one of the stronger voices behind the near-abuse of Billy that so offends Sam and fighting too willingly over Jacy without realizing her lack of interest in him.

The adults and their characters are excellent, without exception. Sam is clear as the guiding and mentoring voice to the boys, or at least Sonny, telling him about his own youth at the "tank" (a fishing hole) and discouraging the behaviour he thinks is wrong, with a strong personality and presence met with a distance in his eyes that fits perfectly with his twinkle-eyed remembrance of years past. Leachman's Oscar, too, was well-deserved, as the perpetually sad housewife who never sees her husband (for reasons that are only subtly hinted at in the movie but apparently near blatant in McMurtry's book) but finds a glimmer of hope in her affair with a boy less than half her age. Lois Farrow (Ellen Burstyn), mother of Jacy, is an interesting mix of the maternal and the competitive when dealing with her daughter. On one hand she attempts to guide her into a comfortable life by encouraging her to pursue money and suggesting that Duane will lead to boredom and monotony, while on the other she is clearly not perfectly satisfied with her own life and eventually even competes over the (physical) affections of a man with her own daughter. That man, incidentally, is Abilene, played by Clu Gulager, who I know very well as Burt Wilson from Return of the Living Dead, but here is a contrast to the manipulative authority figure of that film as a slick, suave near-gigolo for the town of Anarene.

On the other hand, there's a strange quality to Cybill Shepherd and especially her character which was clarified for me in reading what came after in her career. Jacy as a character is somewhat undefined; at first she defiantly claims to her mother that she is in love with Duane, then suddenly turns into quite the harlot, sleeping with any man she can find, it seems, coldly and selfishly manipulating all of them. It felt I was missing something in her character, especially in what her motivation was for this change. Certainly it was clear that what she was pursuing from Bobby Sheen and Abilene (incidentally, what an odd name--it sounds feminine and is the name of another town in the state!)--she was looking for stability, comfort, affection, love. Yet, her dealings with Duane and Sonny seem oriented only around manipulation. The reasons for her manipulating them seem obscure, no clear motivation coming from any of it. Cybill's limitations seem to be the best explanation here (that or missing scenes omitted from the book). Everyone else, though, seemed to make clear transitions in character, or seemed fleshed out as someone--in the case of Lois--who would naturally flit from emotion to emotion and explanation to explanation.

There's something to be said, though, of the technical and constructive aspects of the film, a soundtrack composed purely of popular music, but only played naturally within the film, generally a mix of 1950s country music (with a heavy lean toward Hank Williams, Sr.) helps to place the film in an appealing way. A few interesting camera shots, slow zooms and tight close ups in succession during arguments and conversations are very evocative of the exact moods they're attempting to convey. The black and white choice of film (apparently an "of course" decision thanks to Orson Welles) is absolutely perfect, not in aging the film but in giving it the right absence of colour to show us even further that a town with dilapidated paint and well-worn signs is suffering and dying as a town almost, the death of youth and innocence at least at hand for our protagonists. Still, I felt in the end that some trimming (minor, not of whole scenes) would have helped tremendously--perhaps the original cut might improve my opinion, but I didn't feel I was seeing the masterpiece I had been led to believe I would be, though a very, very good film all the same.

Ringu (Ring)
Ringu (Ring)(1998)
½

Oh goodness. This is an incredibly dangerous review for me, as most who know me know. Let me attempt to restrain myself from the natural response I have to reviewing this film and try to encapsulate my boundless irritation with the abysmal remake as follows: the American film (The Ring, of course) is a remake of this film. It claims to be based on Koji Suzuki's novel, but that's, frankly, bullshit. Watch the two back to back and you can see exactly how right I am on this--considering the outright theft of a few scenes (even unnecessarily similar ones, like someone standing on a balcony in the rain), it should be obvious. If you maintain that I'm delusional and the film states right there in the credits that it is based on the novel, I urge you to read, if not the novel, then any synopsis of it you can find. It is not based on the novel It is based on this film. As if this weren't bad enough (uncredited theft!), still speaking from objective facts, it was DreamWorks, who distributed the remake, that bought the home video release rights to this film. What did they do with them? They released a bare bones DVD, not even with the obvious (and simple) bonus features of trailer and "the video," and gave it a full 29.99 MSRP, and a cover that spends a third of its space advertising their film. It was buried thoroughly enough that at the time of The Ring's release, no one around me even knew there was a film behind it. I would say, "You know that's a remake, right?" and they would say, "What? A remake of what?" All of this is a sharp jab at some principles I tend to hold pretty dear. I do not like the remake on principle, and I also think it was ruinous garbage that failed to live up to its predecessor. I want that out of the way (though inevitably I'll still be comparing the two before long) because if you love the remake dearly, you and I are not going to get along on this subject, dear reader, and you may be better off reading something else--or, if you have an open mind, perhaps seeing exactly why I like the original so much more.

Tomoko Oishi (Yuko Takeuchi) and Masami Kurahashi (Hitomi Sato) are two high school-aged girls in Japan, Masami bemusedly telling Tomoko about the legend of a cursed video tape that causes any viewer to die seven days after they watch it. Tomoko's uneasy silence leads Masami to believe that Tomoko has something to say, and so she announces, uncomfortably, that she and some friends spent the night somewhere and saw a "weird video." Masami thinks she's just pulling her leg, but when the phone rings, Tomoko is clearly gripped with absolute terror, and Masami decides she was telling the truth. Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima) is a reporter and aunt of Tomoko, and also has a coincidental interest in this growing legend of the cursed videotape, interviewing various kids about it, always being led back to the Izu peninsula, where she eventually goes to find the tape itself, or the channel on which it was broadcast--or whatever she can find. She does stumble across the tape and receives the phone call legend says she will, announcing her approaching death. She takes the tape to her ex-husband Ryuji Takayama (Hiroyuki Sanada), who says he will look at it further after viewing it himself, his initial skepticism replaced by a less hysterical fear, likely induced by his mild "sensitivity" to unusual things. The two of them become determined to unravel the mystery of the video, and hopefully save themselves in the process. The clues lead them through newspapers and legends of psychics, and to the girl known as Sadako (Rie Inou).

Ringu is a subdued and careful film, bearing that now seemingly unmistakable mark of the Asian cinematic eye that is a sort of nonchalant indifference to what is occurring. This is very different from the (intentionally and knowingly) manipulative western eye, which typically involves itself, if not as a character, then at least as a way of magnifying our view of characters and their emotions. In terms of viewers this can be helpful or crippling: some need an extra leg-up on understanding the characters in front of them, others like to keep that distance so they can see the whole at any given time. Others, of course, just acclimate themselves to the film as it's intended--which a good director should be able to work any viewer into, even if it isn't their plan to do so. This is typically done by taking an interesting story or character or concept and filming it in such a way that it draws the viewer in, regardless of their emotional involvement. This isn't a film that asks you to scream, "Don't go into that room!" because it makes clear that the characters are very separate from you (not that this will stop those who feel the need to scream out such warnings). We are watching Ryuji and Asakawa try to solve this mystery and save themselves and experiencing it voyeuristically, making it all the more terrifying for the fact that we couldn't help if we wanted to, because there's a clear wall between us.

Hideo Nakata, as director, is very successful at building this wall, with careful pans and swings of the camera placing it outside the context of the characters in the film without being overtly distracting. He gives us a view of all necessary elements without unnecessarily involving us in them, never giving an extreme close-up unless the events themselves call for them, as a way to heighten and enhance experience of the event, instead of as a way to telegraph to the viewer the exact meaning and importance of any image. When a character sees something startling, unusual or even supernatural, it does not jump to the specific element of their view that is relevant to events, but rather to the entirety of what they see, with a framing that centers on the important object or event without leaving the area of their own focus. Once again, this separation enhances not only the visuals themselves, but the dramatic experience of them by keeping us tied to events more than involved in characters, able to see them as distant but familiar strangers, people we do not interact with but could see any day.

As promised I must establish the reasons this film succeeds where its remake fails, because it's the simplest of comparisons and a readily available one. I work pretty hard on avoiding anything resembling a spoiler in most of my reviews, but there's one element these two films share that is most definitely just that. I'll lay out the evidence that otherwise is involved, then determine whether it's necessary to finally hit that last mark and definitively spoil both films. This is a preliminary warning that you ought not get to involved in reading this paragraph.

The essence of difference between the two films comes down to two primary elements: method and explanation. Both have methods, both have styles, an element closely tied to the method in this context--but only one leans on style. Both have some semblance of explanation, but only one goes to great pains to explain as much as it can while still attempting to remain "mysterious." The Ring is very heavy on style, drowning the images in a cool colour filter and draining anything natural from them, using all sorts of standard Western film-making clichés to establish its point--when the phone rings, a smooth but rapid zoom on it makes sure we realize that, yes, THE PHONE IS RINGING. When there is a death, a startle-jump shot of the body, heavily made up and backed by standard musical stings gives us the cheap scare that naturally results from loud noises. This is where the methodology ties into the style: The Ring's method is painfully obvious and overt, slamming the viewer's head into the wall (or perhaps the screen) to emphasize any and every event. The "video" within the film is like a bad student film--"The ladder represents man's inevitable fall as he attempts to ascend the rungs of life in social climbing, forever denigrating his own spirit, sacrificing it to be a soulless invertebrate, torturing himself before leading to the suicide of his own soul!"--and goes on far too long. It also (like the film itself) relies on cheap shocks and gross-outs. A nail. Crawling millipedes (or centipedes, I forget). Maggots. Burning trees. It's screaming out about its own symbols and yet pretending it's subtle, all the while casually inserting ridiculously obvious attempts to unsettle its audience. From this, these obvious symbols, the film proceeds to explain itself to death. Samara is a real girl who blah blah blah, abuse, parents, horses--this is too much. Why is the Western horror cinema so often obsessed with explanation? Explanation ruins horror, because it eliminates the fear of the unknown by making the unknown known. If there's a dramatic aim (such as Stir of Echoes) it becomes an acceptable loss because there's another intention behind it. The shallow, superficial, CGI-laden The Ring is clearly intended to do no more than scare its viewer, because it does not concern itself with character or meaning. Meaning is erased as the story progresses and cheaply undoes its own emotional explanation in favour of shocking the viewer. It commits a cardinal sin by telegraphing what is supposed to be the biggest scare in the movie.

As I say though, this is a subject for comparison and contrast. Ringu took an entirely different approach in its creation. When a phone rings, it rings like it does in reality. We do not teleport to a phone and lean in to look at it in detail whenever it rings. We hear it and often it startles us--even if there's no real reason to, because it is an unexpected and loud noise--but more importantly, a "naturally occurring" one. The phone does ring. Music does not jump out from behind us whenever there is a murderer lurking in the shadows (though I guess that would be nice for self-preservation and cutting down on such crimes). There is a bit of the startle-scare in Ringu, but it usually leads to the feeling of crawling skin rather than a leap out of a seat thanks to a shot of adrenaline. The words that describe Ringu and its atmosphere are usually words like "unnerving" and "creepy," rather than "scary." This is because Ringu builds atmosphere. Lighting is mostly natural (though probably not natural light, of course) and the people in the film do not leap up and scream at each other to enhance tension. Tension and suspense occur within the atmosphere of the film itself, the disconnect from the characters pushing the focus to the tone of the film instead. It builds to an unsettling climax in the first scene and then builds again in the same way as we find our main character. The "video" is weird and obscure, not clear in anything, not showing a focus on anything, and seeming to simply be a collection of random and unrelated home videos, mixed with some peculiar and unnatural ones, like a newspaper article whose kana swirl and twitch. The difference between this film and its remake comes down to the scene both are most remembered for. By the time it occurs in the remake, we know an awful lot about this girl Samara (the Sadako character) and have heard her speak and seen some of her life. When it occurs in the original, she is still an enigma, an unseen face and all the more disturbing for it. When the infamous scene occurs, we do not jump and shout and beg for the characters to run, we are overcome with the urge to back away from our television sets rapidly and hide, unable to look away despite the pleas of our terrified minds to do so. It succeeds admirably at the kind of scares you can't easily manufacture--the kind its remake is obsessed with.

The contributor I would most like to thank for their work, though, is composer Kenji Kawai, who creates a brilliant score, with a nice, simple piano piece for the little bits of drama, and an unholy racket of contrasting atonal instruments that build into a sound that makes you want to crawl out of your own flesh at the right moments--if it wants to keep watching, it can keep doing so, but you have to get away from this sound and these images. Kawai uses a relative of that oh-so-familiar, rapidly failing calliope that sounds like it's filling with icicles, that downward cascade of goose-bump raising non-harmony we know so well and marries it to sharp string noises and burbling electronic low-end. It's absolutely magnificent in its beautiful terror.

Sabotage
Sabotage(1937)
½

I still have 21 Hitchcock DVDs to watch, only 3 of which I've seen before, so I'm going to be quite fearful of repeating myself in some respects throughout this review, prior ones, and the ones to follow. I suppose some measure is inevitable, but I tend to write it off as reasonable in recognition of the fact that few people actually read all of my reviews. There's neither rhyme nor reason to which ones I own, being as they come from boxsets primarily, so some I've only heard by name, and others not even that. I've certainly heard of Sabotage, but knew absolutely nothing of it beyond its director.

Mrs. Winnie Verloc (Sylvia Sidney) is the wife of cinema owner Verloc (Oskar Homolka, the thickly-accented Austrian who would later play Mr. Sardonicus' assistant Krull--and an Oscar nomination for I Remember Mama), who is not entirely happy in her marriage, with her younger brother Stevie (Desmond Tester) living with them behind and above the theatre itself. A blackout strikes London and leads to a demand for returned ticket fees by their audience, which Verloc waves away to Mrs. Verloc's confusion, as he only suggests that an alternate form of money will come in. Greengrocer Ted Spencer(John Loder) attempts to help quell the demands for Mrs. Verloc, but is almost more interested in Verloc's whereabouts during the blackout. Verloc visits a man at the aquarium where he beams at his blackout achievement, but the mysterious man who assigned to him the intent to terrorize London is unimpressed and assigns Verloc to a bombing. Ted is none-too-subtle in his curiosity and is revealed as an undercover officer who is stationed to watch Verloc's activities. It's only when personal involvement touches Mrs. Verloc that she begins to believe Ted and determine whether to act on her suspicions.

I was not aware of two things as this film very first opened. First, that films used on-screen definitions of their titles as early as the 1930s to open, and, second, that sabotage once referred to what is now known as terrorism (where my more modern understanding had been that it only related to activities which would disrupt normal workings--not that terrorist acts wouldn't do that, but a sort of unspoken understanding that such workings should be more the mechanical or political sort than the emotional sort). Thus any preconceptions I had of the film's intent were quickly erased, as there would be no plot of a company sabotaging another's factory or any such nonsense. Disruption of society was the order at hand, and with undertones of war-time motivation that are apparently far more subdued than Joseph Conrad's original story (known as The Secret Agent, and bearing no relation to Hitchcock's near-contemporary film of the same name).

Technique is usually the fascination with Hitchcock's work (especially when one is reminded of his rather disparaging comments about actors), and it is about this, primarily, that I find interest in this film. As usual (and similarly to Orson Welles' work on Citizen Kane) it's a danger to watch for these things, because they're typically well hidden in an emotionally engaging film, used pitch-perfectly to their intended effect and never announcing themselves, just as they shouldn't. It's the difference between a scene where you think, "Wow, that was really neat," and "Wow, I wonder how they did that," or even between the latter and "Oh gosh, I hope he doesn't do it!" You are not ejected from the film's world in service of masturbatory technique on the part of the director, and are instead shown something that, while innovative, is only an innovation made to serve the story--not itself. In this instance, there are fascinating scenes of double-exposure again, and clever usage of non-specific imagery (like grinding gears) to convey the tone of a scene, especially suspense. Probably the most interesting is a scene late in the film between Mr. and Mrs. Verloc, which is thoroughly enhanced by subtle actions on the parts of both Sidney and Homolka that are magnified by extreme close-up and a very smart placement of focus. I'd prefer not to go into plot details here, but the effect is pretty stunning and well carried off.

I was about to comment on the sadness I feel at never seeing Sidney act again, as I was very impressed with her performance--except I decided to check out what there might be to look into in the future and was stone-cold shocked to find she was Beetlejuice's Juno ("your caseworker"). I like her even more in light of this--a range of performance from this rather demanding one to an amusingly off-kilter and amusing one that shows she had some kind of sense of humour (heck, apparently she was in Larry Cohen's God Told Me To, even!). Homolka's presence is always heavily inflected by his accent, which seems to be impossible for him to drop, but always adds a slightly foreign (naturally!) note to his performances, something that clearly sets him away from the other characters. I'm of a mind to wonder if this is intentional on the part of anyone or simply a happy coincidence. His rather inept, greedy but not terribly awful Verloc is almost sympathetic, yet disgusting to the right degree when necessary.

Suspense is a difficult thing for me, what with the decades of film that followed and crossed my path (plus I was falling asleep when I first chose to watch this, out of sheer exhaustion and mis-timed understanding of the film climaxing), but I can see it in action even if I can't feel it. I've yet to doubt Hithcock's skill in this respect, and I find more to respect without being drawn too thoroughly into that, as I'm able to step enough outside to more easily recognize those aforementioned-subtle devices.

A very good film.

Twilight
Twilight(2008)

Working in a bookstore, with bookstore employees, I wrote off Stephenie Meyer's books like everyone else. In the lead up to the release of the fourth and final book (Breaking Dawn), however, I decided someone in the store ought to have read them all, so I did just that. I read them in about four days and quickly earned myself a string of criticism that will probably never completely stop. Hell, I told a date recently that I'd read them and liked them, and the (admittedly, pretty funny) response was, "...But you're intelligent!" I can't really argue people out of it easily, as I'm neither in high school nor female. Having just today heard that there are some real idiots out there (teenage girls, natch, considering the majority of the books' audience) who dumped boyfriends because they "weren't Edward,"* I'm not exactly in the best of company, generally speaking. I can't defend those people, because no one should--that's incomprehensibly stupid. I was not even that interested in the movie, until one of the millions of exclusive versions caught my eye by being terribly pretty.

Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) has just moved to Forks, Washington, an endlessly green, constantly rainy and cloudy small town, to live with her father Charlie (Billy Burke) while her mother Renee (Sarah Clarke) follows her new husband around for his spring training. Bella is not a fan of Forks, though many of the boys there are instantly intrigued by her, and some old acquaintances show up to greet her warmly, like Quileutes from the local Reservation Jacob (Taylor Lautner) and his father Billy (Gil Birmingham). Unimpressed by the attentions of Eric (Justin Chon) and Mike (Michael Welch), despite the jealousy it engenders from Jessica (Anna Kendrick), Bella is only intrigued by the enigmatic Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), one of the five adopted children of Dr. Carlisle (Peter Facinelli) and Esme Cullen (Elizabeth Reaser). The Cullens keep to themselves and disappear on sunny days, sitting alone in the lunchroom, paired off but for Edward, with Rosalie (Nikki Reed) sticking to Emmett (Kellan Lutz) and Jasper (Jackson Rathbone) sticking to Alice (Ashley Greene) and generally avoiding interaction with the other students. A wildly varying response to Bella from Edward only draws her interest in further, as he performs odd acts and alternates between looks of revulsion and hesitant friendliness. Eventually they find themselves in a love that's one for the ages, but that is harmed by the nature of the Cullens: they are vampires. They avoid human blood, but they are not the only vampires around, and most don't--and some are hunting nearby, a pack of three who have no qualms about killing humans: James (Cam Gigandet), Laurent (Edi Gathegi) and Victoria (Rachelle Lefevre).

It's not easy to explain the appeal to anyone when you're considered to have a brain. I'm a diehard romantic in some deep, dark, hidden place, despite my general cynicism, intellect-based approach to things and detached appraisal of things. That's the easy explanation I can give anyone and everyone, whether they suggest these books are simply "Mary Sue"** or horribly-written drivel. But there are other explanations as to why they held my interest so thoroughly, and they're detailed in some respects and vague and nebulous in others. First, vampires are never going to be an original thought again, at least not for a century or so. They've been beaten into the ground more than almost any other supernatural concept, from thousands of legends from various cultures to Bram Stoker to Anne Rice to who knows what else. It's exceptionally hard to make them interesting as a result, without just appearing to attempt to drive away from convention intentionally and aggressively, usually to no real end except "not tradition." Usually there's a discussion of what "rules" are "movie fiction," and, while this isn't an exception, that is usually the essence of the change in any film or book: Oh, this rule doesn't work so we have to approach killing this vampire differently and we can't hide in the sunlight or use crosses or we have to believe in them. It's often about showing off these differences more than anything else. I'm not inherently opposed to this, but the approach Meyer took with Twilight and its sequels is different.

Now, you may as well know that I'm about to give away the nature of the Twilight-vampires, which is an unusual discovery in reading. They're pale and cold-skinned and drink blood and avoid sunlight and have increased strength, speed and agility. They don't have fangs, they don't come from Eastern Europe (at least, not all of them, and not originally to the best of our knowledge). They don't hypnotize, they don't concern themselves with crosses, holy water, garlic or stakes. But this is where it becomes interesting: details come together to build these vampires as simply superior predators. They are beautiful in sight and sound, their voices and their faces, their smells and their everything. They are poisonous flowers that draw in prey with deception. But beyond that, they are something almost wholly other than human, near enough to living status as their skin sparkles in sunlight, their wounds do not bleed but seem more like someone has taken a chisel to them. These ideas are ones I find utterly fascinating, as I've never seen anything like them, simultaneously managing to be both acceptable with the term "vampire" and to be recognizably something different entirely.

The other element that is most interesting is that Meyer manages to properly convey the mentality of a teenager, without the usual pitfalls that other writers (and filmmakers) stumble into. Bella is not stupid, but she's not supernaturally intelligent; she's emotionally immature, but knows this in some respects. Bella is not the source of derision for all the established students, she's not that standard caricature of either the falsely homely girl (who is wearing glasses and has her hair up) or the unrealistically pretty one. She's not hated or mocked by everyone but Edward, she doesn't fall into the standard embarrassments or appear freakishly intelligent with classwork or falter unrealistically at it. Other boys are interested, but she isn't interested in them, not because she's better or they're inferior, but simply because they don't appeal to her. The other girls don't all hate her for this--though they're certainly jealous--and some even befriend her. It's a fine line, a good one to finally see balanced appropriately. Her focus, when romance comes in, that is the focus of her life, not anything else in school, so such scenes as everyone starting a running gag about her truck or some such thing (and then replacing it with some sweet sports car to put them in their place via cheap catharsis). I don't know about anyone else, but anyone who knows me knows that was how I saw high school. I may even see things that way now (though less intensely), but don't tell anyone that.

It is wish fulfillment though, the "perfect" romance of the accessible forbidden, though some would (of course) disagree. Some think Edward is whingy or boring or wussy or any number of other things, or that he's unfair or stupid for wanting to protect Bella, but this is a failure to understand--likely due to the interference of other revisionist vampires--that these ARE lethal predators, and he has every reason to attempt to warn her away, even if it does work out (after a fashion) for them to be around each other. And that's really the point, which anyone paying attention while reading ought to be able to tell: he's firmly placing Bella before himself for as long as he can, even if he is being foolish in his denial of pleasure and such. I say this as a straight male, who would not really want even a woman who was like Edward, because this is the exact person that Bella wants; it doesn't matter if you would prefer someone else, or think he ought to be more this or less that, because it's actually a specific character in Bella. She's not carefully developed, nor is anyone, because it is intended to avoid such philosophical depths (as this would unerringly run into the societal and philosophical conflicts that would arise from any examination of "perfect" romance). I think this eludes some people, both those who read to look down on it (often quitting before finishing, I might add) and those who are reading for their OWN wish fulfillment.

As far as the film adaptation goes, it is perfect in terms of spirit and never really fails to capture Twilight the book, despite variations in events (I do miss the question exchange game, I must say). Some folks decided to laugh at the movie despite liking the books, and this is just as ridiculous as those who talk about how hideous the books are without reading them, and even some who do read them. I'm not suggesting they're high literature or that this film is brilliant, but the criticism leveled at it reeks of pack mentality over anything else--a fear of being categorized as a teenage girl, of daring to like it. I know there are plenty of people who honestly do not like it, but they can typically give me some kind of intellectual defense of it, rather than just saying, "Oh, I prefer X, Y and Z," inevitably books of a widely-agreed higher "literary quality." This is an approach to art that annoys me endlessly: dividing "smart" comic books into "graphic novels" to separate them (when the terms are for medium, not content), or "film" over "movie" (which I deliberately use within the same review for the same movie, because I find that kind of pretension obnoxious). Just because it isn't Dickens or Follett or whomever, does not mean that it is intrinsically bad. There's something to be said for the emotionally satisfactory, for the escapism and the fun. If we spend all our time dividing art into "intrinsically good" and "intrinsically bad" based on purely subjective qualifiers, we're missing a lot and removing fun and some kinds of response from our life experience. What a waste.

...That said, I recently suggested to someone that the accusation leveled at director Catherine Hardwicke regarding her action scenes--her alleged inability to film them well--was not unfair based on what I'd heard. Watching the movie did not sway me from this stance, though I was pleasantly surprised by a lot of the rest of the film. Especially toward the beginning, there's a very clear eye and care in any given scene, very specific and artistically arranged, always well-blocked and usually well-framed. Almost any action involving the vampires, though, looks absolutely ridiculous. There's a tendency in the modern age to ignore physics or anatomy when showing supernatural actions, but not in the aesthetic way that Spider-Man artists have done it for years. Huge leaps reek of being carried by wires, failing to capture arcs of movement or appropriate body movement in doing so. It's distracting, especially knowing that it could be done better. The image memory used for rapid movement is cheesy and dated, despite being a well-made effect (ie, the technology used is smooth and unintrusive, but used poorly). Toward the middle of the film, someone--based on her attitude in behind-the-scenes material that suggests she's never stopped being the kind of teenage girl that stereotypically likes these books, the teacher or parent that thinks they are "cool" with kids and has no idea they aren't, I think it was Hardwicke--decides it would be a neat idea if the camera would swim into and through shots, with stupid low angles and clumsily obvious handheld movement. It's not unsteady, so I don't mean to impugn the work of the camera operators, but it's unnecessary and distracting, often creating a terribly crummy feeling of intended evocation that fails miserably. The music is also a little distracting sometimes, with a focus on the uninteresting sounds of Meyer's own taste (thus making its choice understandable anyway), which even includes the hideously unpleasant Linkin Park--but thankfully only in the end credits.

So what is the overall reaction to this film on my part? You're not going to like it or suddenly like the books after watching this, but you really ought to like this if you liked the books.

And it's a good thing they got rid of Hardwicke. Sorry. If I had to hear one more insipid comment in the special features from her that belies a sort of misused and under-developed intelligence (it seems to be present, but it's like she doesn't know how to access it) I would scream. There's a technical understanding in it, but it's always terribly obvious, like the way I speak of film-making technique--amateurish, but experienced, if you will.


*Of course, this was hearsay, and I hope with all my might it isn't true.
**A term for wish fulfillment-oriented writing, wherein the main character is easily interchangeable--especially with the author and/or readers.

Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV

I used my review of Terror Firmer to describe the difference between early, middle and late period Troma films, with that one representing the last group. It predates this particular film, to date the last Toxic Avenger movie, and so this is yet another of that particular group. All had Lloyd Kaufman in the director's chair in some respect, though by this time Michael Herz had resigned to a production-only role, where previously he had co-directed. Writers and crews changed, though Kaufman was always involved in writing in some respect, and maintains a decent level of control as director. Despite most of them gaining their greatest level of familiarity and appreciation on home video, Kaufman continued to film all four films in 35mm.

A hostage situation at the Tromaville School for the Very Special leads the Toxic Avenger (David Mattey) to appear and thwart the plans of the Diaper Mafia, led by Tex Diaper (Trent Haaga, who had a hand in writing, as he did with most Troma films of this age). The explosion that results from the bomb that even Toxie's sidekick Lardass (Joe Fleishaker in one of his biggest, oh dear, pun not intended, roles) cannot stop causes a dimensional switch that leaves Toxie in the alternate world of Amortville and his doppelgänger the Noxious Offender (also Mattey) in Tromaville. Noxie is far from Toxie's sweet but violent good guy and proceeds to take over Tromaville with the help of officer Theodore--yes, really--Kazinsky (Dan Snow, for the first time NOT playing Cigarface). Meanwhile, Toxie bumbles through Amortville, faced with mirror images of friends, family, acquaintances and activities (where there are nuns in Tromaville, there are prostitutes in Amortville, and so on). The pregnancy of Toxie's wife Sarah (Heidi Sjursen) adds to the clock in the need to return Toxie and his companions from the School for the Very Special, Tito (Michael Budinger) and Sweetie Honey (Lisa Terizakis), to Tromaville and stop Noxie.

On the surface, we once again have an off-kilter comic book story, with our hero fighting an evil form of himself, but with typical Troma twists, including the intent to offend anyone and anything--or really, to show a lack of reverence for anyone and anything. Little bias is shown as both anti-abortion activists and abortionists are mocked within minutes of each other, and Tito is occasionally smarter than Toxie. Toxie gains a new sidekick (of sorts) in Pompey (Barry Brisco), a black man being dragged behind a truck driven by rednecks (one of whom is original Toxie Mitch Cohen) until there's nothing left but a (still-talking and living) head. Of course, Toxie proceeds to blackface the redneck with the truck's engine and have him strung up by his fellow Klanmembers, so there's little doubt about how Troma feels about the issue, even if they're willing to mock school shootings, abortion and horrific racial crimes. Taste is in even shorter supply than usual, as is standard for the new school of Troma, with a strong stream of feces-related humour and death mixed in with the standard blood and guts and t and a. Anyone female who can be topless is, or even fully naked. Males are not spared the same, but are generally treated more as sources of mocking humour in this.

I'm not a big fan of Troma's wanderings into the waste realms of humour, but it's done with that enthusiastic excess that at least sends it beyond gross or immature and into the realms of self-conscious stupidity that belies a twisted intelligence perverted to shrugging indifference to intellectual matters. Effects are also in the realms of Terror Firmer and Tromeo and Juliet in terms of quality and spirit: thick and "realistic" blood, but floppy, rubbery body parts that have no chance of being mistaken for real. It's a mix of "satisfying" gore and ridiculously goofy gore, but with a heavy introduction of fecal matter. Obviously this really isn't my favourite part and I would have preferred its absence. Anyway, it's not the only source of humour, with both absurdity (such as the finale of the Mayor's speech to the citizens after unveiling their plan to deal with Noxie) and referential humour (Tromadu, the Mayor's estate, which is displayed in flickering newsreel style, calling to mind...oh, it's some other movie, one that also starts with Citizen, I think?) still making strong showings.

A lot of the appreciable humour for longtime Troma fans comes from the relentless stream of rather naturally inserted cameos by actors, characters and behind-the-scenes folks. Lemmy Kilmeister of Motörhead makes numerous appearances as a deadpanning commentator, Trent Haaga (who stars in Terror Firmer) has a rather large role as both Tex Diaper and a back alley drug dealer, Fleishaker and Snow have rather large roles, porn star Ron Jeremy plays the heavily religious Mayor Goldberg, former Toxie villain Rick Collins plays an Amortville police officer who attempts to stop Noxie, Corey Feldman (who hides himself behind fake name Kinky Finkelstein and a fake moustache and glasses) plays Sarah's gynecologist, Mark Torgl returns, thankfully, to play an evil version of Melvin, Toxie sequel villain Malfaire's actress Lisa Gaye has a brief role as an abortion counselor, Yaniv Sharon, famed for his full frontal nudity in Terror Firmer is Rex Diaper, Tromeo and Juliet scripter (who also wrote the shitty Dawn of the Dead remake) James Gunn appears as "Flem Hocking," a disabled brilliant scientist in a wheelchair (take a wild guess who that refers to), Henry "Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf" Nasiff plays God, Julie Strain (who inspired the panned Heavy Metal 2000's main character) and husband Kevin Eastman (who co-created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with Peter Laird, but now edits, publishes and owns the American Heavy Metal based on the French Métal Hurlant) appear just for a death gag, Eli Roth (who had just directed Cabin Fever and was later responsible for the Hostel films) appears next to Lemmy in the crowd, Stan "The Man" Lee narrates, Terror Firmer star and Tromeo Will Keenan is hit by a car, Lloyd's daughter appears in crowds in both __Villes. There are probably others I don't even recognize.

It's interesting, though, that plotwise, we see the return of many things inexplicably changed for the middle sequels (here referred to as bad and apologized for, via Stan Lee's narration). Melvin is now Melvin Furd again, his girlfriend is Sarah again (instead of Claire, the name given for Noxie's sex slave equivalent to Toxie's wife in Amortville), he's once again far more gory in his takedown of criminals, his voice is again dubbed, this time by Clyde Lewis, whose voice does remind one of the original Kenneth Kessler. Despite this, the new tone of Troma seems out of keeping with the original Toxie spirit in some ways, far more over the top (at first Heidi is reminiscent of the original Sara (yeah, no H, oops!), Andree Maranda, but eventually becomes ridiculous and cringe-inducing in ways that she shouldn't, even in a Troma movie) and gross. There's an element of "normal movie" in the 1980s Troma films that has been lost in the brief foray into almost completely normal comedic film in the late 80s and early 90s, as they've gone completely into exploitation, offense and peverted, giggling Grand Guignol. It's kind of sad, and proves they are unlikely to ever really reach the heights those first films did, which were almost like normal movies that had bizarre, funny things inserted, that turned them from bad or mediocre films into memorable ones, instead of this approach that looks like bizarre, funny things with a movie shoehorned in. It works a lot better with the films that didn't have predecessors, and lets this one down a little. This doesn't make it bad (at all!) but it does mean that anyone hoping for more of the original will still be let down.

Toxic Avenger 3: The Last Temptation of Toxie
½

I've already mentioned a poster that caught my attention as a small child in the grocery store my family frequented, but what's important here, important enough to repeated that anecdote, is that it was the poster for this film. Imagine you are a child with a love for comic books and superheroes and movies related to them. Look at the poster for this film: a musclebound body in a tutu holding a mop with a disfigured head atop it, punching a big green dragon with enormous wings. Come on. That's pretty exciting. It's probably ridiculous to you now, but that's your loss, not mine.

Toxie, the affectionate name for the Toxic Avenger (Ron Fazio), is settled well into Tromaville, NJ with his "seeing impaired" girlfriend Claire (Phoebe Legere) and his mother (Jessica Dublin), so settled that he has run himself out of a job. There's no more evil to clean up anywhere, and he's not very good at stopping the "bad" things like old women cheating at cards and children who won't eat their lima beans (can't blame them there, personally). He's concerned about his inability to get a job, trying with the IRS (becoming the "Taxic Avenger"...oh dear) and failing. Claire receives an offer to get her eyes fixed, but it will cost $357,000, which is difficult with Toxie's inability to get a job. Apocalypse, Inc., however, remembers Toxie's tendency to clean up their messes, and the Chairman (Rick Collins) plans to get around this by hiring the rather dim-witted hideously deformed creature of superhuman size and strength. Toxie doesn't note the return address on the job offer and gets Claire her sight, failing to notice the anti-Apocalypse signs and hatred of the townspeople who once loved him, until Clair forces him to face his change into, well, a hduppcossasie. Then he returns to kick Apocalypse out of town, only to discover the Chairman's true identity as--yes, The Devil.

I have seen this movie many, many times. Honestly, I'm not sure how much--or what--is the difference between the unrated and rated versions of this film, because it is actually the least gory of all the Toxie films. The beginning videostore robbery/vandalism (stopped by Toxie, of course) is probably the only exception to both the completed tonal change (begun in the prior film) and to the absence of gore (generally speaking, at least). There's a decent bit of gore to Toxie's typically ridiculous method of bad guy disposal (making full use of both his mop and items in the store). After that, though, deaths are fewer and further between, and most remaining are non-gory or non-human.

The spirit of the second film is continued quite nicely, but this is hardly a surprise when they were originally a single movie and thus filmed simultaneously. The wonderfully out of place but literate quotes of Patrick Henry and Shakespeare--as seen in the prior film, too--are continued and fit the Troma sensibilities perfectly, swinging performances like Phoebe's from ditzy overly-blind (ie, she swings wildly and does things no real blind person would simply by being blind) tart to the strong firebrand who brings our wayward hero back to the light. Rick Collins is malevolence in caricature as the Chairman, asking that Toxie kneel down and "work for him" (or something...) and cackling evilly with great gusto but intentionally ridiculous melodrama. This is all very much to be expected from a Troma film, but exhibits some of the strongest swings toward more generally acceptable fare Troma ever wandered into, especially once Toxie becomes his form of yuppie.

The real downfall of the film as a Troma film is the disappearance of Toxie toward the end, as the Devil reduces him to Melvin Junko again--but Mark Torgl declined (or wasn't asked, no one seems sure) to reprise the role (luckily he changed his mind for the fourth film) and so we're left with Michael J. Kaplan's performance. As Lloyd himself notes, Kaplan is actually pretty good, but this is the point where the characters in the film disappear from Troma-style "person as caricature" completely into "caricature." Where Torgl was a guy who could play a believable schmoe of a geek you might stumble across, Kaplan is played up as the caricature of one, with red mullet, buck teeth, fake pimples and Jerry Lewis mannerisms. This is distracting even in youth (but then I've always had a firm stance against actor replacement, wherever possible to avoid it), but the reality is that we've already changed Toxies, and now we have nothing left to tie this to even the preceding film, let alone the original. Rick Collins does a fair job at distracting from this in a pretty good looking green devil costume, but it's hard to notice when we've got neither Toxie nor Melvin to root for. This Melvin ("Little Melvin" as the characters and credits call him) is annoying and obnoxious, with a falsely nasal voice and little to like.

This isn't the dregs of film, though, as folks who don't get Troma will surely believe, but also as hardcore fans of early 80s Troma will likely agree. It's one of the weakest, to be sure, but really not all bad. It stays entertaining, bringing Toxie a little more into the "superhero" and "comic book" realms, as the second film began things.

But I liked the second Class of Nuke 'Em High, so what do I know?


*No, I didn't fall asleep on my keyboard: Hideously Deformed Urban Professional Creature of Superhuman Size and Strength.

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog

I don't really like silent films on the whole, and this is known to most people who try to discuss early film with me. It's not a prejudice without precedent for me, in that I've been bored by nearly every silent film I've ever tried to watch. I do know that once upon a time I felt black and white was intolerable (I don't recall this explicitly, but I absolutely believe this was the case, knowing the progression of my tastes and the bemused accusations of my father), and I know that I once decided to watch the 1925 Lon Chaney Phantom of the Opera in my youth and it simply couldn't hold my (extremely youthful) attention. It isn't until right now that I realize I was strangely open to the idea of trying a silent film even then, but it occurs to me that is the case. The last silent film I tried to watch (and did, in fact, get all the way through) was Paul Leni's Conrad Veidt-starring Victor Hugo adaptation* from 1928, The Man Who Laughs. This was, though, one of my notoriously obnoxious theatrical (yes, theatrical!) experiences, with an audience of then-fellow college students who could not stop laughing at the idea of a dog named Homo, as if there couldn't be any other meaning--and as if it could somehow continue to be funny after the first time. The film dragged for me, but it was a viewing mixed with increasing frustration and anger at the audience around me, which tends to make me want to leave and write incensed words to vent out the endless frustration (unless, of course, I release it via my occasional loud and profane requests for the audience to please be quiet--in far different terms). I picked up the Alfred Hitchcock Premier Collection, though, which collects many of his MGM-produced (or formerly owned, at least) films, including this one. I've been meaning to give another go to silent film and figured Hitchcock would be a good starting place for it.

The town of London is rocked by a continuing streak of murders on Tuesday nights that all take fair-haired women as their victims, bringing to mind the Whitechapel Murders (a legend about these being what the story was actually based on). A woman witnesses the most recent, telling the police that the man responsible is a tall man with the lower half of his face covered, the only clue to accompany the notes left on the victims: a note with a triangle, in the centre of which is written "The Avenger," giving the murderer his name. The owners of a lodging house, Mrs. Bunting (Marie Ault) and her husband (Arthur Chesney), take in a strange lodger (Ivor Novello) whose face is half-covered, to the amusement of their fair-haired daughter Daisy (June--just June), and the annoyance of the Daisy-courting policeman Joe (Malcolm Keen). Mysterious in all his actions, but suggestive of a role in the murders, the lodger captures the heart of Daisy and the suspicion of the landlady and Joe.

It's hard to look at films that are over eighty years old and make declarations about the things they did that other films didn't, because, of course, I don't know enough about the time period to be nailing down such things. This is, however, recognized as the "first Hitchcock film," despite being the third that he directed, even by Hitchcock himself. There is a hint of his work, or at least his later collaborations with Saul Bass, in a rather smart little opening credit-ish sequence (before there was such a thing in common use, I think I can say confidently) with a radial sweep opening over a static, abstract image to open the film. There are also some very creative touches, from the pacing of the lodger being filmed from below via a plate glass "floor" matched to a chandelier below it, using double exposure as the owning tenants look up and wonder at the pacing that causes the chandelier to shake. As Joe ponders his suspicions of the lodger, he looks at his footprint and across it float more double-exposed images of the clues that suggest his guilt. More subtly, there are clever shots like the image of a hand following a banister down a staircase, without any visual of the person attached to it, which gives a far more potent image to the shot than the simple one of a person walking down them.

There's a clever play on sympathies as the policeman, Joe, is shown to be an egocentric jerk, sure of his position in Daisy's life while ignoring her own feelings, yet giving our suspected murderer an air of sympathy that makes us wonder how on earth he can really be the murderer--even as he hides paintings of golden-haired women from his sight and fawns over Daisy's hair, or brandishes a knife toward her in a suggestive moment. Of course, this has the faint odour of studio interference (which I've since discovered was an accurate impression), in making then-heartthrob Ivor Novello almost contractually sympathetic. Even with this requirement, Hitchcock, consummate professional, takes a route dissimilar to Kubrick's and puts work into establishing the character as just that--sympathetic, rather than taking the twisted method of making him unsympathetic, but perhaps innocent.

As my discussion of sympathy may suggest to anyone paying attention--yes, this film is actually very engaging. I watched it with, I believe, Ashley Irwin's 1999 score that celebrated Hitchcock's (theoretical) hundredth birthday (knowing neither it nor the also-included 1997 Paul Zaza score, I opted to simply play it with whatever the default was), which was quite good and well-scored, with a lovely little musical phrase to accompany the oft-repeated blinking title card that said "To-Night Golden Curls."** Ivor was appreciably handsome, and Joe somewhat unpleasant, but both actors served to enhance these impressions with their performances, Joe playing an early form of the macho braggart and Ivor the quietly lethal but more honest social-inferior. It does incorporate, as was noted by commentators (and obvious in retrospect to me), some themes that Hitchcock would later play with more, such as pursuit of the wrong man (hmm, now why does that phrase sound familiar while discussing Hitchcock? Hmm...) and a fetishistic approach to women--here, of course, blonds.

This is probably not a bad film to start off someone with an open mind to silent films with, as I like to think I could be reasonably considered. It doesn't feel overlong (though I dreaded the idea of a 100 minute silent film at first, I began to worry there was not enough time to wrap up the story toward the end), and is quite nicely paced once the audience catches up to it.

*Yeah, I felt the need to work in all three names. Deal with it.
**Not to be confused with station bumpers you might've seen on NBC in the late 1980s.

Death Note (Desu nôto) (TV SHOW)

In recent years, I've decided to open my mind to greater possibilities of appreciation than I previously allowed. I think a lot of people would laugh, hearing that--knowing how vocally I complain about many, many things, especially current and popular ones (which thus come up more often, which leads to me seeming more cantankerous because my complaints then come up more often...), but some of the people who've known me longest are often surprised at what musical artist or film or medium I'm suddenly advocating--and never for the loss of something I've liked in the past (or at least rarely). At one point in high school, I experimented with watching anime, but was turned off by a lot of bad stuff--and a lot of dubs (there wasn't much in the way of DVD back then, after all). I never really touched manga, and even lost interest in the anime I was watching dubbed then. Very recently I've picked up things just at random that seemed or sounded interesting and read or watched into them, only to find myself more caught up than I expected. Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata's manga Death Note pretty quickly captured my interest, though, and I heard good things about the film adaptations, which I'd already seen an article about in, you guessed it, Fangoria. After reading the great majority of the manga (still in progress, I'm reading a few other things at the same time), I picked up the two Japanese films based on it. This (as the simplistic title probably suggests) is the first.

A series of murders across Japan kills numerous criminals, both newly arrested and already sentenced by way of an otherwise inexplicable heart attack. The Japanese police form a task force to deal with this, the media dubbing the soul behind the murders "Kira" (realistically, we should take this name as, well, "killer," as that is what the kana would really stand for--at the last, that's the impetus behind the name choice), and puts Soichiro Yagami (Takeshi Kaga) in charge of it. His son, Light Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara), is a law student who is interested in becoming an investigator himself, but hacks into the police database to see how well justice is served. He's surprised, disgusted and disappointed by the number of dropped, unsolved and otherwise unfinished cases. Unsure he can believe this without seeing it, Light wanders into a bar to see one of the criminals he stumbled across online in person. Hearing this criminal laugh over his exploits, Light leaves in a rage and tosses his law books into a garbage heap. What he finds then is a notebook labelled "Death Note," which contains instructions that tell him he can kill anyone simply by writing their name in the book. A successful test leads him to believe he can create true justice in the world by removing all criminals from it--becoming the soul known to the police, later, as Kira. The prior owner of the Death Note is a shinigami (or "god of death"--basically one of many "grim reapers") named Ryuk (voiced by Shido Nakamura) who refuses to take sides but answers questions for Light as he attempts to foil the efforts of the police, and eventually those of world famous detective "L," whose identity is unknown to everyone--thus preventing his easy execution at the hands of Light. Eventually Soichiro and a small team--Mogi (Shin Shimizu), the young and excitable Matsuda (Sota Aoyama), Ukida (Ikuji Nakamura)--are brought by go-between Watari (Shunji Fuijimura) to the actual L, who asks to be called Ryuzaki (Ken'ichi Matsuyama), and seems to be the only mind capable of plotting things out far enough to match Light's brains.

It's actually pretty difficult to go through the full plot of Death Note for anyone unfamiliar, beyond the essence: L and Light are brilliant tactical minds, capable of complex psychological traps and at cross-purposes in the world. This is the central element of all forms of the franchise (at least, I assume the anime I've yet to see also includes this, considering I understand it pretty closely follows the manga), and it's utterly fascinating to see. In poor hands, a plot like this would rapidly become laughable and unacceptable in terms of believability. Ohba and Obata's manga is utterly fascinating and page turning though, filled with twists and plots from L and Light that can make your head spin. Morality, it may surprise some to find, is rarely discussed except as an element of the logic behind the plotting. Whether Light's actions in trying to create final justice and peace in the world are justified is neither explored nor questioned (in positive OR negative tones). It's simply not the issue, because it's far more important to keep ahead of him than try to decide whether you are okay with what he does--especially if you are L, who shares enough with Light, personality-wise, that he views this as a game.

Shusuke Kaneko brought a slightly different approach to the manga in adapting it for film, feeling that the unemotional calculations of Light and L were not quite right for film, nor was their incessant monologuing and thought process (both of which are brilliant in writing, but would become tedious pretty easily). As such, the events of Light's backstory in the film, with his interest in whether justice is being served and surprise that it isn't, as well as his exploration and angry response to discovery of the truth of this assessment, are all added to the film version and not present in the manga. In the manga, we leap straight into Light's decision to control and rule the world through fear to create peace, with a sociopathic protagonist who is interested in winning and being able to keep up his lethal plan for keeping the world in order. No time is spent on developing emotions for him as he uses almost anyone to serve his purposes, taking on girlfriends as cover and never really holding interest in them. The film Light has a steady girlfriend, though: Shiori Akino (Yu Kashii). They go on dates to go on dates, not simply because Light needs to convince the brilliant L--who already manages to suspect him--that he is innocent. This and his response to actually witnessing some of the deaths is a pretty big change--they're seen to have an emotional effect on him (other than, well, a feeling of victory and/or power). It's not an unwelcome change, though it's not a definitive improvement--or degradation, really. It's a new approach that resets our perception of Light and lets us more rapidly gain empathy for his actions by making him a more relatable character, who slowly finds the desire to win and rule rather than starting with it. The manga builds our interest through sheer suspense, wanting simply to see how the hell he can get out of it, where now we want him to because of himself.

Kaneko's directorial background is most widely known (internationally, at least) for its inclusion of daikaiju films--most commonly cited being his trilogy of Gamera reboots in the 1990s, which brought excellent effects, smart plotting and adult sensibilities (or at least not-childish) ones to a character long relegated to silly pop songs and MST3k riffing (which of course had little effect on my love for the giant-turtle-cum-flying-saucer). He's a smart director for effects-oriented and fantasy films, with clever comments on the approach taken to the thoroughly inhuman Ryuk: he capitalized on the unreal appearance of CGI to emphasize the fact that Ryuk is visible only to the possessor of his Death Note, or anyone who touches it. The effects are quite good, and manage a very acceptable three-dimensional version of Ryuk that perfectly realizes Obata's design from the manga and anime. Any elements that ring false are easily sublimated by the very fact Kaneko intended to take advantage of in using CGI in the first place--probably the most ingenious use of it to date (or, more reasonably, the most ingenious I can think of). Acting is solid for a film that was apparently originally just for television, though I'm still a little unsure of the appearance of the choices for L and Light. Neither is quite what I would have imagined or taken from the manga images, but both have the right voices and mannerisms all the same, so perhaps that's being unfair.

I do look forward to the sequel, Death Note: The Last Name, which I also picked up, so that I can see the rest of the plot as chopped down for film, which is probably the most interesting thing about this form of the story: despite having read it recently enough (and retaining information I read well enough) to know exactly when things deviate, Kaneko and scripter Tetsuya Oishi keep the essential columns of the story intact: what developed characters die or do, the way these events are used by L and Light is faithful, even when events are changed. Many of the best devices and plots are retained, such as Light's realization that he is under suspicion and being tailed, and his method of dealing with this, or the way that he deals with close surveillance. Ryuk is not overused and is in fact turned into a secondary source of information--actually, he is used this way a bit in the manga, but moreso here to keep momentum up--about the Death Note, whose rules occasionally fade onto the screen to nail down elements of its usage for viewers. It maintains the same cleverness of the manga while whittling down story elements and events to the bare necessities, condensing and re-arranging to keep the basic spirit while bringing a new dimension to Light. It's not quite as good as the series, but that's only because it doesn't have the space for endlessly intricate plotting.

If you're reluctant to read manga or watch anime, give this flick a shot--you may well be surprised.

Confidence
Confidence(2003)

A film that I would wander by and think, "Hmmm...Dustin Hoffman..." but never really thought about. then, it re-appeared with a slipsleeve/O-ring and suddenly I couldn't resist. Yes, I am a marketing victim, but I think we all knew that. I snagged it because every time I skip on a slipsleeve [the term I've chosen for them, since they're more like sleeves than covers, in my opinion] it disappears, and the case below isn't as good. Sometimes this is simply due to the loss of gloss, the gain of gloss (from matting), the loss of metallic undertones, or, occasionally, that rarest of rare treasures--the DIFFERENT slipsleeve.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid--as recently re-released about two years ago--did this. So did Confidence. Actually, the slipsleeve for Confidence kind of sucks, and isn't as good as the cover below, but I have *both* now.

Anyway, moving on...

There's a very strong cast here--with tons of great character actors sprinkled throughout. Really, the term is becoming difficult to use since we know so many of those actors by name now. But, all the same, this cast includes Rachel Weisz (who I don't believe I've seen before, only know as having been in Constantine--to which I'd say "strike one," but that's really all three strikes in one--and didn't impress me), Robert Forster (who I will always know for Alligator before anything else), Luis Guzmán, Paul Giamatti, Louis Lombardi (known most recently as Edgar on 24), Donal Logue, and of course, Dustin Hoffman.
It's in that subgenre of crime films that is the "con" film. Of course we can always look to things like Ridley Scott's Matchstick Men or The Sting or the last one I saw, Shade and see that...yeah, this has been done. It was most reminiscent of Matchstick Men in a general plot and character sense--kind of funny, as both were released in 2003. But, there was a strong style to it--not that disjointed narratives are anything new, either--and fantastic opening titles. The soundtrack was very ambient electronic stuff, which made a good impression even starting from the menu alone.

Edward Burns was the star, and I'm still trying to think of anything else I've seen him in. I'm sure if I checked IMDb, I'd know, but as it stands, I can't think of a solitary thing. Regardless, he DID impress me, and had a solid character to work with. The plotting was, thankfully, not completely transparent, which is necessary for any con film, but I did see a few odd bits coming. All the same, it fit together perfectly, the style held and didn't feel overbearing, and seeing all of those folk in their bits and pieces roles was great fun. Didn't overrun its welcome and told a solid, well-paced story.
Not an awful lot more to say than that...

Watchmen
Watchmen(2009)

I told everyone I had no plans to see it, and I didn't have any such plans. The possibility fell into my lap, much like both of Zack Snyder's last two movies, to see it with other people for free. In all three instances, I went in with some kind of advanced knowledge, in all three cases of the source material and trailers. In the case of Dawn of the Dead (the version that sucks, from 2004), I had a then-friend's recommendation. I had free tickets for 300. I had a ticket that would otherwise go to waste this time.

I still hated all three movies.

I'm not going to review in my normal fashion here and give you a synopsis. For a synopsis, read the book. In fact, read the book. Seriously. Go. It is ABSOLUTELY worth your time, I do not care who you are. If you appreciate good writing, read this book. Don't read any more of this pseudo-review until you have read the book. I'm going to spoil some things, insofar as the changes that I do not appreciate--mostly because they show an appreciable lack of appreciation for the work of Alan Moore (and, inexplicably because of his involvement, Dave Gibbons). I am, however, also going to discuss in general terms some of the failings of this film and Zack Snyder's approach to film in general, as well as failings of the cast, the script, the effects and the music supervisor (who should be fired) and the composer (who should have been sued for plagiarism after 300 anyway). This is a movie that fails for reasons like Revenge of the Sith: it has every aim to be good, it has the background, the budget, the plot, the pre-made events, characters and ideas, yet it wastes all its effort on the visual and everything else suffers for it, and the movie collapses into an unpleasant, clumsy and obvious pile of exploitative garbage that insults not only the work it's based on, but also the audience watching it.

I will have to begin with a brief discussion of what Watchmen is and what it is not, however, to frame the idea that this film fails so utterly in a context that can be understood by anyone unfamiliar with my viewpoint, the book, or the details or ideas behind it (such as someone who read it like I did the first time--rapidly and without a careful eye, probably skimming the intermittent text-only material). Alan Moore set out to create a story that would re-frame the world as one in which masked heroes existed, something that was very much in line with his re-write of Marvelman in the 1980s, or even the approach he took to Len Wein (who actually edited Watchmen) and Bernie Wrightson's Swamp Thing. In none of these cases was Moore setting out (in the vein of someone like Garth Ennis) to poke a stick at comic heroes with a condescending sneer, but to examine them and look at them through a different lens. His twists on characters, unlike that of Sandman, written by his occasional reference Neil Gaiman, drew upon the existing histories and simply darkened, rounded and expanded their worlds (or occasionally restricted them, such as drawing Swamp Thing more and more out of the superhero world). Watchmen did not do this, per se, only because it was required as such by his then-publisher D.C. Dave Gibbons has been credited by Moore and history as being heavily involved in the creation of Watchmen, but primarily in terms of look and style, as Moore notoriously scripts his work down to details (a single 30 page comic getting 101 typewritten, single-spaced pages, for instance), though he also bounced ideas of Gibbons, and Gibbons rounded and added some details himself.

Watchmen is a book that does not kick dirt in the face of superheroes and their fans, and it is not a book the suggests Moore hates superheroes (though of course he's done with them, as it is his rather mercurial nature to be, and finds them boring now to write or read), nor that he feels the need to tear them down or re-arrange them. It is more in keeping with Frank Miller's contemporary The Dark Knight Returns, which DID take an existing character and re-create him as something other than what he was--an extreme example of Batman that had a comparatively small reach within the books that followed. This isn't to say its influence itself was small, so much as it melded with existing ideas (instead of replacing them). Moore and Gibbons' work pushed all the books by looking at the idea of heroes on the whole. It's an examination, beyond that, of what is right or wrong, philosophically, and an examination of American society and the iterations that might result from the existence of real masked heroes.

I'm going to go out on an extremely short limb here (one that effectively has adamantium scaffolding to support it, if you'll pardon the reference) and say that Zack Snyder doesn't quite get it. Alex Tse and David Hayter's script is pretty faithful to the original novel, as is the look that Snyder's film has. The music chosen often refers back to quotes Moore used (occasionally on the advice, suggestion or recollection of Gaiman, apparently) inside the novel. And yet, it all comes together and seems to think that these things are enough. Imagine that we have a famed novel, and from it we draw exact descriptions, tracking down actors who look exactly like an author described, and place scene changes exactly where chapters end and start, that we read descriptions carefully and take down the dialogue and replicate the words and the placement of a single flower down to its petals. Imagine that's the research we've put into replicating that novel. Does that really sound like it will capture the SPIRIT of that novel? Well, in case you are still stuck under a rock with your fingers in your ears, refusing to believe that something with images can actually have literary value, that is almost exactly what has happened here. This is a valuable novel of extreme intelligence, density and high concepts. It's not a "funny book," though it's also not the single greatest work of the century or some such drivel. As with any true reach for equality, in this case between media, it is not something that replaces, improves or otherwise interferes with the existence or quality of any other medium. It is not superior to text for having images, nor to moving images for having complete control of expression and keyframing of scenes. It's another medium, as Moore himself would tell anyone. It's a medium that uses image and text, and does things with them no other medium is, or ever will be, capable of. Even if one moves them to an electronic format, the idea of Scott McCloud's label of "sequential art" is essential to the idea of the comic book, and removing it from that is an essential change.

This is the first problem with what Snyder has done, and a somewhat ironic one, after a fashion. He does not understand that faithful film translation of simultaneously visible and placed panels will never be able to replicate the exact experience of the novel, nor its pacing, ideas or emphases. We see the moment of revelation in someone's face after seeing it blank, not all the moments in between, unless the author is either stupid or feels the need to emphasize the moments between. The lack of the white space (or black line, or jagged edge, or bleeding blur, or whatever the authors use) makes a huge difference in what is perceived. It's clear from watching this film that the people behind it have absolutely no understanding of that fact. Attempting to translate Tales of the Black Freighter, the comic-within-a-comic onto film fails to understand the intrinsic separation. While the comic was (wisely) removed from the film for pacing reasons, the fact that it was filmed at all, without question about what the differences are, shows a lack of understanding. It's one thing to move from a panel that is a story within the story you're reading directly to a panel that is the story you're reading, or to have overlapping dialogue written in a panel of the main story coming from the secondary story. I will applaud the film for making me think about the brilliance of this, but not for failing to understand it themselves. The closest representation, then, would be to make it a movie-within-a-movie, but that's something else again. It's not the same kind of pseud-meta-fiction to have films within films, because it is a different medium.

This is the exact reason (amongst many similar ones, like the ability to intersplice panels of the Comedian's assassination with the investigators discussing it) that Moore and Terry Gilliam (whose voice is of a filmic weight so much greater than Zack Snyder's, it's a wonder they didn't cause the very cameras to fail to film this movie) called the book "unfilmable." It absolutely is just that: unfilmable. It is inseparable from its medium, much the same way that Citizen Kane cannot be excised from film, as much of Welles' art was invested in the visuals and stylistic choices, and the reason that most novel adaptations also seem to fail, even if they are good on their own terms. This is the thing that Zack Snyder utterly fails to understand in any capacity. It is with slack jaw that I watch him refer to the idea of this as "unfilmable" as some sort of bizarre challenge for him to faithfully re-create Doctor Manhattan or correclty set out the plot points in the right order for a film. He simply didn't get it, doesn't get it, and won't get it.

But, despite his endless claims to being utterly faithful, and those of his rabid fans who refer to his using the novel itself for storyboards or asking the cast to carry it around and make their dialogue more like the book, he makes changes. Some still insist that 300 is perfectly faithful to its source material, despite the bizarre and nonsensical (and utterly inexplicable) inclusion of monsters, mutants and goat-headed people--all pulled from a book that had humans, elephants and one terribly deformed human. Many will insist (and already have) that this movie is faithful. In many respects it is; some panels are replicated with a smart eye toward a realism that contradicts the primary coloured original (in contrast to the only perfectly successful exact translation made, Rodriguez and Miller's Sin City), but this is the only intelligent decision made in twisting the constraints of the original material. It would be mind-numbing to list the minutiae the that have changed, but the issue is that many of these elements actually matter.

I am not, I must interject here, someone who insists on absolute faith to a work. I've been accused of it, but it simply isn't the case. If it were, I'd've been alongside the other folks decrying the organic web-shooters of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, or the multi-generational teaming of the first X-Men. I have been known to complain about X2, about Blade (though I've yet to see it, I know enough of what has changed by virtue of the fact that the original Blade was a murderous psychopath, and by no means any kind of calm, controlled badass--at least in my favoured period for Marvel's "horror" books, being the early 1990s) and about 300, to name a few. My issue with 300 was simple enough: it bored me, the style wore on me and it just kept rolling on and on and on and on, contradicting itself with concurrent image and dialogue ("Only the hard..only the strong," says Leonidas...as he accepts a loving gift from his wife). I think the changes made were ridiculous, but more importantly unnecessary. However, in watching the movie, my distaste came from the style of the film itself, as I thought I'd just hazily forgotten the mutant and monster elements. I still didn't like it, prior to discovering I hadn't suddenly forgotten those elements. X2 and Blade are more indicative of what truly irks me though: ignorance and changes to character. I've already noted the changes to Blade, and I've never been big on modern, over-slick American martial arts-oriented films, nor the slicker forms of action-horror (though I've relented some there, hence my decision to finally see the first two films). I'll probably never watch the third film because of the changes made to the Nightstalkers, who were my introduction to Blade--with one character changed to something else entirely, and another weakened from his prior, more gothic origins.

X2, however, is a perfect example: a series and group of characters I am quite familiar with, turned and twisted into something flat, amorphous, uninteresting, repetitive and lacking in depth--under the hands of a schmuck who admits to hating comics, or at least looking down on them (anyone who knows me has almost certainly heard the story that informed me of that fact). Lady Deathstrike is robbed of origin, motivation and even character, not even managing to hold the room to have any of these returned to her later, with her prior interesting origin turned into "she's another Wolverine," which is a role already taken by the now film-deceased Victor "Sabretooth" Creed. Wolverine's own origin is reduced to re-nationalizing him as an American and making him the subject of a crass military experiment, instead of a deeply buried conspiracy. The man behind it, originally in an allegorical story about religion, is turned into anti-mutant whacko #284,183, with all elements of the controversial idea of religious motivation utterly excised. This is the kind of change that annoys me and bothers me, because it shows a lack of courage, a lack of imagination and a lack of understanding. The X-Men are there, especially in the hands of the young Chris Claremont, to serve as the objects of any number of prejudices, to explore those things by allegory and parallel. Now they're the subject of big ol' stunts, special effects and sawed off soap opera melodrama.

Zack Snyder aims for the same, and shows the same kind of understanding of the material he's working on. The revelation and change of the existence of Doctor Manhattan is reduced by the misnomer of "superheroes" being applied to anyone and everyone who wears a mask and fights crime. It is an explicit delineation in the book between the two, making Doctor Manhattan the one and only "super" hero. This, of course, is only the beginning--an irk that only some of us would notice, and an even smaller percentage would care about it (were it the only change, I likely wouldn't have cared, though I still would've noticed). Similarly, the title is made clumsily obvious by changing the Crimebusters to the Watchmen. Why? I don't know--he thinks the audience is incapable of simple understanding? It reminds me of The Ring's insistence that its title refer to a literal, well, ring--one of light. Why is this kind of change necessary? Who cares if people don't understand the title? Half the time, they associate the title with the film and don't think about it. But this is also minor. Mispronouncing Rorschach's name is also minor, and more of a personal pet peeve (this will be close enough to a first experience for many, as well as a heavily re-inforced one for most, that its pronunciation will likely take over, and it's ugly to my ears).

But some of these details I bring up to show that it only takes a minor change to change the tone or ideas within a work: now Nite Owl's costume hides his nerdy, retired paunch, despite the willingness to show it in any uncostumed scenes. This serves Snyder's imbecilic goal of increasing the "badass" quotient of the film. Silk Spectre II now looks like she has walked out of a bondage shop, but this is mere annoyance by comparison. Ozymandias, however, is an utter failure to capture anything of the spirit of the original. He's dark and gloomy in costume, utterly in contrast to the bright ray of loveable übermensch (and not in the Doc Manhattan sense!) golden boy that his comic form is. It is, then, a strong hint of future events, and a ridiculous one at that, that counteracts the proposed effect of them. By removing the brightness, one is left with an image that fits instead of seeming shockingly incongruous. The difference between comics and film comes into play with Manhattan's infamous genitalia. He has a full-fledged blue penis and testicles, something that a comic can, by virtue of artistic style, draw only faintly so that your brain understands that the character is naked without being distracted by it. I actually found it less distracting than the reactions I heard prior to my viewing would have suggested, but it still seemed a little--almost emphasized.

Most grotesquely, and I realize how strange this may sound coming from a horror fan, the violence is intensified to cartoonish levels. A slashed throat becomes electronically sawed off arms, seen as stumps, falling away, splashing blood, a fallen corpse, more bloody stumps. A psychopathic murder that brings to mind Mad Max is changed to an impassioned meat cleaver butchery (any description that makes a scene sound like a Cannibal Corpse song cannot be a good thing). The hint of murder that brings about this "justified" execution is subtle but horrifying in the book, hamfisted and disgusting in the film--what was once a nondescript bone between dogs, thus seemingly innocent at first, is now shown to have a child's shoe at the end of it, as if one can't connect the dots without the director's help. A single misfired shot that kills a background character to emphasize the speed of the movements that follow is replaced by numerous zoomed-in shots of bullet wounds hitting numerous people and spraying their blood and insides out of exit wounds as the once-implied-to-be-rapid movement is shown in obnoxious and ridiculous slow motion. Bizarrely, the violence of the scene as written is removed--where it the scene once emphasized as the brutal and rapid maneouvres of the proposed victim, now it becomes an orgy of spraying blood from the proposed assailant. This kind of change is bizarre and inexplicable, and only feeds many of the poor choices in the film.

The first violent scene I described is the one most ridiculous, offensive and almost lasciviously filmed; there's no need for it, no call, and certainly no need to focus on it afterward, as it encourages the modern mentality to think of it as a "cool moment," completely out of keeping with the intent of bruality in violence that the book endorses. The scene itself is used in the book to splash blood on Rorschach and show his utter indifference to this, while the following scene that is changed from a lighter and a sarcastic and malicious hacksaw offer to a vicious cleavering also shows a change in Rorschach, as does the decision to change his method of breaking a toilet from using his own foot to using someone else's head. This is not in keeping with the jaded, desensitized, militant, psychopathic and sociopathic character of Rorschach, and the movie doesn't understand this. There's a reason he kills a pedophile by placing him in a combustible environment and coldly offering him a hacksaw to free himself from handcuffs and not viciously hacking at him with a meat cleaver. He isn't that passionate, he isn't that emotional, except when his true face is shown against his will, when Walter Kovacs is forced out into the cruel world against the will of his stronger persona of Rorschach. Snyder doesn't get this, and offers no such hint to Jackie Earle Haley who plays him. They even go so far as to choose to make Rorschach a superhuman acrobat and martial arts expert. In the book, he slowly scales a building, in the film his grappling hook brings him flying up into the window; in the book he scales ladders, in the film he leaps off walls as if it were that deep pit in Super Metroid and he lacked things like ladders; in the film he pointlessly drops to a prehensile and superhuman grip of one hand in blinding motion to support himself. It's utterly unbelievable and out of keeping with the idea that he is a normal person physically--as is everyone else but Doctor Manhattan. This is where the idea of "superhero" being different is further destroyed by the moronic director who refers to all the characters as "superheroes," showing he doesn't even understand the simpler concepts, let alone the philosophical ones.

The third instance, the misfired shot, serves to further the denigration of the image and character of Adrian "Ozymandias" Veidt (whose adventurer name is inexplicably mispronounced once at the beginning of the film without correction). Veidt in the book is, as mentioned earlier, a golden boy, a brilliant role model with bright blonde hair and a friendly smile, under a shining gold costume (spandex, I think he actually says flat-out). He's the model of success in all senses. The film version, played by the inadequate and scrawny Matthew Goode, is distant and somewhat mischievous in appearance, furthering the stupid decision to hint at the film's progression. While there's a disturbing coldness to the book version, it works because it is disturbing, which is a feeling one gets because it is not in keeping with this perfect role model image. The moment when he is attacked, the blood mostly fills his own hands and his attacker's face as he mercilessly beats him in a series of ultra-rapid movements and attempts to force a poison capsule away from his mouth. This is now bloodless, for reasons unknown to me, as they were happy to shoot extra innocent bystanders and spray their insides across the screen.

This is indicative of the intrinsic problem of a stylistic hack like Snyder working on a piece that is composed primarily of philosophy, depth and intellectual ideas, interspersed with violence that then seems shocking, brief, momentary and brutal, always to enhance character, scene and events--not to enhance style. Shockingly, disturbingly, frighteningly, unbelievably, Silk Spectre II and Nite Owl II are attacked in an alley just like in the book--but proceed to mercilessly kill a number of their attackers, to the point of actually deliberately snapping necks. This was utterly out of character and seemed to scream out that Zack Snyder's obsession with violent images was indeed purely exploitative, prurient and masturbatory. It's not "cool" (though many in the audience clearly thought it was, which means the wrong impression is being given about these characters), it's disturbing. I take no issue with violence in film--I flock toward it much of the time, be it mild, brief, intense, disturbing, amusing or any other form--but when it flies in the face of characterization it sits wrong and offends me. Here, Rorschach is the only hero willing to kill; that is part of what sets him apart, and something about him that bothers everyone else. This is omitted, to the point that, hey, all the heroes kill people happily. What on earth were they thinking?

By far the worst offense on this front was actually the infamous rape scene. When the soon-to-be victim begins undressing, a near pornographic close-up on her now mostly-revealed bosom is absolutely disgusting and nauseating when one knows what is coming. When one doesn't know what is coming, it (hopefully, assuming one remembers the shot occurred) becomes rapidly so afterward. The exchange that breaks up this attack is also modified, failing to capture the character dynamic that makes it up, once again ramming into the face of any discerning viewer that the authors of this scene did not correctly read the book as written. This is not a subjective matter insofar as instances such as this: there is a clear-cut case for why Hooded Justice (who stops the attack) responds in exactly the ways he does at exactly the times he does, but these are modified and/or removed. The scene is matter-of-fact about the undressing and violent and unpleasant about the attack--something Snyder apparently felt the need to make more erotic, which is...beyond words.

And of course, Snyder is incapable of reigning in his endless love for the momentary slow motion, which was not new in Dawn of the Dead or 300, let alone now, and never serves to enhance--as a master like John Woo might--but to draw attention to itself, often ruining action scenes by saying, "Hey, look at all the AWESOME slow motion!" instead of letting it speak for itself. I was momentarily enthralled by an action scene in a prison that I knew was a bit beyond the book, but was surprised I didn't mind--until the slow motion kicked in and utterly ruined the scene by drenching it in the kind of style that is called "music video" or "comic book"--terms I'm uncomfortable with as a fan of music videos and comic books, and think can use such approaches more effectively by virtue of being a different avenue or medium. It often serves to re-emphasize the already prurient approach to violence, too, which just makes it all the more unappetizing.

I mentioned, though, that failures extended beyond this. Acting is good on the parts of some, even very good--Haley is excellent as Rorschach, but no one knew to tell him (or apparently he didn't read carefully enough to know himself) that Rorschach is cold, monotone and lacking in emotions when masked. He does not raise his voice or emphasize. It's all in a cold montone, as Moore himself makes clear when reading the words he wrote (as excerpted in Dez Velynz' The Mindspace of Alan Moore). Jeffrey Dean Morgan is pretty good as The Comedian, but seems unsure of much of the role, and a little uncomfortable with the darker elements of it. Patrick Wilson is great as the second Nite Owl, but is too focused on being "a nerd" as Dan Dreiberg, constantly scrunching his face into a perpetual look of smelling something unpleasant and accusing the source of said smell simultaneously. Billy Crudup brings some character to Manhattan, but his voice is simply too soft and light, with emphases that show too much emotion for so many to miss that he has any. The two names that I was mostly pleased to see (or disappointed, considering what they were in) were Matt Frewer, who plays aged villain Moloch and Stephen McHattie, who plays the aged original Nite Owl/Hollis Mason. I was very pleased with both performances, probably the only two in the entire film that actually captured their characters (though the reliable Rob LaBelle does well as Jon "Doctor Manhattan" Osterman's former colleague Wally Weaver, he's not working from a specified a character).

Otherwise, performances range from passable to dismal, with Goode, Carla Gugino as the elder Silk Spectre and Malin Akerman as the worst offenders. Goode is slight and brings too much menace to a shiny hero, while Gugino is reminiscent of, I think it was a Back to the Future-aged-up Lea Thompson, utterly false and unbelievable as a woman of 67, acting too old physically and too young emotionally, not even once bringing to mind the image of Sally Jupiter. Malin Akerman is simply awful, through and through, with dead, wooden readings, serving primarily as eye-candy and little else--especially for her ridiculously near-pornographic (no "near" if one counts softcore) scene with Dreiberg/Wilson.

The most appalling offense is the musical choices of director Snyder and whoever else was involved. Great songs are put to comically obvious or ridiculously inappropriate use throughout--whoever expected Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" next to softcore porn, or Hendrix' version of "All Along the Watchtower" inexplicably playing behind the image of an airship crashing into Antarctica? That one especially felt like a last minute cram for the awful and stupid "watch"-word connection. "The Sound of Silence" is played over a funeral, but a funeral for that of...The Comedian?! Who came up with this? Who in their right mind--no, there can be no right mind involved. Much has been made of the ridiculously stupid and obvious choice of "The Times They Are A-Changin'" over a montage of, guess what? Multiple decades! But nothing was so embarrassing as the moment when Doctor Manhattan appears in his war-winning role in Vietnam--to, oh dear lord, I can't believe I actually saw this, "Ride of the Valkyries." I could not believe anyone would stoop to such ridiculous crowd-pleasing nonsense, not even Zack Snyder.

To complement great songs abused (to say nothing of an atrocious cover of a Dylan song by My Chemical Romance: "Desolation Row" as done by a slickly-produced punk band--in sound, I mean, not a declaration that this lame band IS punk) we have the musical thief Tyler Bates, returning to work with his hack after being openly accused of the effectively proven theft of real composer Elliot Goldenthal's work on the brilliant Titus, directed by Julie Taymor, adapted from the work of a great writer, heavy on style and actually GOOD. Hmm. Bates' score is laughable, saccharine and melodramatic over scenes of the ridiculous and unbelievable romance between Dreiberg and the younger Spectre.

Of course, the final complaint is the most obvious: the ending. Much has been made on all sides about this change (if you have neither seen the movie nor read the book, I implore you to stop reading this now and go read the damn book, please!), but it's often mis-represented as an issue. As is often the case when I rail against changes to an established work, the old humdrum argument of, "but you can't bring it ALL to the screen!" is brought up. This is a strawman argument, at least for me, though. My issue is not with the fact that it IS changed (except with regard to Snyder's insistence that he was faithful) so much as the choice of HOW to change it. Including the involvement of a KNOWN character, an omnipotent one, one with nationalist associations and public identity, utterly stomps on the idea that was put forth in the book. It's glossed over into a cheap ending that doesn't address the concepts behind the change, and fails to note the obvious arguments against it. The idea originally was to unite humanity behind a common foe that was not human and could not be tied to any country, group or even person. All of that is utterly lost, because it is assigned to a person tied to a country. To add insult to injury, Nite Owl is now shown to have conflict with Jon--for no reason--over the fate of Rorschach, and even eventual involvement. This whole scene made for the first time in my life I ever seriously felt the urge to leave the theatre. I laughed at first, because it was incomprehensibly stupid, then it just kept going and got worse and worse. This isn't right for the characters or the story, and the idiot in charge doesn't get it.

Do yourself a favour. Don't see this movie. It's an insult to its viewers and to the excellent work it's based on. Go read the book and be happy, I beg of you.

First Blood
First Blood(1982)

Rambo is now a veritable cultural institution, the name given to any one-man army in action films, or anyone who thinks they are one in reality. A cartoon, action figures, four movies, cultural references down to (my favourite) Gizmo the mogwai in Gremlins 2, who dons a headband and makes a bow from a butterfly paperclip, and everyone knows exactly who and what it is a reference to. However many films Sylvester Stallone has done, he is unlikely to escape Rocky and Rambo, the two characters that are inseparable from Sly. Remembered as a gung ho, militaristic, ultra-violent celebration of black-and-white morality, xenophobic sensibilities and ridiculous odds overcome by a single man via ridiculous circumstances, it's hard to imagine how this image was spawned from First Blood.*

John J. Rambo (Stallone) is a Green Beret Vietnam veteran who is wandering the state of Washington in an attempt to track down the other surviving members of Baker Company, all of them returning to civilian life after the end of American involvement in Vietnam. He discovers that the friend in this area, Delmar Barry, has died from Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam, being finally taken in by cancer a year prior. Now aimless in his wanderings, Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) pulls up in his vehicle and suggests that the long-haired Rambo may want to reconsider his green Army jacket and haircut to be considered acceptable in the area, and offers him a ride. Rambo accepts grudgingly and asks if there is anywhere to eat, to which Will responds that there is a diner 30 miles away. Rambo is let out beyond the town's limits and Will expresses his hope that their conversation was helpful. Rambo ignores it all, instead, and wanders back into town, incurring the wrath of Teasle. Arresting him for vagrancy and resisting arrest, Will returns him to his own station. There the psychopathic Deputy Arthur Galt (Jack Starrett) takes it on himself to add a few extra instructions to his treatment of their new prisoner. A few violent blows, a hose-down and an attempt at shaving Rambo result in the PTSD-induced flashback that causes Rambo to break free from their custody and take to the nearby woods. The angered Will, Galt, and various other deputies--including sole voice of reason, Mitch (David Caruso)--pursue him, with Galt's complete disavowal of his duties leading him to fire on Rambo, who retaliates in the interest of self defense, causing the helicopter Galt is firing from to become unsteady, which causes Galt to fall to his death. Now Teasle refuses to back down and vows to pursue and put down Rambo, eventually enlisting the help of the National Guard and State Police. The only man to come out with any understanding of Rambo is Col. Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna), who trained and commanded Rambo, and knows far better just how dangerous he can be.

This film, despite the beliefs of some (and marketing that suggests it), is not soaked in machismo for its own sake, violence for prurient reasons or mind-bogglingly ridiculous action, or at least not obviously or visibly so. Catching the perfect crest of action movie methodology, director Ted Kotcheff takes the script of Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim and Stallone himself (who apparently infused the more sympathetic aspects of Rambo) as adapted from David Morrell's novel and melds the action mentality of the 70s with the new techniques that would overtake the rest of the 80s. A clumsy authenticity is mixed with just a pinch of spectacle-oriented massive stunts, giving us a feeling of simultaneous believability and contrived creation, the mix serving to enhance the overall acceptability of the action that occurs, little of it then standing out as an orchestrated stunt or unreasonable happenstance. First Blood's Rambo is a master of guerrilla warfare and survivalist technique, able to survive in the woods easily, hunting and building traps to attempt to preserve his life and well-being, all shown with a sense of Stallone himself being trained in these arts, with no ridiculous tools or methods coming across as unbelievable, but all appearing to take an instinctual sort of knowledge and understanding of environment.

The idea that the film is obsessed with guns, violence and the military is unsurprising in light of the fact that there are some who decry the existence of the military or who are offended by the presence of any kind of gunplay in fiction. There's not much other reason for it, as this is not a film that suggests any of these things are great, good, wonderful or even particularly acceptable. It's a fact of life and one that can't be avoided, especially in a conflict between a soldier and hot-headed police officers. Rambo sews himself up when wounded not to focus on gore, blood or violence, but to show what kind of a man he is: one trained to deal with pain enough to get the job done, to accept or ignore it enough that he can survive and continue to deal with outside threats. The use of an M60 might be considered overkill in Rambo's final standoff, but it's a matter of availability and likely also reflects Rambo's interest in causing maximum damage, as well as the decreased need for constant reloading that would otherwise be much higher with a clip-based rifle. Still, those who want to see this will see it regardless. And of course there is the flipside where folks inevitably decry this as unrealistic because they have the opposite prejudice in their mind, and refuse to believe that any police officer (in their minds intrinsically a paragon of honour and respect, regardless of the human factor) would mistreat a soldier (who falls into that same magical box of inhuman perfection). Both of these viewpoints are, frankly, stupid and naïve.

Instead, this film is about the effects of the military experience, especially the ingrained training received and how poorly it meshes with civilian life. No one is right or wrong throughout, with Rambo being a bit too belligerent for his own good (however unfair his treatment may be, he certainly didn't help much of it), and certainly the Sheriff and most of his deputies going way too far in the interest of their own petty boredom, cruelty and pride. Trautman is occasionally considered cartoonish, with doom and gloom statements about Rambo's skill and the allegedly inevitable death of everyone sent after him, probably most notably his comment about a "good supply of bodybags." I felt the same when I first watched it, but this time I was surprised when he appeared and it all made perfect sense. He's not making hyperbolic statements out of keeping with the attempt at "realism" in the film, he's making hyperbolic statements to make a point. He's proud, too, but reserved and cautious with it, knowing what to say when, and what not to say. His bodybag comment is a frustrated offhand remark intended to show that he is not relenting in his belief in Rambo's skill, and almost wants to see Will fail and see he's right--one last statement about Rambo's superhuman skill to both prick at Will and show that he realizes he's wasting his time doing it, and knows what will result from it.

This isn't a cartoon of a film or a cartoon of a character; the original ending would have been perfectly fitting for all that it would have been a downer, and it would definitely be interesting to see the full-fledged psychopath form of Rambo who does not stop short with any enemies and does whatever he feels the need to.

*Actually, no it isn't--king of ruining films with unimaginative, macho and moronic sequels that eclipse superior originals in popularity, James Cameron is responsible for this image.

Robot Jox
Robot Jox(1989)

I can't for the life of me remember what it was, but there was a grocery store in my youth that my family did not go to often, being as it was a fair distance from our home. They, like a number of grocery stores I knew at that age, had a small movie rental section. This one stuck out because it also rented games--even PC games (which, even then, I thought was awfully stupid). As on walked in, one saw the PC games, but a turn to the right and all the way to the end would find one in the science fiction section, where I saw the rather eye-grabbing cover of Robot Wars. A robotic scorpion "mecha" fighting a more humanoid robot? Really, you would be hard-pressed to find another cover that would draw me in so rapidly and completely. I know that I rented that, and later discovered it had a relative (allegedly a prequel, but not truly one), Robot Jox. I know I rented it as well, and I know I ignored whatever plot there was outside the giant robots in both cases, because that was the only thing that could interest me then. When I discovered Stuart Gordon had directed Jox, I gladly threw down a couple bucks to pick this one up, for nostalgia and for directorial completeness.

Seventy years after a world war that ended in nuclear holocaust, war has been outlawed and has left all territorial combat up to gladiatorial matches between pilots from the two remaining alliances: the Confederation and the Western Market, each piloting a giant mechanical suit, typically anthropomorphic, in both ranged and mêlée combat. Achilles (Gary Graham, whose other major role was that of Detective Sikes, the human lead on Alien Nation) is the Western Market's strongest pilot, and also the only one alive after Confederation pilot Alexander (Paul Koslo) viciously murders the long since yielded Market opponent in the prologue sequence. Professor Laplace (Hilary Mason) sees this as the perfect opportunity to test her "gene-jox"--genetically engineered warriors designed to be the best pilots in the games. The two primary candidates from this lot are Athena (Anne-Marie Johnson) and Sargon (Thyme Lewis), both proud, cold and arrogant. Achilles has one last battle in his contract though, and he and Alexander duke it out in Death Valley, with the final round of un-ranged combat resulting in a tragic accident that kills 300 spectators. Referees determine the match is a draw, but Achilles is haunted by the image of broken bodies below his robot and refuses to continue, leaving Athena and Sargon the better chance to gain an opportunity to pilot instead.

It's fairly public that there was a conflict between renowned sf author Joe Haldeman, who authored the script, and Stuart Gordon as director and story-writer insofar as tone and audience to aim for, with Haldeman aiming for serious drama and Gordon aiming for caricatured fun for younger people (the term "kids" is typically used, but the end result is too much of a mix for me to believe either was aiming quite that young). Unfortunately, this is all too apparent in the film as shown. While the DVD is a bit more explicit than the original theatrical showings (a teensy bit more violence, for instance), thanks to one of many shrugging studio transfers that neglects to look carefully (not a big issue here, honestly--this version was released internationally, so it's probably nicer to have this lengthier cut, really), it's still a bit childish. It's clear that this is intentional (or perhaps I just hoped it was that clear, knowing Gordon), with the clear idea that the Confederation represents the Soviet Union (still around when this was originally filmed in 1988, its release delayed by the production company, Empire, being bankrupted), and Alexander, despite being played by a German, having a thick and ridiculous "Russian" accent.

Probably the biggest hamper on the film, and I sort of feel bad for saying this even as it's true, is that it's littered with television actors. Certainly, good actors can perform on television primarily or even exclusively, but there's a certain type of actor that seems destined to remain on television, barring brief escapes into low-budget, indie pictures--or maybe bit parts in larger ones. Graham is actually pretty solid as Achilles, at least achieving the right emotional content for scenes that require it and comfortably shrugging into the role itself, even managing both the drunken depression of guilt after the accident and the swaggering braggadocio of a confident sportsman. Koslo is just shy of scenery-chewing as the "Evil Red Menace" (who is never named as such but reeks of this mentality), but is fun and pretty airtight in the role, cartoonish though it may be. Similarly, Michael Alldredge as ex-Jox Tex Conway is a bubbling stereotype (of a Texan! can you believe it?) that works, despite every synapse in my brain screaming out about how ridiculous his accent, hat and mannerisms are. Johnson, Lewis, and Mason, however, are pretty overwhelmed by their roles--or at least underwhelmed by the production--and have ridiculous and cringe-inducing performances, that, despite their earnestness, leave the actors flat on their faces, being neither serious nor stereotypical. Cardboard, perhaps, but not stereotypical (which was allegedly Gordon's aim). The lone soul who appeared interested in a Haldeman-style story was Danny Kamekona, a Hawaiian actor who seems to have a history of being given roles as Japanese, in this case an engineer named Matsumoto, who is behind many of the Market's designs. He's somber and worried throughout, making the clash with Tex Conway over suspicions of espionage on both parts bizarre, even as it mostly works (the physical exchange between the two is poor and sluggish, though).

This is not a hidden gem in Gordon's crown, nor is it a hidden shame--it's a "mixed bag" as we like to say, and the robot scenes (mostly using puppets and the wonderful glory of stopmotion) are almost worth it all on their own--heck, they probably are. The plot with the human portion of the film really isn't too bad, but the weak mainstream-television-style performances put a serious damper on this, as does the mixed tone. Worth seeing, but only if the idea of giant piloted robot combat drops your jaw or sets you salivating.

The Hustler
The Hustler(1961)

On a search for my last ex-girlfriend's first alcohol purchase, we stumbled across the Newman's Own Cabernet Sauvignon. Or rather, I did. I endorsed this repeatedly (as red wine is the only alcohol I happily drink) until she gave in. I noted the quality (for the value, at the least) to folks and was told that many Newman's Own products were quite good. I stumbled again across one later, this time the pizza. I suddenly envision the perfect plan, which is what I characterized the night of my viewing of The Hustler as: drinking Paul Newman wine, eating Paul Newman pizza and watching Paul Newman movies. I intended to watch more than one, but my "flexible" scheduling toward days off left me with time only for one. It was actually long before I'm writing this review, but I haven't gotten around to my review until now.

"Fast" Eddie Felson (Newman) is a pool player, a hustler and a shark, who has traveled to Ames pool hall where reputed master Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) frequents in order to prove that he, and not Fats, is the best pool player in the country. His straight man and partner Charlie (Myron McCormick) helps with hustles, scams and cheats, as well as controlling the finances of the partnership. After initially beginning to lose to Fats, Eddie begins to overtake him and Fats sends Preacher (Stefan Gierasch) to get whiskey--what Preacher brings back is Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), a man who gambles professionally and has the money to do it. With $1000 riding on each rack, Eddie is destroying Fats until time and booze begin to take their toll and Eddie falls behind. Eventually, after hours and hours, Fats retakes the lead and nearly bankrupts Eddie. Charlie encourages him to leave, and Eddie is lost. He leaves half their money with Charlie and skips out to a bus terminal, where he finds Sarah (Piper Laurie), who seems similarly lost, but refuses to take on Eddie's troubles. Eddie sets himself up alone, working smalltime hustles periodically to make ends meet. Sarah finds him again and this time decides he's worth the effort. Charlie finds him there and tries to bring him back out, but Eddie finds he was stashing away some money and refuses to have anything to do with him again. When a poker game brings Eddie back into contact with Bert, Bert tells him he's a born loser, and that he couldn't beat Fats because he lacks character, which Fats oozes--and says that he will, oddly, still take him on as a hustler for a 75% stake. Unsurprisingly, Eddie refuses this deal. When a stick at his pride causes Eddie to reveal his hustle too openly, his thumbs are broken. Left to ponder his fate in frustration like this, Eddie changes his mind and joins Bert, with Sarah tagging along to Louisville, Kentucky. There the effete Findley (Murray Hamilton) nearly trounces Eddie, but the intervention of Sarah--begging Eddie to leave from this morally twisted world--angers Eddie into a win, and leaves Bert calmly tugging him one way and Sarah passionately the other.

I was not surprised by the colour (or rather, lack) of the film, as I already knew that it was a black and white oddity (1961 and studio-backed!), but I was surprised by the film and its construction. I felt sort of bad watching The Color of Money months ago, because I had never seen this, but I still didn't know I'd be getting this, even with that one under my belt. The first thing that jumps out is the clearly careful framing and arrangement of any and all scenes. I'm not one to pick up on those subtleties (they are, though, intended not to be noticed so much as seen--and judged subconsciously, not consciously) like the arrangement of the heights of characters, but it was easy to feel the emphasis placed on where objects and especially characters were from frame to frame. This was a surprise to me because I think I expected something more in line with a sort of "sports film" that simply had a strong performance from Newman. Instead, it's a film about a sport that has little to do with that sport, and the framing was probably the biggest give away, only a bit into the film.

The plotting, pacing, writing and timing of the film are all languid, but maintain a consistent tension despite it. The visuals, the acting and the plot are what maintain the tension (the plot somewhat paradoxically, though the events within it are indeed tension-building), while the Kenyon Hopkins score slows and relaxes the tone of the film, like a fine, taut gloss over the seething underbelly of the torture of a man's pride and character. Felson is obsessed with being the best and proving it, determined to do so at all costs, ever-confident in his own abilities, even when he's losing. On the surface, anyway. Underneath he knows when he's down, but he also knows that pool is what he knows and what he's good at. Sarah is not disgusted by this, or bothered by this, and loves him anyway because of it. She sees the passion, determination and confidence and loves him for it, even though he can't really declare love for her, because the game is everything. It's not everything like people say it is, but because Eddie truly lives by it.

The constant discussion of "born losers" and people who "want to lose" is fascinatingly thoughtful, with Eddie the flawed innocent taken under the microscope for vivisection. He's not evilly intentioned for all that he's a hustler--he does it more to prove and test his skill than to dupe people, but he's also interested in himself, and because he lives so much for pool he has little time for other people. He does harm them, even as he doesn't mean to. The contrast to this is Bert, who, by his own viewpoint, is the matured form of someone like Eddie, who he feels is a loser because of his lack of character--which amounts to gravitas, after a fashion. It's pain and risk and danger that make maturity in his mind, and he's not afraid to inflict any or all of them to serve himself. It, too, isn't evil, but it has no concern for others whatsoever, and willingly uses them in his "mature" fashion. When Eddie finally sees this "maturity," his response is far more truly mature, instead of finally acknowledging the danger of the world and using and abusing it, he makes a choice that acknowledges it and rebels against it.

This is a lot more emotional, psychological and philosophical content than I had envisioned in the film, and it is mixed with the youthful intensity of Newman, the cold, viperous venom of Scott and the vulnerable Laurie, as well as an incredible atmosphere of "cool" behind it all, that is utterly successful and absolutely perfected by Hopkins' score. A film that truly lives up to its reputation.

The Lion in Winter
½

In high school, I had a class I can only loosely refer to as "world history," notorious both for its lacking "world" element (unless of course one doesn't feel the East is important--at all) and its lacking instructor (we skipped the Industrial Revolution because and I quote, he "[doesn't] like it." If this is reason enough to skip portions of history, why don't I just skip the class, eh? I don't like most history that's carefully instructed. Of course, this also extended to showing numerous films (often the mark, especially in a history class, of a lazy teacher--though, as with anything, this is not a universal rule). I saw, in that class, Spartacus, The Fall of the Roman Empire, this film and a handful of others--I think, perhaps, Mary, Queen of Scots. This was one of the first times I found myself interested in historical films from decades past, as they typically struck me as overly artificial and boring (I've commented on this in my review of A Man for All Seasons--especially my distaste for early period-costuming). In some respects, there's probably something valuable, then, that I took from the class. I of course also earned the right to slander Gladiator when it came out for being an open rip-off, catching this in the theatre when I asked whether the events in it were true. They aren't, and so the events were too similar to be anything but lifted. But that's another story.

King Henry II of England (Peter O'Toole) is coming up on a Christmas Court at Chinon, Anjou in France, where he makes his primary residence. Every Christmas he lets his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) out of Salisbury Tower, the only freedom she sees after her lock up a decade earlier for encouraging the revolt of their sons. King Philip II of France (Timothy Dalton, in his debut role) is pushing for the "gift" of his half-sister Alais (Jane Merrow) to the future heir to be either sealed with marriage or returned with her dowry. This works to force Henry's hand in choosing his successor, his son Henry dead and his remaining sons Geoffrey (John Castle), Richard (Anthony Hopkins, also debuting), and John (Nigel Terry) all clamouring for their parents' attention and the throne. Henry favours the snivelling John, while Eleanor favours the militaristic Richard, and never the twain shall meet on this. Reeling out secrets, lies, subterfuge, espionage, deception, revelation, acts, falsities, truths, half-truths and declarations, every one of these souls puts forth numerous plots to gain what they want, each and every one (ok, barring John) constantly a step ahead of some of the others, but two steps behind another yet. Alais is the only benign soul and innocent caught in this, in love with Henry for himself and disinterested in land or politics--but not without some understanding of both.

Only one acting Oscar was given out to this film, that of Best Actress, though James Goldman won for his adaptation of his own play, and James Barry for his score (which recalls Goldsmith's for The Omen at points--or, to be temporally accurate, something in the vein of Orff's "O Fortuna" from Carmina Burana). The film was nominated for Best Picture (it lost to Oliver!), Best Director (it lost to Carol Reed, also for Oliver!) and Best Actor (O'Toole lost to Cliff Robertson for Charly), and the most clearly robbed was O'Toole. O'Toole has still not won an Oscar, which at this point may reflect more on changing attitudes toward the art of acting than anything else. It was only a year later that Easy Rider would come out and begin to revolutionize the approach to scoring (replacing original composition, or at least stock orchestral music, with pop music), and inspiring producers to invest in "avant garde" "New Hollywood" films, which had a hand in changing the approach to acting. Of course, Marlon Brando as the "flagship actor" of Stanislavski's "Method acting" had already put a large dent in the theatrical approach, but it seems it was the advent of the low-budget "auteur"-style film that really drove the nail in.

I mention this because O'Toole has a clear background in stage, not because he historically has one, nor because of when he acted; O'Toole's acting has a different timbre than that of Method actors, or of almost any actor that came along in the decades following the release of this film and really made a name for themselves(hence my supposition that "New Hollywood" eclipsed the style). The Method is typically considered to be absorption into a role until one is living and breathing as the character one is playing. It's falling into a role and getting lost to it, something that is most highly regarded in film these days, and has been for some time. What O'Toole and his school of thinking do is something more like losing themselves in the lines. It's not to say they ignore the character and simply parade out words, but they build their characters so completely through the lines, with little focus on what they are doing outside of them. It's also not that the external and physical are abandoned completely, so much as they are used to enhance the auditory and emotional performance of the lines. Naturally, if one is performing those lines correctly, this will enhance the character itself and complement the reading to create the character in its entirety. Still, it falls to the lines to carry the performer's focus, and it is plays and films like Goldman's here that these actors seem to live for. It's breathtaking to watch someone like O'Toole rant and rage through lines like these, all barbed in just the precise way and with just the right pinch of wit to keep them from becoming to unrealistically witty to fall so often and witty enough to crack a smile or drop a jaw.

This film would suffer, though, if O'Toole were simply dashing about and ranting of his own accord against cardboard cutouts and amateur actors. Hepburn's Oscar is indeed deserved, matching O'Toole in every conversation, suggesting that perhaps this lion is being circled by a lioness, both equally starved but lean, able to nip and bite and viciously claw, but too aware of the other's equivalent power to strike a killing blow. Something is to be said, though, for the emotional undercurrent of their relationship, as it's hard to disbelieve there is not some form of love, or at least something mistaken whole-heartedly by the participants as love, behind their scheming--even when it comes to suggestion of execution, divorce or infidelity. This same relationship can be seen in their response to their children, though all three of them seem utterly disinterested in actual emotion from their parents--even the ever-curious Geoffrey, who demands to know why he was shown nothing but indifference. Hopkins actually puts forth one of his most evil and threatening roles as the cold and ruthless Richard, softening only in response to Philip (creating a murmur of chuckling during my first viewing, as we noticed a strange tendency for the somewhat effete Dalton to find himself in homosexual roles in period films). I'm sure this might shock and confuse anyone familiar with the role he took on most famously a little over twenty years later, but this was probably the one time that I saw nothing of my image of Hopkins in a performance from him. Terry is good at his snotty, bratty teenaged prince, but the role doesn't demand much more of this than him--beyond, I guess, a careful sense of timing for his unfailingly stupid insults to be reeled out, putrid in comparison to the delicate but poisonous flowers of every other line (which makes them pretty damn funny much of the time). Castle is as machinistic as his Henry describes his son Geoffrey in the film, and so is also relegated to a similarly limited role, that of the endless schemer--similar to Philip, who mixes this with a need to prove his skill despite his youth.

The only concession to make about this film is that you must like dialogue and performance--that's all that this film is composed of, and most of what it is good for. I don't see much hand in Anthony Harvey's direction (I suspect it was a role far closer to that of other studio-system directors in guidance and assembly terms than the coming "auteur" definition), and technically little if anything actually happens. It's all scheming and lying and twisting and stabbing---but all metaphorical, theoretical or verbal. It's captivating to watch if you've an eye for dialogue, though, and well worth your time for that.

Killer Tomatoes Strike Back

What does it say about me that I've wanted to see this movie for about fifteen years? Nothing good, I'm sure. I only knew of it through endless perusings of Leonard Maltin's film guides (it should surprise no one that he thought this movie was awful), but didn't care. I've always loved the original 1978 Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, and a surprise appearance of the first sequel, Return of the Killer Tomatoes, on Comedy Central (surely it was there...) that I taped years and years after that didn't let me down. I'm sure many will be horrified to learn that there are actually four films in the Killer Tomatoes series, and that, in fact, there was an animated kids show as well (which I have seen some episodes of).

Lance Boyle (Rick Rockwell, later the "multi-millionaire" attempting to be married by way of a gameshow) is a "city cop" with a ridiculously childish apartment, filled with toys and garish decoration who is being assigned lame cases to work by his superior, Capt. Wilbur Finletter (J. Stephen "Rock" Peace--a California state Senator [!] who began a crusade against Enron before it was finally crushed publicly, reprising his role from the prior two films). He's assigned to Elvis sightings at the local bowling alley (I'm of the mind Igor was behind them by the end of the film) and the like, but most recently to a double homicide--attributed to tomatoes. Finletter, as veteran of both "tomato wars," is completely willing to believe the round, squishy red fruit* are behind the crimes. Boyle, arrogant and self-centered, sneers at this (even as he is made sick by the crime scene), but takes some renewed interest when renowned 'tomatologist' Kennedi Johnson (Crystal Carson) arrives to proclaim her belief in the tomato theory. Meanwhile, Professor Gangreen (John Astin as before, and again in the sequel after this) is attempting to rule the world through control of the media--he is rising (under disguise) as talk show host "Jeronahew" while kidnapping all media figures he can find. These crimes are uninteresting to Boyle except for their connection to Kennedi, so it will take serious proof before he believes in the red menace. And I don't mean communists.

I'm still sad that spoof movies like this aren't made anymore--not because they were a vital, important part of the film industry (or even all that funny most of the time), but because they had a spirit and sensibility that is sorely lacking from the modern vein of parody. Now it's clumsy, mis-paced and mis-timed references that have nothing to do with humour, even failed humour, as they seem to be more interested in slinging pop culture detritus at the script and screen than anything else, interspersed with cheap "dick and fart" jokes (to quote Kevin Smith, who does a different kind of modern comedy). There's something a little more endearing about these films, even when they fail. This isn't exactly a hilarious movie, more of a consistent bemused smile than anything else. It's not up to snuff with George Clooney-starring (yes, THAT George Clooney) prequel Return of the Killer Tomatoes, whose running gag about budgeting is one of the best I've seen, ever. It's not up to snuff with the old "ZAZ" films (Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker--the team behind Airplane! and Police Squad!, though David Zucker has flushed away comic timing for cheap, lazy, snotty, political polemic). But that doesn't make it bad. The entire series is maligned by this inexplicable group of people that doesn't understand that the tomato attacks are not supposed to be realistic or frightening. The stupidity of them is the entire point, yet some people stubbornly insist that they fail to look "real"--I cannot comprehend what kind of drugs are involved to come to these conclusions.

I hadn't seen this one before, so I was actually almost shocked and definitely somewhat amused by the rather early choice to mock 1980's fashion in a film released the year after the decade ended (and before such trends would have completely died off). Boyle is a complete fashion victim, wearing suitjackets over t-shirts--with tigerprint or similarly gaudy billowing pants below this (his outfits were provided by Life's a Beach). Donahue and Geraldo are obviously pretty openly lampooned, but this was a little more in keeping with existing comedic trends. Rockwell and Carson are actually a continuation of the Return trend of middling to poor actors with good comedic timing being cast in Tomato films, as they are not (like the film itself) laugh-out-loud funny or anything, but there's never a feeling that they missed or wasted an opportunity because they didn't understand it. They act appropriately for the over-the-top kind of characters they were playing, Johnson being livid at the ineptitude and ignorance of the smug Boyle by launching into a rather earnestly angry tirade. I was a bit surprised here, but I guess I shouldn't have been. Peace (who co-wrote all the films), De Bello (who directed AND co-wrote all of them) and Costa "Constantine" Dillon (who also co-wrote all of them) are reliable, and even Rockwell was involved in the original's writing as well as that of this one.

John Astin is always a pleasure, happily hammy in his demonic role that usually ends up boiling down to something mundane--here he wants to rule the world so he can stop waiting in line, getting salad dressing on his salad against his requests and prevent old ladies from holding up the line at buffets (amongst other things). Also returning is the peculiar "FT" puppet (it stands for "Fuzzy Tomato," of course!), who appeared not only in the prequel but again in the cartoon.

Do I recommend this movie? Probably not. It's fun and amusing, but I think the lines it straddles (or re-draws without a ruler, perhaps) are a little too "off" for most people, and few would take any kind of enjoyment from it. They'd have to have a mentality toward it like mine. If you like the first two, give this one a shot, but don't expect the quality of the first two. Money was clearly tighter, though the new face-d tomato puppets are actually pretty great and look decent for what I can only imagine was a hideously small budget.

*OK, the clarification I was given at some point and have stuck by is this: tomatoes are fruit. They are cooked like vegetables, though. But they remain fruit in "taxonomic" terms.

City of Angels

As with everything that people claim is "love it or hate it" or otherwise black and white, I can't really universally claim what I'm about to. I realize there's middle ground, hell, I intend to place myself in that middle ground. Whenever this film comes up, it either leads one group to sneer at its "Hollywood gloss" or the other that the film it is based on is "boring" or pretentious. I'm very tired of both approaches, which may surprise the people who know my general feeling about remakes, re-imaginings, re-adaptations and so on. Some, I guess, might attribute my indifference about this one to the fact that I saw this, the re-make, first. This might even be true, but even now I have difficulty reconciling them as anything remotely similar. And I'll probably make some claims about this one that disturb, disgust or disappoint many people. So be it.

Seth (Nicolas Cage) is an angel tasked with observing humans and bringing them over to the life beyond the physical one. He can read minds but does not openly communicate with humans, being neither visible nor audible to them. His closest friend is Cassiel (Andre Braugher), who has the same job. They tend to migrate around Los Angeles, flitting from person to person as they go, only specifically assigned when someone needs to be taken onward. When he's in an operating room to take a dying man, he catches the eye of Maggie Rice (Meg Ryan), who happens to stare right at him in the midst of her work. Seth is delighted when he realizes this and takes an interest in her, following her in her daily activities, her job and her normal routines. At the room of Nathaniel Messinger (Dennis Franz), Maggie happens to actually see Seth and has a brief conversation with him, fascinated by him. Seth begins to feel tormented in some way by this, but decides to show himself as much as possible to her, within the limits of his angelic powers. It's not until he stumbles across the idea of freewill in the Host that he is left with the choice to join Maggie in mortality and lose the majesty of his eternity--for the rough and painful human life and all its increased sensation and experience.

Calling this a remake of Der Himmel über Berlin is silly. Is it? Yes, technically--it goes so far (unlike other films I could name) as to declare its source material in its credits, even. It shares the idea of silent, invisible angels observing and documenting, a similar scene of Seth and Cassiel sharing notes on the day's observances, a library as their home--enough that it should give credit, but it does that. Beyond that, it takes the same concept and applies it to another idea. Der Himmel über Berlin is about minutiae. It's about the things we don't think about or realize in our lives, the things that we don't value because of their familiarity and consistency. People are observed in their monotony and their randomness, in reading, in thinking, in just doing their jobs. City of Angels examines the "larger picture" of living instead of being alive, the bigger issues of life and death and pain and joy. It's a deviation that manages to help the film extract itself from the source material. It's not an issue of superiority or inferiority, of obviousness and subtlety. It's a different approach to a different topic using similar (not always quite the same) tools.

Actually, this film is a lot smarter than the more pretentious fans of Wenders' film would have you believe. No, it's not an arthouse film, no it doesn't use a contrast between black and white, no it doesn't dwell on langorous scenes of stream-of-consciousness babbling about inanities (which is not a criticism--Wenders' film is SUPPOSED to be doing that), and no it doesn't build its language as poetry. Yes, it is more a romance, yes, it is aware of its budget and happy to use it, yes, it's more willing to look to spectacle to show its meaning, yes, it's willing to use popular music (to an extent--not the contrived schmaltz of modern television use that annoys me so, which seems more designed to sell CDs than enhance scenes), and yes it stars big name draws. It's a strange thing, because Cage suffers similarly unfounded criticisms. A lot of people knock the man, but every time I ask if they've seen some of his best work, and many grudgingly admit to Leaving Las Vegas, then tell me they've never seen Adaptation. I don't really know what drives this (if I were a boring person, I might suggest jealousy, but I just don't get that feeling), but it continues onward, unlike Leonardo DiCaprio, who has finally outshone his "teen idol" reputation and shed it completely. It's a shame, because Cage can do really good work, but most people seem to decide he can't based on films that don't ask for it. Or maybe they saw The Wicker Man remake. I don't know. I guess I couldn't blame them for holding that against him.

But this movie has interesting things to say--some are a little reeled out (mostly around issues of faith, which were rounded down a bit, based on the special features, from ridiculous polemic parody), but most are cleverly reeled out when they are. If it chooses to make something more obvious than Wenders did, it does so in a logical and smart fashion, and an emotionally acceptable one. So it's a romance--so what? Is there some refusal to accept the naïve unreality of romance in "real art" or something? There sure seems to be, and this defies expectation and desire, if you ask me. If this weren't such a magnetic concept to humanity, it wouldn't be as successful as it is. Perhaps it's just irritation with success--rather than actual jealousy, just a simple annoyance--that drives this condemnation. I can't really say, because I don't share it. I don't feel like, as I fear with others, this film will bury its progenitor. Wenders is credited, but also the title and story vary enough that those interested in both realms of film (arthouse and populist) can appreciate both films. It's not a cheap, quick-run picture thrown out to capitalize on a quiet art film, it seems like one where someone (apparently late producer Dawn Steel) saw a film they liked and wanted to do something else, and, instead of criticizing the film for not exploring what they were interested in (I'm looking at you, Ebert--even if it's related to different films), they chose to return to the concept of these angels and explore those ideas they were interested in through a new film.

Maybe I'm just a romantic at heart, I don't know. I don't love the film because Meg Ryan and Nicolas Cage are "so cute together" (though they do have chemistry, I freely admit), or simply because it's such a fantasy for those with romantic hearts, because I usually have to activate a portion of my brain devoted to a kind of enjoyment-sustaining suspension of disbelief to take in bad, poor or even middling films that do something I'm interested in, or "turn off" the portions that are looking at things like scene construction, dialogue or visual approach. This film has those things, though, and uses them intelligently, despite the claims of big budget-naysayers, who refuse to like the film on general principle, and can thus sadly never allow themselves to enjoy it. It's not the best film ever, and relies too much on its predecessor to be a revelation, but it's a very good, very enjoyable film, with a good handful more brains and thoughtful heart than most of its star power-infused siblings. Even the score is a little more well-constructed than usual.

Of course, maybe it's just the presence of the incredible Andre Braugher, who brings real class to any role he takes on. It could be that (or Franz, who brings a seedier authenticity, and a wonderfully genial kind, here).

Arthur
Arthur(1981)

There's something a bit off in the fact that many of us now reaching (or just past reaching, or whatever you may call it) adulthood often know films more by the parodies and references that followed them (or, often worse, their imitators!) than by the films themselves. I do recall the parody of Arthur that once showed up on The Critic, and having heard of the movie--and after that, I don't recall much about it. Hmm, that sounds a bit alcoholic...I've only written one review tipsy though, and that was shamefully Sideways and not this one. I don't really sit around and drink scotch though, so I suppose it still wouldn't have worked out right either way. What I do recall about this film more than anything, though, is the divide of opinion on it. It's on some top 100 lists of comedies from rather respectable organizations (though I feel that any such lists are inherently disreputable no matter the source, including myself, though I'm reluctant to make them in the first place for that very reason) and in other circles is derided as unfunny and overblown in hype terms. I picked it up when I did simply because it was available and I thought I really ought to see it.

Arthur Bach (Dudley Moore, in arguably his most famous role, certainly in the arena of film it is just that) is a millionaire playboy, but not quite of the Bruce Wayne variety. He achieves great notoriety for his habit of carousing about town stinking drunk and picking up hookers. He picks one up and stumbles into an upscale restaurant with her, to the chagrin of his chauffeur Bitterman (Ted Ross), and to the annoyance, disgust and amusement of its other guests. He wakes up in bed with her at the morning announcement of his butler Hobson (John Gielgud, who earned an Oscar for this), who brings non-alcoholic drinks, a paper, plans for the prostitute's departure and a thoroughly polished blade of barbed wit. Arthur is to go and see his father Stanford (Thomas Barbour), because he is to marry the daughter of fellow man of wealth Burt Johnson (Stephen Elliott), all against his best wishes. After the family's riches are used to extort agreement from Arthur, his decision to marry Susan (Jill Eikenberry) leaves him irritated with his father. When he and Hobson go out to make endless unnecessary purchases from Bergdorf, he witnesses the "perfect crime": a woman (Liza Minnelli) steals a tie and wanders out with it. Arthur is captivated by this and follows her to the street when a security guard pursues her, and the two con him out of prosecution and Arthur is left with the girl, Linda, to give him her number. Now falling in love with a poor girl from Queens, Arthur has to sort out his immaturities (nevermind his alcoholism) and determine what to do with his life, as choosing Linda will lose his money and choosing Susan will lose him Linda.

I was a bit put off by the opening scene, wherein Arthur is already smashed and laughing uproariously at every last one of his own comments, noting the funniness of each one. I didn't think, of course, that they were all as funny (or that they were supposed to be as funny) as he thought, but still could see the humour of them zing right past me without stopping for a brief smile or a handshake, going about their business and failing to connect as they went. As soon as Arthur sobered up (or rather, woke up and thus was sober), or maybe just as soon as Hobson entered, the film changed a fair bit. It changed that much more when Linda entered with a more sober sense of humour and it was now a matter of chemistry where two duelling sets of sarcasm did battle that also managed to bring them together. Hobson's acerbic additions to them (such as his surprise at their meeting of Linda, because he would never expect to see her there) compliment and never seem to draw blood no matter how deep they plunge, which is a great effect for the man who we later realize is the (caring) father figure to the endlessly childlike Arthur.

It's a weird approach to characters and humour, one that I appreciated more as it went than as it started, because it begins by primarily shrugging at Arthur's addiction and showing him as obnoxious but then moves on to show the distaste of everyone around him regarding it. He even shows some shame of his own and even responds to the stimulus of Linda by not drinking. The endless jabs of Hobson are also appreciably consistent, never backing down to show he's actually really a nice guy with an out of character soft comment, but being transplanted to alternate characters to show it instead. His character is thus never betrayed, which is such a relief in a medium that so often feels the need to pull aside the curtain on these things in romantic comedies and forcefully push them into our eyeline. On the same front, Linda's responses are never unfair, even at the inevitable moment of angry hurt when Arthur calls off plans due to engagement, and thus never seem contrived to create the conflict between them. Arthur never makes decisions that supplement the plot in defiance of his character either, so the enjoyment of the whole experience remains high.

One thing I can't really gloss over is the fact that the DVD released by Warner Bros. in Region 1 is a disgrace. It's in a pan-and-scanned 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which isn't a huge deal, generally speaking, in romantic comedies, but manages to defuse framing of a few scenes--enough that I could tell even having never seen the film before. It instilled a sense of confusion of focus more than once, as it was centered poorly or simply couldn't take in enough information at the edges to capture two elements that ought to have combined to create the correct response. It's shameful and unpleasant--but I suppose no better is to be expected when the Oscars won are for supporting actor and best song (a very catchy bit of soft rock sung by Christopher Cross with a solid Bacharach tune used throughout the movie, the song's writing credited as being by a ridiculous four people--Carol Bayer Sager, Bacharach, Cross and Peter Allen). It's not really about the image, but this just proves that even those films can be hampered. A shame, but not a debilitating one. This is a very fun movie (though my notoriously picky sense of humour didn't find it uproarious in hilarity or anything) and worth seeing--though I also think Liza was pretty cute back then, so I know plenty of people must think I'm quite insane.

Scanners
Scanners(1981)

My recollection of this film is hazy, though I know I watched it on a Sunday immediately after church (yes, really--back when I used to attend as a youth) and kept falling asleep over and over throughout. As such, my retrospective remembrance was that the film was slow an intolerably boring. Still, it's a David Cronenberg film and my viewing experience of most things has changed a lot since the time I first watched this, and I wanted to see it with more refined and generally different eyes as I have now. Of course, it doesn't hurt that I also now know Patrick McGoohan is "that guy from The Prisoner" and a bit more about him in general. Previously, the always just-a-touch-hammy Michael Ironside was my only visual connection to prior film experience--and there it was a drawback to my love for Starship Troopers (if you look at a large list of my favourite films or the ones I review well, this may cause your head to explode,* but it's true--it's the first movie I ever owned on DVD).

A vagrant man (Stephen Lack) wanders into a mall food court and sits to eat food left at one of the tables. Two men look at him with disgust, while one begins to mentally comment on how it's awful he's even allowed in. The man is struck with a paralytic look, filled with tremors as he stares at the critical woman, who begins to choke and then convulse. Clearly attempting to tear himself away, he finally succeeds as she hits a full-fledged convulsive seizure. Two men see him leave and begin to follow, finally shooting a feathered tranquilizer dart into him. He comes to tied to a bed, a bearded man (McGoohan) standing over him and asking for a group of fifty people to enter and sit in the chairs surrounding his bed. The man struggles violently, clearly disturbed by these presences, represented by endless overlapping murmuring in multiple languages at various volumes. The bearded man, Dr. Paul Ruth, introduces himself as a psychopharmacist as he injects the struggling telepath with a drug. He calls the drug ephemerol and tells the vagrant, Cameron Vale, that his vagrancy and distaste for other people--sourced in their constant mental babbling--comes from his telepathy, which makes him what is called a scanner. Ruth works for ConSec, a security firm interested in using scanners for espionage and similar purposes. At a demonstration of their powers, a volunteer (Ironside) accepts a request to be scanned by their demonstrator. The demonstrator quickly finds himself surprised and fighting as the volunteer grimaces back at him, leading to a sudden assassination. The volunteer escapes quickly, even five armed guards are no match for a scanner. This man is Darryl Revok, a long-time scanner who is slowly assassinating anyone associated with Ruth and ConSec. ConSec's Braedon Keller (Lawrence Dane) attempts to shut down the scanner research, but is himself shutdown by Ruth, who suggests the assassination was a clear attack by Revok on ConSec. Vale is sent out to infiltrate the scanner underground that Revok represents, and finds himself followed by violence and murder wherever he sets foot, all in the service of slowly discovering just what Revok plans to do, after finding there are indeed other scanner elements, like a peaceful group led by Kim Obrist (Jennifer O'Neill).

I was surprised by my second viewing (perhaps third, I can't be completely sure, but I know I only tried to watch it once before) as I actually really liked the film. What previously felt slow was now clearly a redhot, boiling intensity kept definitely below the surface and outside of the action in most scenes. This only makes sense, of course, because the greatest power in the film is purely internal. Cronenberg easily represents it, most famously with the physiological responses to scanning, but often with distinct shots and emphases that successfully create tension around psychic powers without settling for the more simplistic telekinesis or optical/CGI visual representation of them. Even moments where the voices of the scanner and scanned are not being heard are successful, though this is often thanks to a Howard Shore that is typical of his earlier, more peculiar work. It's something like a combination of a horror film and a 1950s sci-fi film, with just a touch of the avant garde or crazy (closer, then, to his work with Saturday Night, and resembling, in some ways, things like the early work of the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo), rising with the increased use of any scanner's powers and climaxing with a sound that is just shy of ear-piercing to achieve that right element of teeth-on-edge tension and emapthy with the physical and mental pain involved.

What is easily, commonly and rightfully criticized, though, is the casting of Stephen Lack, an unfortunately named soul that apparently even Cronenberg regrets casting. I'm still tempted, despite the ease, to make a joke about lacking, because Stephen does just that: he lacks charisma, character and emotion, as a flat, banal performance with a flat, banal look and a flat, banal voice. He's stunningly unspectacular and unnoticeable in some respects. It's been suggested (and I had guessed this myself as I was watching the film) that Cronenberg cast him for his eyes. This is the one thing that can be said for Lack's otherwise generic face: he has bright and wide but piercing eyes that seem to fit the image one would expect of a scanner, and he's actually quite good at acting out the use of his powers. The mix of confusion, lack of control and alien fascination that even Obrist suggests Vale has (calling him "barely human") are utterly appropriate to the character and a sad mirror for the abysmal performance outside them. Most voices sound a bit off in terms of recording location, but only Lack sounds as if he was completely dubbed in ADR (whether by himself or someone else is neither noticeable nor important).

On the flipside (with Ironside's always slightly hammy and clumsy intensity somewhere in the middle) is the reserved McGoohan, who is clearly filled to the brim, much like the film, with emotion and response to it and response to events, but who refuses to show any of it by virtue of his nature. He's quiet and calm, but speaks with great force and intelligence whenever he does, always with a dark look about him, slightly harrowed and even worried, but always too strong for the worry to be apparent. McGoohan is an absolute professional in this role and it's quite stunning to find him here with Lack across from him. He even works in the unnecessary but interesting note of what seems to be the ghost of a continental European accent (sounding likely German), though I suppose this may be natural at this point for him, it is never overbearing or goofy and only slides in here and there as an actual one does when buried by a more recent (or more native) accent like McGoohan's own English one.

This is actually up to snuff as Cronenberg films go in terms of plotting, effects (many under the hand of the great Dick Smith, whose innovations are still common today, and his students work is the kind I love best--like Rick Baker), score (that strange off-kilter, occasionally atonal Shore score really is very good) and writing. It's only let down by Lack, and that's something easily overcome and, as some have noticed, even possibly explained by the plot itself, or at least the characters in it. Obrist's description of him almost reframes his performance and makes it at least one that is recognizable to the characters in the film, re-integrating it to the story. It's not something that perfectly succeeds or erases the flaws and shortcomings of a pretty bad performance, but it at least gels the film into its own consistency that can hold its head above it.

Oh, and who can forget those brilliantly disturbed and insane sculptures made by Benjamin Pierce (Cronenberg regular Robert Silverman)? Undoubtedly the work of longtime collaborator Carol Spier's art design--though credit should go to sculptors Peter Borowski, Tom Coulter and Peter Dowker, too, I'm sure!


*Sorry, I couldn't help it.

My Brilliant Career

At one point (and I may have written this before!) I decided that I needed more Sam Neill films, considering I claim him as my favourite actor. I dug through his filmography and nothing really jumped out, but a person requesting of me a musical piece from the film (likely the chunk of Schumann's "Scenes from Childhood" that is played repeatedly) pushed this one to the forefront, as I learned how well thought of it was, and it's the unusual near-starring role for Neill. I picked it up with another Gillian Armstrong film, Starstruck, which I loved. I've been putting off and putting off watching this one, occasionally attempting to watch it with my parents, but usually ending up watching something else (much like when intending to watch it by myself). I have finally gotten to it, though, and so here we are with my comments on it.

Sybylla Melvyn (--whew, lots of y's, though I always like such spellings--Judy Davis) is a young woman in the Australian bush in the late 19th or early 20th century whose family is short on money, but has nothing of interest in it to the independent Sybylla. She wants to be a writer, beginning the film by beginning a novel, promising herself and her readers that she will launch off on her career--wait, no, her brilliant career, she decides. The short funds of her family come into play, though, and she is sent to live with her grandmother (Aileen Britton) and her Aunt Helen (Wendy Hughes). She becomes upset at her "ugliness" while there, with Helen attempting to comfort her as her grandmother attempts a sort of matronly guiding of Sybylla's life, in complete defiance of Sybylla's own wishes for it. Childhood acquaintance Harry Beacham (Neill) stumbles across her picking blooms in a field and makes rather lustful advances, only to have her reject him. Frank Hawdon (Robert Grubb) is also attracted to Sybylla, but maintains airs of his "civilized superiority," of a kind, when referring to her--and even notes that she might as well realize she won't do "better than [him]." Gracious me. Frank Sybylla simply ignores, as a now thoroughly embarrassed Harry (who had no idea who he was hitting on) begins to fall more completely for the willfull Sybylla. A trip with no return visit from Harry leaves Sybylla offended, but when Harry returns he discovers it is not for feeling spurned as a lover but as a friend--she tells Harry that she needs to see something of life before she will marry him, only to find herself trucked off to an indigent family as governess in exchange for payment of a debt.

I'd heard this was rather a feminist film--moreso from Armstrong herself as she recounted the angry response of the people who loved that about it when they saw her follow-up Starstruck. I find the wildly-varied-in-definition term "feminism" a bit spiky, though, and was not sure what to expect. On the one hand, we have what was allegedly the original intention--the social vitalization of women, to make them accepted equals of men, and on the other we have strange exaggerated and downplayed definitions anywhere from "maybe a first class instead of second class citizen, but still not equal to men" all the way up to "men are inferior beasts." Gillian's response to the silly anger of people who wanted another period arthouse film of shrugging indifference mixed with offense and a bit of hurt was comforting on this front though. At the least, it was clear that she did not set out for the final definition. What she did do, via the original novel by (Stella Maria Sarah) Miles Franklin and Eleanor Witcombe's screen adaptation, is promote the egalitarian definition (which I'm all for) by asserting the independence of Sybylla.

Sybylla, as a character, is a bit irritating, I must admit. This is nothing to do with Davis' performance, which is phenomenal and seems to catch the right elements in the right light to describe and explain this element. She's self-centered, egotistical (she admits this first thing as she begins her novel, saying she will not feel shame for it before declaring her intentions of "brilliant" career for herself), spoiled and ungrateful, but some of this stems from an apparent alienation from the people around her, especially her family. Her mother is exactly the sort of woman she does not want to me--giving birth annually for a working husband, and the rest of her family shares no ambition beyond this. Her grandmother pushes her toward marriage as the crowning achievement of a woman's life, while her aunt, troubled by her own past, tries to spare her the pain of her own secret separation by aiming her toward what she feels is the "right" kind of marriage. On this issue, in a general sense, Sybylla is not out of place in her indignation. Marriage is not and should not be a requirement for the social "citizenship" of any person, nor should it be the only path available without risk of derision and scorn. It's interesting, though, that she seems to actually care more deeply for Harry than she will admit, possibly even to herself, in her stubborn commitment to independence, solitude and her career. It's not without foundation in a society that pre-dates widespread and socially accepted birth control, but it still comes off as just slightly off from what she actually seems to be asking emotionally when she turns Harry away to "soul search."

This is addressed, though, which was a surprise to me of the pleasant variety. The more appreciable female authority figure for Sybylla is Aunt Gussie (Patricia Kennedy) with whom she vacations briefly, who is a bit more encouraging, and a bit feisty in her way, openly declaring Sybylla's hair as her best asset, physically speaking. Gussie is the one who tells her that loneliness is quite a price to pay for independence, and suggests (thankfully reminding us that feminine revolutions are about action, not a novel mindset--other generations have felt similar things) that she oughtn't have led Harry on quite so, but does so with the right element of comfort. Curiously, her other supporter is her Uncle "JJ" Julius (Peter Whitford), who holds nothing against her artistic aspirations, despite the recriminations of her grandmother who refuses to hear another word of "the stage" taking any part in her family's life or legacy. It's of course still novel and interesting that this matter of choosing artistic life takes precedent over romance in a film and story filled with it, and it is absolutely respectable in this respect, but the approach of Sybylla, which typically extends to a sort of entitled feeling regarding her artistic aspirations, is grating. She wants to do these things, but balks at the idea of work (in fairness, she's usually balking more at the absence of choice, but it's not as if most people do have choices in such matters when they don't come from families with the social or financial well-being to create them) before them, or at the idea of doing anything else alongside or instead of them, as if for some reason she should be allowed what she wants simply because she wants it.

Perhaps it's just the romantic in me, though, that takes offense at the idea that a relationship with someone is inherently limiting--Sybylla repeatedly mentions that she does not want to get "lost in someone else" or be "part of someone else," and other such phrases--none of which have anything to do with her sex or gender, as they're all phrased as mutual states in both parts of such a partnership. Certainly it does make a difference in the options one would have, but suggesting there's an intrinsic defeat and subjugation in the very concept of romance and loving someone is a little bothersome. The social implications of marriage in the time period are, of course, something else entirely, but the discussions are never about that, so it's a bit more difficult to sympathize with this aspect of her personality.

None of this takes away from the film itself though, which is absolutely beautiful visually, and manages some of the most atmospherically "right" out-of-doors scenery I've seen yet, even in a landscape as unfamiliar as the bush (which does not much resemble the surroundings of other continents), nor its story, its convention breaking and its choices. Witcombe gives us a tastefully smart screenplay, and Davis' performance with Sam Neill's (which takes on the "feminine" role, in the sort of way you would expect when gender conventions are inverted) lovely one as Harry--going from open lust to embarassment to pleading frustration, confused anger and even quietly shocked hurt--only serve to enhance it under Armstrong's guiding hand. The film deserves its reputation, but I throw in a pinch of salt for a "difficult" main character. Nothing too damning, but enough that I couldn't rate it above its "inferior" follow-up (Starstruck)--which is an absolute joy.

The Secret of NIMH

It's interesting the way nostalgia and distant memory can so re-write plots of films, but more interestingly re-write the emphases of them. Often scenes we recall taking five minutes are incredibly brief, but were emotionally affecting to young minds. I don't think I've seen The Secret of NIMH for over a decade, but I know some images from it have been stuck in my mind forever, generally as disturbing in some fashion--but not the elements most think of. The hands of Nicodemus brought back instant recall of finding them creepy and visually "evil" to my young mind, while more firmly I recall the image of Mrs. Brisby reduced to caged mouse, cape-less and stuck in an environment more "real" (that is, less "cartoonish") than her previous ones, and the brave escape she makes to get out of this. Perhaps the involvement of water mixed with my own aquaphobia is responsible for the heart-stopping fear and general sense of disturbance these scene gave me, though.

Mrs. Brisby (voiced by Elizabeth Hartman) is a mouse who lives on the land of Farmer Fitzgibbons (voiced briefly by Tom Hatten), her husband Jonathan having recently died. Her four children remain with her in a home made from a cinderblock, with the feisty Martin (voiced by a young Wil "Wesley Crusher" Wheaton), bossy Teresa (the first big screen appearance, auditory at least, of Shannon Doherty), precocious Cynthia (Jodi Hicks) and the ill Timothy (Ian Fried). When Timothy takes to this illness, Mrs. Brisby seeks out the help and advice of the cantankerous and forcibly solitary Mr. Ages (voiced by Arthur Malet), who bestows upon her a powder to mix with water that will bring down Timothy's fever. On her way home, Mrs. Brisby stumbles across a crow named Jeremy (voiced by Dom Deluise, setting a precedent for his continued work with Don Bluth studios, though he also worked for Disney on Oliver and Company), who is poor at listening and worse at physical movement--he's gotten himself tangled in string while trying to take it out to nest with. Mrs. Brisby works to free him but they are interrupted by the farmer's cat Dragon and run for their lives. Ages has no solution for the need to move Mrs. Brisby's family before the farmer begins plowing (and would thus destroy their home) without exposing the sickened Timothy to the cold, so at the suggestion of Auntie Shrew (voiced by Hermione Baddeley) she goes to see the Great Owl (voiced by John Carradine, to my great pleasure). The Great Owl refuses her help until she reveals the name of the man to which she was married; at the revelation of this, he sends her to the rats in the rosebush near the farmer's home. These are the Rats of NIMH, led by Nicodemus (voiced by Derek Jacobi), whom she is to see, but his age has lead the power-hungry Jenner (voiced by Paul Shenar) to seek his overthrow and the prevention of a plan to move their society to other lands. The youthful advocate of Nicodemus is Justin (voiced by Peter Strauss), who tries to help to move her home while endorsing Nicodemus' plan.

As a longtime foe of mis-credits, I know that one of the biggest (to my mind, at least) is that of Don Bluth's studio. Of course, I don't mean that Bluth's studio gets too much credit, so much as many young minds--some never learning more--assume that animation is equivalent to Disney, and thus these animated films must also be the work of that studio. This is unfortunate, because it was a group of dissatisfied former Disney employees that founded both Don Bluth Studio (Bluth himself, Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy) and Aurora Productions, one of the financers behind this particular one. Bluth felt animation was being cheapened by cost-cutting measures and wanted to prevent this, and coupled with the work Disney did not credit him for, it's a great affront in my mind that that studio--with which I have a number of problems already--is given credit for work it does not deserve credit for (as it has more than enough of its own, some of that probably not even so deserved, at least in more recent decades). Bluth's studio has elements that set it distinctly apart, or at least managed to do so in the first decade and a half of its existence. Many recall the primary films from this studio as exceptionally dark or scary, sometimes even depressing or bleak--I'm speaking of this one, The Land Before Time and All Dogs Go to Heaven, generally, though An American Tail is also high up in terms of awareness. This is definitely true: Bluth's studio never shies away from a few drops of blood (never gratuitous) as when Mrs. Frisby scratches her arm in an escape attempt or swords are drawn on other living beings, and death is not ignored, glossed over or sanitized as a concept (though it's still not, understandably, shown in great detail either).

What often stands out to me, though, are the differing character designs and animation styles that Bluth's studio is set apart by. Often bumpy or warty skin is used to represent age or certain animal types, in this film Nicodemus' hands and the Great Owl's talons have the greyish-blue-green skin and uneven bumps that mark this approach. Teeth are often present, and more importantly gums, with jagged and uneven teeth appearing in many animal's mouths, not out of laziness or poor drawing but in a clear decision to make them just such--Auntie Shrew has much of this. Anthropomorphic animals still carry a fair amount of their animal origins, with many a mouse-like motion from Mrs. Brisby and the odd crow-like flap from Jeremy. Then, beyond that, we have muddy and gritty environments, gloppy and less-than-pleasant mud appearing in all three of the films I know best (named above, including this one), which fits with the less "clean" approach to animation and design that this studio had over its contemporary competition from Disney. Certainly the influence and background shows, but the less carefully and evenly proportioned characters are a far cry from even the distortions of, say, The Rescuers--which Bluth was even involved with. These set the film apart as one that is taking animation less as an art form to differentiate from reality and instead as one to distort but visually endorse reality, with the varied elements holding themselves out more prominently in the contrast. The animation, of course, is masterful, especially with the limited time and budget involved, with transparent shadows through double exposure and backlit moments for the "mystical" eyes of characters like Nicodemus, or his fantastic magical pen that builds words from settling golden dust. Reflections are more real and less carefully planned, and this approach to the minutiae mixed with a careful eye for colouration of characters based on lighting, as well as a kaleidoscopic approach to colouring itself is an absolute pleasure to watch.

What I definitely did not have pointed out as a child or an adult is the presence of a Jerry Goldsmith score, which does not disappoint as always, using a chorus that recalls many of the familiar tropes of Disney film but then transcends them through use of a composer with a distinct spirit and sound, but one even willing to donate a piece to be turned to a song, which, to my surprise and delight, was worded and sung by Paul Williams, who I'm quite a sucker for. My lack of memory for this was just further proof of how little of this movie I really recalled--it is just as much a masterpiece of animation as is often said, and has just the right tinge of intelligence and darkness to hold a viewer of any age.

Wings of Desire

After watching this, my father immediately told me about it and said it was the first film that he immediately re-watched with commentary. He loaned me the movie at the time, but I bought it before I watched it and so returned his copy, then took these last few months to get around to seeing it. Other people also highly recommended it around me, some endorsing Wim Wenders in general, occasionally endorsing other films of his over this one. I knew going in (as should most viewers beforehand) that this was definitely a movie that would play in an arthouse, and thus should be recognized as being peculiar in pace and style. The random seemingly placement of Peter Falk was what most encouraged me to give it a go--or at least the final straw that broke my wavering indecisiveness.

Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) are two angels wandering the still-bisected city of Berlin, observing and recording human nature and history. They can hear the thoughts of anyone they choose, and do so continuously. They choose people at random, a woman here, a man there, one sad, one young, one happy, one old--anyone and everyone is to be observed. Cassiel follows an old man named Homer (Curt Bois) who runs through his own memories of the second World War and his time in Berlin. He is on a search for the bulldozed Potsdamer Platz, remembering that he drank coffee here and smoked cigars from the tobacconist that was there. Damiel begins to follow Peter Falk (who is playing himself), who is filming a story about World War II and sketching in his spare time. Damiel listens to his thoughts like everyone else's, but when he wanders into a circus he finds something else entirely. He and Cassiel discuss in a car their small observances--someone who takes down an umbrella and is drenched, the time of sunrise and sunset--and Damiel discusses his growing dissatisfaction with the world they have, wishing he could experience instead of observe, that he could be acknowledged, remove his shoes and curl his toes, feed a cat, anything so long as he could do instead of watch. The circus only enhances this, because what he finds there is a trapeze artist named Marion (Solveig Dommartin), who captures his eye and fills him with desire. He takes Cassiel to see her, his eyes watering and his jaw slack as he watches her movements. When the chance to fulfill his wish and desire comes to Damiel, he takes it and enters the world of humans to pursue Marion.

I think I was thrown off a fair bit by the alleged "remake" status of City of Angels, which I have seen. Calling it a remake of this is a joke, and I say that without pretentious airs of "arthouse superiority"--they simply have almost nothing in common, even in plot. I recognized the differing tone and meaning early on, but consistently expected things to somehow swing toward the events of those film, which they simply don't do, other than the shared understanding of angels in overcoats who occasionally become human. Beyond that, when watching either film, ignore the other. They simply don't relate. That said, I am also not hugely into things like stream-of-consciousness or arthouse-style pacing. Here, though, neither comes off as a pretentious decision so much as a necessary one for the ideas that Wenders is exploring. We're observing humanity, in the black and white (filtered with Director of Photography Henri Alekan's grandmother's rare stockings!) world of pure observation that the angels inhabit. They smile distantly or frown, even embrace the people they observe in unnoticed attempts at consolation and comfort. We hear human thoughts which simply are stream-of-consciousness, nearly by definition. The pacing also reflects on the moment-to-moment way that life unfolds, and the poetic monologues of men like the aged Homer are in the way of their character, with most regular people straying further away from such musings into simplistic thoughts. Falk ponders the idea of "extras" while sketching one in a fashion true to real thoughts.

I was a ways into the film before I really grasped what I was seeing and how different it was from what I was set up to expect by the aforementioned claims. Falk was the strongest rope to hold until this time, his natural charisma and sort of folksy-yet-streetbound speech patterns and manner never a disappointment to hear and see. This isn't to say Ganz and Sander in anyway fail to capture interest, with Ganz gaining and gaining in his emotional involvement, his distant smiles more bright than his eternal companion's, as Sanders' Cassiel is more and more depressed by the observances he has, seeing more of the darkness of experience than the increasing love Damiel feels. Dommartin, too, captures an interesting discrepancy between her outward appearance of amusement and her internal monologue of loneliness. Her smile is sad, even though her thoughts are (naturally) ADR. Her love for Nick Cave's music was an amusing surprise for me, as I actually almost recognized the LP sleeve she pulled out (without being terribly familiar with Cave's album covers), was almost sure I recognized the musical stylings (despite having never heard the song) and was finally relieved to see the clearly labelled poster--and then a great performance by Cave, and even a glimpse into his thinking by Cassiel.

This is one of those films called "dreamlike" and "lyrical" and things of that general sort, suggesting to some intolerable pretense and snail-like pacing and to others a highbrow approach that they can then lord over viewers of "inferior" movies. It is "lyrical" and "dreamlike," to be sure, but it's for neither of these reasons. As I said before, the resemblance it bears to those negative connotations is coincidental: this is the method Wenders has chosen to tell this story, and it is the right choice, possibly even the only choice. Still, my appreciation wavered during a monologue by Dommartin at the end of the film. She speaks it aloud but it sounds like her thoughts, and the first moment that's an interesting realization, but as it goes on, one can't help but wonder why on earth she's speaking so long and so strangely. These aren't her thoughts, and this is the full and real world, as the absence of the monochromatic filter tells us. Yet her she is, babbling endlessly. It's certainly a tie to the "relationship" Damiel and Marion had prior to his "descent" into the world of man, but it comes off as bizarre and does not quite work. It's to achieve a particular aim, as her words endorse this same feeling of replicating their original "relationship," but it doesn't quite jibe with Damiel's wish to experience the world, his delight at bleeding and drinking coffee and kicking sand. As I write this though, it occurs to me that he did say he wished only to be acknowledged with a small nod--and perhaps that's exactly what he earns here: he does what he knows by listening, but she is speaking to him knowingly this time, and in so doing is acknowledging that she is whole in and of herself and this time is seeing someone who matters, where prior relationships could have been with any sole, where familial relations had no intrinsic connection to them--anyone could have been her parents or brother, really.

I should probably see this again--it was by no means a disappointment, but it did not quite reach the emotional heights I understood it would--though the scenes of Damiel's heartbreak when unable to interact with Marion are absolutely affecting.

Run Lola Run
Run Lola Run(1999)

German is the language (other than English, of course) that I come closest to understanding without aid, though not enough to read or listen to it and fully understand. Part of this comes from an ear for similarities in sound that can tie words together, part comes from English's Germanic origins and a fair bit of it comes from taking some German classes in high school. It was in one of these classes that a friend of mine recommended to the teacher (without respect and appreciation for him as a person but a complete refusal to acknowledge his taste) this movie, talking it up quite a bit. I'm wary of people with pretension-oriented taste, but at the time was a lot more open to it, wishing to rise, intellectually, above the dross of the still-alien environment of a new area and group of peoples and tastes after the first move of my life. I didn't get around to watching it until now, though, almost eight years later.

Lola (Franka Potente) is a brightly-dyed redhead in Germany who receives a call from her boyfriend Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu) where she apologizes for being late to meet and pick him up, after their moped was stolen. Manni is not paying much attention to her explanations, clearly distraught. He eventually cuts through Lola's increasing concern to declare the trouble. In his surprise and confusion at the absence of the usually reliable Lola, he managed to lose the bag he had gone out to pick up--a bag that contained 100,000 DM. He has 20 minutes until he is supposed to deliver it, and if he doesn't he will be killed. Lola tells him to relax, that she will think of something and be there in that twenty minutes. Manni insists that this isn't solution enough and plans to rob the Bolle grocery store across the street from the phone booth he's calling from. Lola quickly runs through the people she knows mentally to decide who can help her. She settles on her father (Herbert Knaup) and begins to run, having only twenty minutes to get 100k DM out of him and get to Manni. Her father refuses, angry at the interruption of his conversation with mistress Jutta Hansen (Nina Petri), and informs her that she is a "cuckoo's egg" (a "changeling" effectively, but more in the insemination stage than the post-natal one). Unsure what else to do, Lola runs to the Bolle to stop Manni, but he has already begun his robbery. The arrival of the police leads to an unpleasant solution to their problems. Lola is left thinking of a time where Manni told her she had a choice--and she's suddenly back in her apartment, the phone's receiver hitting the base after Manni's call, her run re-started.

It's actually kind of amusing how I responded to this film. As with most, I avoid knowing anything of the plot at all if I can before I go in. When the film starts out as a heavily edited music-video like experience heavy on the emotional responses of Manni and Lola, I was not terribly interested and felt let down. When the film took its bizarre turn and re-started, it caught my attention and held it through the rest of its run. The hasty feel of the opening sequence and the fanatically constant edits make more sense in light of their context in the entire film. Now the animated sequences (yes, really!) make sense, as do the curious "flash forwards" we see of the people Lola interacts with on her run. Now they don't seem like cheap, stylistic gimmicks so much as wildly stylized (the mental image of the brightly coloured mohawk of a stereotyped 1980s punk is what I associate this with--excess and unnatural choices, but fitting for what they are attached to) elements that fit in with the overall feel of the film and its commentary on the world. The opening sequence of quotes from a famous German football (excuse me, soccer) coach and T.S. Eliot also come into focus--this film is almost a sonnet to chaos theory in some parts, with the "flash forward" elements differing wildly just by the varying times and ways--and these differences are usually small--that she interacts. A woman alternately has her children taken by social services, wins the lottery and finds religion. Lola and Manni continually meet different fates, finding or not finding the money necessary.

I've seen Potente before, after this film was recommended to me but before I ever saw it. I have seen (and own) the two Anatomie horror movies (also from Germany), the first of which she stars in and the second she makes a guest appearance in. This was (as is often the case, alas, when horror is involved) a better chance for her to strut her stuff, though. It's not an incredibly complex role (with an awful lot of it consisting of running endlessly), but the points at which it is required, Potente lives up to the emotional demand of Tom Tykwer's writing and direction, with massive anxiety and frustration when dealing with the financial needs of her soon-to-be-late boyfriend, and an easy transition into hurt when she finally stumbles into her father's office at the wrong time and finds out who he's speaking to (and what about). The replacement of her fear for Manni's life with her personal hurt follows perfectly, as does her vengeful re-evaluation of needs and circumstances that follows it. Most impressively, though, she manages to make the instances of memory in alternate stories from their predecessors just subtle enough that they are still visible but not definite--present for certain and yet questionable.

I'm amused by the discussions of "right" and "real" endings for the film, which tells the story of Lola's run three times. It's clear that there is no such thing as either, with no actual ending to the film at all, no real definitive run of events. It's entirely possible the final sequence is the story that was "settled on" by this film's reality, or that all three exist simultaneously or that none do or any number of other explanations. But Tykwer doesn't portray this as a Groundhog Day sort of plot, with Lola needing to "correct" the day after multiple attempts. There's no feeling that the universe is resetting things for her, nor that she is choosing to re-write them. There is a suggestion that the re-boots are in some way accepted by Manni and Lola, but it's not emphasized in a way that tells us we are moving through possibilities to a "right" or "correct" one. Certainly the inane assumption that these are deathbed fantasies is an interpretation based on far too many viewings of films that clearly define such meanings for their respective plots. This one doesn't seek to define specific reality so much as explore and elaborate on possibility, to show what could be, what might have been, what might be, and maybe, just maybe what has been. But it doesn't matter which is which--all are equally true and false because it's about the idea of the differences, not about the comparison between their details.

Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla II (Gojira VS Mekagojira)

For someone who has loved daikaiju as long as myself, it's a bit embarrassing how recent most of my collection of the films is. I'm picky and specific, to be sure, but there are plenty of decent Godzilla and Gamera releases around, and still some I've yet to purchase. I've watched even fewer, and more ridiculously, seen even fewer than that in general. It's an awkward proposition though, one that was even worse before the advent of DVD (and remained pretty bad even a ways into DVD). I grew up with a Godzilla figure so old I do not even remember getting it. It was mostly lost to a family dog, but I had the thing for ages--red "lipstick" and all. In my hometown, there sprang up a video rental store called Big Lizard, which used Godzilla on its sign (thankfully I think Toho never knew, or they'd probably have sued them). They carried G-Fan, the quarterly Godzilla magazine that I so desperately wanted to read and have a subscription to. I stumbled, just prior to finding that store, onto the first copy of Fangoria I ever really looked in (having previously been filled with fear at the idea of the horrific images that would be present inside) because a stunning image of Godzilla graced the cover's main photo spot. It was about 1995, and I read in there that Godzilla movies had been made in the past few years prior to that, and wow did they ever look good. Of course, coming across them then was not an easy thing to do. I had tapes of many of the Showa eiga for most of my life, from a heavily beaten and repeatedly viewed copy of Godzilla Vs. Megalon to a two pack of Godzilla Vs. Gigan and the original Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla. I purchased piles of the Trendmasters-produced figures when they were released, most of which are still on a shelf a few feet from me right now, other than the large (electronic, roaring, rougly 12" tall) Godzilla that sits next to my Tv (with some simpler vinyl Gamera and Gyaos figures). I had to fight pretty hard with myself not to purchase some of the even more recent figures when a local Kay-Bee toy store was closing (hoping to get a better deal because I knew I would be effectively wasting whatever money I spent on them--but still getting so far as to check the discounted price). I read the entirety of a book entitled A Critical History and Filmography of Toho's Godzilla Series and discovered that my culturally incongruous straightforward appreciation of the films was not foreign to the world--just foreign to my own culture. That history absolutely fascinated me and finally vindicated my approach to the films as it described the idiotic changes made by American distributors when they imported the earliest of Godzilla films. More on this later because there's a lot to this for me, but I should really get to this particular film.

After the destruction of Mecha-King Ghidorah in the prior film (Godzilla Vs. King Ghidorah), scientists have begun to develop a new weapon for use against the destructive power of Godzilla: Mechagodzilla. Designed to replicate the appearance of Godzilla, it is equipped with artificial diamond armour and the ability to absorb energy--such as Godzilla's atomic breath--and re-distribute it to launch it as a "plasma grenade" through a lens hidden behind a panel on its abdomen. Kazuma Aoki (Masahiro Takashima) is the designer of Mechagodzilla's predecessor Garuda, a flying vessel reminiscent of the Super X of Godzilla (1984). With his design replaced, Aoki is assigned to G-Force, the international team created to combat Godzilla, trained to operate Mechagodzilla and the other weaponry used against him. A group of scientists discover a pteranodon skeleton on a remote island, but when Professor Omae (Yusuke Kawazu) is informed there is an intact egg, he and assistant Azusa Gojo (Ryoko Sano) cannot help but inspect it. Due to its size, Omae immediately realizes it, too, was irradiated like Godzilla. The remains of a nearby eggshell precede the arrival of Rodan, the irradiated pteranodon-like monster that comes when they move the egg, as Godzilla shows up and the two clash. When the egg is returned to the Japanese mainland, Azusa is assigned to observe, inspect and otherwise examine the egg. When it hatches, it is not another Rodan that appears but a youthful Godzillasaur, which takes Azusa to be its mother, having heard her from inside its egg. When psychic Miki Saegusa (Megumi Odaka) brings the children from her school to see "Baby" (the name given for the young Godzillasaur), they use a song similar to the one that was played to hatch the egg and it distresses the young creature, reviving an injured Rodan and calling forth both it and Godzilla to Japan. While Aoki is fooling about with this, he's removed from the team, but his plan for "Super Mechagodzilla" (which combines Garuda and Mechagodzilla), he is welcomed back. The might of this new form is needed to combat both monsters though, when an attempt to lure them to a remote island is cut short by the unexpected appearance of Rodan, who takes their bait away--Azusa and Baby.

For those unaware, this film has absolutely nothing to do with the most popular images of Godzilla in American culture. The films that have been shown most endlessly on television, from the 1960s and 70s are the Showa eiga, which ended in 1975 with Terror of Mechagodzilla. This series, the Heisei series (Both are named for the Emperors in power during their respective production years), known in Japan as the "VS" series (because the titles were formatted with "VS" instead of "tai"), assumes that no films followed the original Godzilla from 1954, and certainly ignores the stupid changes made by American distributors when releasing films up to 1984's Godzilla (retitled Godzilla 1985, and with 26 minutes removed and replaced with 10 obnoxious minutes of bad jokes from American actors and a vain attempt from Raymond Burr to take the film as seriously as the original footage around him does). Godzilla has returned to a destructive force of nature, with no love for mankind (especially dreaming little boys who talk to his son!) and no real redeeming qualities. It was here, though, that a recognition of Godzilla by the people in the films as a living, sentient creature began for the VS series--mostly as a reflection of the cute, lovable and vegetarian Baby. While Miki is behind the most devastating attack on Godzilla, she is especially hesitant prior to it, and clearly regrets it afterward. She even ends up using her telepathy to encourage Godzilla and Baby to leave peacefully, with the rest of the crew of Mechagodzilla left similarly somber by similar realizations.

The most appealing aspect of the VS series, especially at the time of its release, was an increased production value in suit modelling and miniature construction. The design of Godzilla had changed quite thoroughly in the decade between his previously final appearance and his reappearance in 1984. More menacing now in actual appearance than simple stature, reputation and ability, a sort of cat-like aspect of the face gives him a predatory look, while a body that is technically pear-shaped comes off as muscular and powerful, and ultimately threatening. Suitwork is more in line with an animal than a strangely shaped gigantic person (which was in keeping with the heroic Showa Godzilla at the time it was used, of course) and is rather convincingly alien for it, with a wonderfully animated tail to nudge just the right extra bit of convincing life to the suit. Mechagodzilla bears little resemblance to his original form as well, now more rounded and sleek, with a completely different origin--humans instead of aliens--and a naturally different alignment, as well as no original covering to make it indistinguishable from the original Godzilla. Rodan has been coloured a bit more red, technically making this an appearance of "Fire Rodan," with a look more like one of Henson's Skeksis than a pteranodon. A major change here is the absence of a suit--only models were used to create Rodan, allowing for a more logically proportioned flying beast.

As someone who takes these films at face-value (being vehemently opposed to ideas like "guilty pleasures" and "so bad it's good"), the VS series is an easier sell to people who think I'm off my rocker for this approach. Strong production valued for well-filmed and orchestrated kaiju scenes make them intense, exciting and believable, while the side-plotting of this particular film is more carefully associated and tied to the main-line kaiju plot, with most of it revolving around the discovery of Baby. There's a tongue-in-cheek, intentional camp to this side of the film, especially with the rather goofy Aoki (who manages to sleep through a lot of his G-Force training), but it never comes off as out of place, rather more as comic relief. The psychic element is nothing new in Japanese cinema, either, but here is treated with a matter-of-fact accepted tone that is refreshing compared to usual attempts to legitimize, justify and explain such things. Baby is also a far cry from Minilla/Minya of the Showa eiga, far more closely resembling his parentage while maintaining enough cuteness to appeal to the humans in the film. Godzilla's threat, though, is the most appreciable realization, with a monster that does not stumble aimlessly through buildings or appear for no clear reason, here being specifically drawn by its offspring to return to the mainland and protect it.

The DVD release of this film in Region 1 uses an irritating approach known as "dubtitles." I've commented shruggingly on them before (in my review of Hard-Boiled), but the ones here take the cake. Characters have lines when no one is speaking, the opening narration continues to add information that is not translated and some lines are clear deviations (it does make a difference when I know something of the language, I suppose). I could probably shrug at this as well, were it not for those added and removed lines. This is just unbelievably sloppy and is a big part of why Godzilla films have the American reputation they do. And of course there's the title--in America it's called "Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla II," which makes absolutely no sense when one considers that not only is this film ignoring the original film of that title, it's also the THIRD Mechagodzilla film. At the same time, it's at least something to say that this film is in the proper aspect ratio (all other Region 1 releases of the Heisei films are in fullscreen) and with the original language (yeah, the other releases are dub-only, too!). It's not the best Godzilla film, it's not the worst, it's about average--a solid entry, but one that has excellent effects and, more importantly, Akira Ifukube returning to score the film, using subtle variations on his most familiar themes from the original, which are awesome as always.

Munich
Munich(2005)
½

I own three films related to the events surrounding the 1972 Munich Olympics. One is a documentary (One Day in September), one is a TV-movie about the events of the massacre itself (21 Hours at Munich), and this one is about the response of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir to those events. I've not seen either of the other films and do not know a lot about these events (I'm leaving that for the documentary and any note-comparison and research I do then). I watched Spielberg's introduction wherein he openly stated (clearly at some points aiming his words at existing critics) that he was not criticizing Israel's response, nor was he making a documentary, and laid out the indisputable facts (the hostages died, the people who were accused were killed), then gave the essential meaning for making the film, which was to explore the validity and effectiveness of violent retaliation and using empathy to establish this. Hopefully the folks who still don't get this part of historical films will catch that intro.

When 11 Israelis involved in the Olympics are killed, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir decides that action must be met with action, and assigns a group of men to assassinate a list of men whose names are tied to the events. Handler Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) creates a group of five men--Avner (Eric Bana), Steve (Daniel Craig), Hans (Hanns Zichler), Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz) and Carl (Ciarán Hinds)--to assign to the task, having Mossad agent Avner sign away his allegiance so that he can act in an "officially unofficial" capacity that extricates the Israeli government from direct involvement in his actions. An old friend of Avners brings an informant to the team, Louis (Mathieu Almaric), who begins to bring them the locations of the men behind the names on their list at great cost. A few hesitant assassinations by gun and bomb leave the team shaken and irritable with each other as their nerves run raw from the tension of their actions. Robert's bomb-making skills are called into question when one bomb is not quite sufficient and the next is overcompensatorily large. When some of the team begin to turn up dead, Avner's already rawed nerves run ragged to exhaustion and he's left paranoid and fearful, eventually refusing to continue with his assignment, instead returning to his wife and daughter.

This was nominated for best picture? Really? I expect an awful lot more of Steven Spielberg, and I don't think that's unfair. Ironically, I'd sigh when think of watching the movie and think I didn't want to see a Tom Cruise-starring movie, having long since forgotten who was the star. When I was reminded, I more happily placed the disc in my player and settled back. Where's the irony, you ask? Well, Bana is awful. No, that isn't fair, or accurate. He's quite good, physically--his eyes, his movements and his emotions are all very authentic, but his voice seems so focused on his false-sounding Israeli accent that all of his dialogue suffers. When his accent falters (which happens a lot, unfortunately), his voice finally matches his physicality again and reminds me of why I typically like him. Daniel Craig is similarly misplaced, though more as a whole than in part of his performance. He's a flare-wearing hipster South African who loves Motown and hungers for revenge and violent action, but comes off as far too lively for the rest of the crew, or the film itself.

This is the central problem with the film, right here. It's boring. There are some excellent scenes (like the finality of Avner's paranoid breakdown) and fantastic action sequences that make the heart pound and the mind fear, but they're interspersed with lifeless, dispassionate and poorly paced drama. The colour filters I loathe so much are omnipresent here--draining the world of colour and leaving it washed out and filled with tones of putrid beige, tan, grey, green and yellow. This kind of filter can be successful at portraying a bleak environment or worldview (check out Syriana), but here it just feels like it's trying too hard. Along with this is a preponderance of shadows that pervades the film. It's not a noir reference or an emotionally influential stylistic choice, it's just irritating and looks accidental at best or pretentious at worst. Bana adds to this with his lackluster performance, those carefully accented but emotionally dead words killing any hope of appreciating his character until he has a wordless moment to act and we can see the performer we're missing out on otherwise. Scenes between action or Avner sinking deeper into guilt and paranoia feel wrong and detached, not from the characters, but from the viewer. It never connects--a team is formed, but just who the hell are these people? Sure, he's from South Africa, that guy makes bombs--but who are they? We don't need a pop-up profile or gimmicky quirks to assign them (though we curiously get them for Craig's character, which is what makes him feel out of place) specific places, but we never really get them as people. They're there, as Avner is, as the terrorists are, and we're to somehow empathize, but that isn't how it works.

I'm relatively surprised this film hasn't suffered the same criticisms as Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven (which also uses those colour filters but fits more because it has a graphic designer behind it). Perhaps the freshness of the wounds is what makes the difference, but this one also chooses to avoid the issue of blame or fault and attempts to equalize things on either side. Perhaps, instead, it's the choice to compare acts that are both portrayed as excessively violent and horrifying that prevents accusations of whitewashing all around--instead leading to amusingly contradictory camps that claim the film is either pro- or anti-Israel at the same time. Clearly this is a sign that the public feels that technically Spielberg was actually more successful at equating the acts, keeping their violence while comparing them. I have no interest in comparing or gaining a stance on the matter (I tend to feel that violence begets violence, but that peaceful solutions tend to be unsuccessful when dealing with a conflict as ingrained as this one is--one that is not based around facts but feelings), but this is a success I'm glad for.

Ultimately, intensely disappointing--overlong, in need of edits, a new cinematographer and less insistence on accents on a language the characters could easily not be speaking (and thus remove any cause for requiring it to promote their nationality). A shame. I was really pretty surprised how much I did not like this movie.

The Killing
The Killing(1956)
½

As someone who has more interest in character than spectacle or plot and ideas than visuals as a general rule (but of course not an exclusive one), Stanley Kubrick is an unusual director for me. Obviously many people love the man's work dearly, and I certainly put in my hands and vote for the original Warner Kubrick set as one of the first DVDs ever purchased in my household (albeit on the wispy understanding of his historical importance, rather than an appreciation or awareness), though at this point still for my father. I've liked all of his movies I've seen, though I did have to try twice at Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and missed a lot of The Shining, but it has oddly been more about the things listed above as more important to me, completely contrasting with that Kubrick is most often mentioned for, which is his style. I'm a little wary every time I go in to view one of his movies for this fact, expecting something as drawn-out and clinical as 2001: A Space Odyssey every time, but rarely actually seeing that. They do usually end up pretty lengthy though, so I might be the only person who would respond positively to the idea of Kubrick doing film-noir without actually soiling my trousers in the process. He's not my favourite director and likely never will be, but I do like his work anyway.

Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen), racetrack clerk George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.), patrolman Randy Kennan (Ted de Corsia), and racetrack bartender Mike O'Reilly (Joe Sawyer) have planned the perfect heist. They all know the racetrack well enough that they've perfected the way to distract the racetrack's detectives enough to free up the money for the taking while drawing the attention of crowds to keep themselves lost in the confusion. Clay is the professional, planning and performing most of the execution, especially the criminal portions. George and Mike are inside men who can put things into position, Unger is the money man who seeds the dough for the extra hands needed--gunman Nikki Arcane (Timothy Carey) and brawler Maurice Oboukhoff (Kola Kwariani)--and Randy, as office of the law, forms an easy shield for some of the actions they need to perform to pull it all off. George's manipulative wife Sherry (Marie Windsor) unintentionally baits George through her usual emasculating abuse into revealing the fact that they are soon to come into money, then pushes further for details. She informs her lover Val Cannon (Vince Edwards) and suggests that they take all this money for themselves. George wants the money to earn the love of his wife, while Mike wants to take care of his sickly wife Ruthie (Dorothy Adams), Randy needs to pay off a debt to Leo the loanshark (Jay Adler), Unger has at least a crush on Johnny (despite the best attempts of some viewers to ignore it or re-write it), and Johnny plans to take his girlfriend Fay (Coleen Gray) away with his cut. Told in a fashion that repeats moments of time through different routes (following Maurice, then Nikki, then Johnny, etc), we see how the crime is carried out--what was prepared for and what wasn't.

I just got a bit lost in a thread debating the homosexuality of Unger and was utterly confused. I read a similar thread about The Mechanic, which seemed more like wishful thinking for men who think Charles Bronson (or Jan-Michael Vincent) is hot, or from people looking too hard. This one, though? It's right out there. It's almost relaxing that, for once, the inevitable "homosexual subtext" discussion is spot on. Why does this even matter? Because it continues to say something about Kubrick. He never shied away from stories he wanted to tell or methods he wanted to use. He'd be controlled by studios and collaborators on occasion, but his intentions never wavered. If he wanted to do it, he at least tried to do it. Vision is the element Kubrick is most credited for, and this essential credit I whole-heartedly respect. The fact that he makes his choices and sticks by them as best he can is admirable, and that he twists the efforts of studios that won't let him is even more so. When it comes to something less than entertaining (2001 is a bit drawn out for my liking, if memory serves--you'll all know at some point when I re-watch and review it), the film suffers, but never the director. Here Kubrick adapts Lionel White novel The Clean Break, using Jim Thompson's dialogue for Kubrick's own screenplay, allegedly to the letter, or at least to the sentence or paragraph. It's not linear, but not in a Tarantino-esque stylistic way, but in the same way that Kubrick always has an element of the clinical: this is how it is, so this is how he filmed it. There's a coldness to the characters and events, or at least to the eye viewing them--almost colder than the typically dispassionate eye of Eastern directors (like Kurosawa), almost witnessing more in a technical fashion than in a hovering god-like disinterest.

The focus of the plotting on the perpetration of the crime only reinforces this feeling, with any emotional interference treated as a new mechanical element that affects the overall mechanism of Johnny Clay's plot. When Sherry and Val plot to take the loot from the boys planning it or George gets frustrated with his wife or Nikki unintentionally forms too close a bond with a mark he needs to get in place (a guard played by Herbert Ellis), it's an intruding subplot, not an emotional development. The ironic end of most of these subplots and even the main plot is thoroughly dispassionate, the eye of the camera far more interested in displaying the detailed effects on the character's emotions and on the way the world and its events work than on helping us to feel the disappointment, anger or delight of the characters. Of course, this doesn't prevent Kubrick from instilling a full-on supply of tension to the viewer, with the mystery of the film's clockwork plotting being revealed piecemeal and leaving us always wondering, "So what was participant X doing right then...?" until we learn their acts and move on to the next. What effect will the unfaithful Sherry have on the course of events? Sure, we don't like Sherry or how she treats George (unless we're heartless bastards and dislike George more for being so easily manipulated--but that's not my way), but we're more interested in what this does to their plans than what it does to George. Alongside it we have the technical fluidity of the camera's eye, with shots of Johnny's place that follow along the missing fourth wall to cross from room to room as he paces alongside it, a shot so artificial only Kubrick would try it without blinking.

What Kubrick notoriously did not want, though, was a narrator. This is actually the only element of the film that doesn't work. While I don't know how it would follow without (since I cannot view it without the narrator and did not look up enough to know the narrator was unwanted before viewing), it's distracting and obnoxious. The narrator, Art Gilmore, sounds like a voice that belongs in an old commercial, designed for perfect enunciation and projection over all else, with no character and no life to it, but not a flat-Dragnet style about it either. It's grossly misplaced by studio insistence and flies in the face of the film it is attached to. Kubrick got his revenge, though, by feeding inaccuracies and falsities through the narrator, just to make it pointless. It's a small comfort, but it's still a comfort, and helps to bring an excellent movie out of the shadow of a stupid addition.*

*Seriously. Why do studios insist on putting narration on noir? Is it pure coincidence that Blade Runner suffered a similar fate? Are these the only examples? Somehow, I doubt it. But maybe they are.

Lat sau san taam (Hard-Boiled)

Once upon a time, I didn't care at all about John Woo movies. I don't recall why--I've always had some kind of appreciation for action movies. I enjoyed Face-Off well enough when I stumbled across it on television some years ago. I knew fans (still do) who endorsed it as artistically-produced, well-choreographed, "respectable" action. Perhaps it was that it was out of print for a while, or that I didn't often track down movies years ago and just took a while to happen upon an opportunity that interested me enough. The out of print status has earned quite an amusing and hilarious thread on IMDb, but it's a moot point now that it has been released as a "Dragon Dynasty" label title (though this is exactly what inspired the aforementioned thread and its endless animosities). This is also now the second time I watched it, but it felt choppy the first time as I was getting a bit confused by the people I was watching it with, who were claiming confusion, which led me to concentrate too hard and try to make plot connections that weren't there, as well as interrupting the flow. As a result, I decided not to review it then and left that for a second viewing, which I have now finished.

Inspector Tequila Yuen (Chow Yun Fat) is, as his title suggests, a police officer in Hong Kong, who begins the film by casually entering into a teahouse where he and fellows cops know an arms deal is taking place. The entire teahouse suddenly explodes when one of them makes a move on the deal, leading to an enormous shoot out that leaves Yuen's partner and friend Benny (Bowie Lam) dead at the hands of a triad gang leader. Tequila vengefully executes the leader without pause, which raises the ire of his boss, Superintendent Pang (Philip Chan), who tells the shrugging Tequila that this leader could have brought down even more with his testimony. Tequila is more interested in stopping the man behind him though, Johnny Wong (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang). Wong has his hands in more than his own gun-running though, taking interest in fellow Triad leader Hoi's (Hoi-Shan Kwan) man Alan* (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) after he successfully assassinates Johnny's rat from Hoi's gang. The investigation of this shooting leads Tequila to his informant Foxy (Wei Tung), who tells him the location of Hoi's gun warehouse in time to catch Johnny there when he plans to destroy it and kill Hoi. A gunfight in the warehouse leads Hoi's operations crippled, and then Johnny asking Alan to prove his loyalty by killing Hoi, who asks that Alan do it and not Johnny, accepting his fate, but asking that his men be spared. When Alan makes his choice, Tequila makes his entrance and in the final clearing smoke attempts to kill Alan only to find out his gun is dry--but Alan's is not and he smiles and walks away without harming Tequila. Tequila realizes that Alan is undercover and confronts Pang, who refuses to admit this and attempts to control Tequila instead. Foxy manages to tell him where Johnny's gun warehouse is though--under a hospital. With Alan's help, Tequila plans to finish off Wong's operation, and Wong himself.

I'm blessed with the ability to leave my mind open when watching a film drowning in hype like this one is. Often recognized as one of the best action films ever, and certainly one of the most influential, it's very hard to wander into it without some level of scrutiny, and a bit late to be absolutely blown away by the action (which has been copied, imitated, parodied and otherwise re-used until it's nearly ingrained). I actually played through the game that is the sequel (Stranglehold) without ever seeing this, and was amused to discover that its plot actually has little or no relation to this film. The other element I should admit is that I indeed watched the Dragon Dynasty version because it is the one in print and easiest to purchase--it's criticized fairly roundly by fans for an inaccurate aspect ratio (it is cropped and stretched in some way no one seems to be able to consistently explain, but the stretching is apparent in image comparisons) and dubtitles. I'm opposed to both of these on principle, but I'm also personally opposed to endlessly importing titles that are available in Region 1, however butchered (so long as the film as a whole is generally intact, anyway--an edited version would be something else entirely). I'm often struck when watching something in a language I don't know (and I don't know a thing of Cantonese) by the realization that frankly we can't ever have perfect translations. The idea that a word translates directly from one language to another is ridiculous, as there are cultural and dialectic connotations to consider. Sure, a hand is a hand--but maybe one understanding of "hand" in another language includes the forearm, or omits the fingers. It serves the purpose when translated, but it's not exact. And that's just nouns. Adjectives are far worse, where even one that carries the same denotative meaning (such as, say, "stupid") may be more positive or negative in one language than another. It's with this in mind that I swallowed my relentless pedanticisms and watched the film in this form anyway. Generally, some lines are absolutely nonsensical when compared to the original language, with a focus so great on matching lip movement that entire meaning is lost, but a good physical performance usually carries enough meaning to re-assess what's written at the bottom and understand the scene.

This DVD release aside, I don't think I've ever seen Chow Yun Fat in anything else except Wo Hu Cang Long/Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, so this was a bit more of a revelation as to what he is known for (even the other movies as-yet-unwatched that I've picked up are mostly in this vein rather than that one). I struggled to get a handle on the character the first time I watched it, expecting a particular caricature/cliché and not quite seeing it. I was influenced, certainly, by what I had heard of the film and the video game sequel which I indeed played. Instead, though, he's a strange mix of Dirty Harry (apparently part of Woo's intention, as he mentions Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood readily in describing the film, likely alluding to Bullitt in McQueen's case) and, well, Martin Riggs. He's ruthless in terms of violence, willingly killing people with a cold eye if he thinks they are wrong, even outside the "it's easier for him to shoot the bad guys than carefully arrest or non-lethally shoot them all" movie logic. His execution of the man who kills Benny is hard, fast and bloody. He's got a sense of humour though, but also an ethic and a philosophy that causes him to clash with Alan and his mixed moralities and undercover-induced neuroses. I liked the character (which is what you aim for in a film like this, however much depth you add, it's more to be enjoyed and appreciated than a character study or indepth character development and rounding). Leung as Alan is the character, if any, intended to be rounded and emotionally sympathetic, but this also makes him a greater risk, character-wise, because one has to build those sympathies and allow for grey or even fully dark actions. Leung lives up to this admirably, but because his character indeed does things we can't quite stand behind, his role as supporting that of Tequila is proper, even though it somehow seems the film is more about him and his struggle with being an undercover cop.

Woo's signature that makes the film as prominent in history as it is remains apparent even now, and shows a kind of logic that is often missing from his imitators. The major shootouts (the teahouse, the warehouse and the hospital, primarily) are a little more organic than most that imitate them, with the impressive and "badass" stunts not carrying that over-slick contrived feeling its imitators have. I mentioned in a recent review the feeling of stunts from decade to decade in action movies, and insofar as that, this film is not an exception. As a film from the 1990s, there's a feeling that stunts are still dangerous though more carefully edited and controlled than in prior decades, possibly because of the absolute absence of CGI. Regardless, when the image of Tequila sliding down a banister appears, he's actually using it to steady himself and walk rapidly down stairs. When he leaps backward, he pushes himself off the floor; when he leaps forward firing two pistols, he is landing behind a table, not landing in a perfect somersault that leads him to another leap and then a banister and so on and so forth. It's more real, like a person who actually has the gall to do insane and unreal things in the middle of gunfights because he is good enough to get away with them--and fearless enough. This isn't to say these things come off real--Woo is happy for guns to have never-ending clips (until drama or imagery requires otherwise) and indefatigable heroes. This isn't a criticism, because it's nice to have some movies that aren't focused solely on realism--that variety enhances the reality of those that wish for it and emphasizes the coolness of those, like this one, that don't.

The importance of coolness with these stunts was what stood out to me about them though: Woo is known to use slow motion and similar effects, but here it didn't feel like the modern over-use of hacks like Zack Snyder and modern action directors. It didn't occur endlessly to show casings falling in slow motion or to just really emphasize how "awesome" some stunt was, it was usually to make clear an element that would be difficult to keep track of at full speed or to give emotional emphasis to a moment. Often it simultaneously manages to up the coolness factor of these moments, but never seems excessive or unnecessary, which was refreshing and shows exactly why Woo made such an impression on those that followed him, and why he was better at it than they are. Wire-work has its place, of course, but it's better served in science fiction scenarios like The Matrix or in more martial arts-centric film, where it can be used to suggest near-mystical power in physical assault. The near-reality of the stunts is more appropriate to a film about police officers though, even as it is a huge variance from its Hollywood contemporaries in terms of stunt work--some folks reject Hollywood action entirely in favour of that which comes from Hong Kong, but it's merely a different style and approach. The violence of Woo's scenes is more aggressive and bloody, and the stunts focus more on the preternatural skills of dual-pistol wielding gunmen who use any surface (in a sort of rudimentary parkour) to their advantage, versus athletic prowess and luck helping to leap from one moving car to another.

I was not let down by this film, though it was a bit away from what I thought it was, which is no criticism either. I'm very happy with it--though I am now somewhat curious about the more accurate subtitles out there.

*It's surprisingly difficult to get a handle on what names, if any, were changed for the dubtitles. I know someone sneered at them somewhere I was reading, but at the same time I was at least hearing the syllables an awful lot when people were speaking to him, so either someone went "Hey, that sounds like 'Alan'!" and re-christened him, or that is actually his name and "real" subtitles are making up names. The complexity of sorting this out--freaking NAMES--is part of why I stopped caring about how accurate this was. That and the condescending negativity that exists around it.

The Wrestler
The Wrestler(2008)

I'm doing something I never do. I once suggested I'd do it for Quantum of Solace, then never got around to another theatrical viewing. Oops. I meant to a number of times but just couldn't get to it. This movie I drove a decent bit to see, and paid more than I normally would to see it. I was a little worried about whether I'd even get to, but there we are. I'm known to have, shall we say, "issues" with Darren Aronofsky and his habit of "borrowing" (rather liberally) from other films (I have little interest in ever seeing Pi again after I saw Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo: The Iron Man and realized how much was stolen from it, but will still watch Requiem for a Dream if I feel up to it), but Mickey Rourke and the general idea were enough to sell it to me anyway.

Robin Ramzinski, also known as Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Rourke), is a professional wrestler whose heights were reached in the late 1980's, primarily through a feud with Bob, aka The Ayatollah (Ernest Miller). Now he wrestles in quiet matches in local venues, with fans still clamouring for him as the "face" he used to be in the 80s. He signs autographs at the local American Legion with other washed up wrestlers, selling old VHS, t-shirts and Polaroids as he looks at the ravages wrought on his fellow athletes, from wheelchairs to catheters. He spends his nights at a strip club, where he flirts clumsily with Pam aka Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) by attempting to protect her from snotty young men, following this with his own honestly kind words. Cassidy is strict about the prevention of contact with customers, but Pam is only hesitant. The effects of Randy's dwindling career are readily apparent: he lives in a trailer that he finds himself locked out of, forced to sleep in his van (a Dodge Ram, of course); he spends hundreds on drugs and growth hormone, hair dye and tanning to keep himself out of pain and in the ring. When this need for cashflow leads Randy to the Combat Zone Wrestling promotion, he takes on an "ultraviolent hardcore" match with the Necro Butcher (Dylan Summers under his actual stage name--no relation to Mayhem's Jørn Stubberud). The grueling exchange leaves Randy exhausted and bleeding, before he falls unconscious unexpectedly, and is rushed to the hospital. There he's told that he has had to undergo bypass surgery after his heart attack and cannot handle the strain of wrestling, working out or growth hormone any longer. He cancels all his future matches and attempts to re-assemble the life he left behind decades earlier. Cassidy suggests that he re-connect with his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), who he knows very little of, and reluctantly agrees to go with him to find a present for her. Randy takes on a job as deli clerk at the supermarket that supplied him with basic funding for his career, and attempts to rekindle some affection with his estranged daughter, and must determine whether he can survive without the ring and the roar of the crowd.

I realized pretty quickly that I was in for another soul drainer as the relentless reality of Randy's life was put forth on us, and was sure that this was indeed the primary signature of Aronofsky's direction on this work. In terms of its actual construction, it bears little resemblance to its predecessors in his career (at least those I've seen), with a far less stylized, more real and more authentic feeling to it in general. A lot of the film is spent following Randy, quite literally, with a camera a few feet behind him, handheld and looking over his shoulder, often denying us any glimpse of Rourke's face, almost distractingly so at the beginning. Even when it isn't following him, it's typically hand-held and more like a smart but as-yet-unprofessional documentary than anything else. It pushes the reality of the perfectly situated pseudo-reality portrayed. It's only a nudge away from our world, with the only clear division being that of the existence of Randy and his matches and fame, which is not a huge stretch for those who have not followed wrestling religiously. His drug habits, his routines and his dress are all painfully real, as are his matches, with exhaustion and blood frequent and apparent, the hardcore match being absolutely stomach-churning in its unpleasantness. Rourke's coat, duct-taped at the seams quietly, and his dark-rooted blonde locks, as well as his aged but tanned skin stretched over his unnaturally toned body all ring out as absolutely real for a wrestler past his prime.

There's a lack of melodrama to the way that Robert Siegel's script plays out under Rourke's easygoing manner and laidback performance and Aronofsky's loose direction that also manages to push the reality of the film and make it that much more affecting. There's not that mechanistic sort of response that audience expectation demands of films that shrug at things like plot and dialogue to focus on spectacle, Randy rarely rallying to any of the typical expectations, but also fulfilling enough to assure us he's not being contrived to deliberately avoid them, either. The conflict with the snotty rich boys over Cassidy is not drawn out or foreshadowing, nor is it used as a cheap device to have Randy ejected from the club or to draw a clear line between him and Cassidy. She moves to dance for him without hesitation after they resolve it and it's no longer an issue. Stephanie's response to him is authentically angry, vulnerable and hurt at the appropriate times, never for effect, never to specifically engender a response on Randy's part, but fully developed so that it is a character responding to a character, rather than a device affecting a character. There's not a focus on Randy being a "loser" or "past his prime" in the eyes of his community, with all the other wrestlers, even the younger, smiling at the sight of him and calling his name, clasping his hand, hugging him and cheering him, fans even at the American Legion show appreciation, with no cheaply inserted character to tell him how he "used to be" good and then zoom to Randy's face to watch it fall. The fans still love him, as wrestling fans are often devoted enough to do, and he still earns the spotlight he's given with them--it's only been reduced in size.

I'm not a devoted wrestling fan myself; I outgrew the stuff (in part by "force" of influence by those who thought little of it) over a decade a go, but always knew people with interest in it. I still have a passing one myself, fascinated with the lingo and events that surround it, the maniacal devotion to the history of the characters and the changes that have been wrought in them over time (for those aware, my love for scorpions made Steve "Sting" Borden my favourite wrestler when I did follow, and he's most certainly gone through changes). I have no earthly idea why anymore, but I've definitely wandered around looking up information about what happened (actually, I suppose some of my researching related to things like Andy Kaufman's dabblings in it, now that I think about it) in wrestling over the years, and can't help but at least peruse dustjacket leaves on books and rear covers of DVDs. It holds an allure so long as I maintain a vague distance and don't actually sit through it (which I can't really imagine anymore, not out of condescension, but out of varying interest on my part from who I was years ago), and this film acts very forcefully on that, simultaneously giving background and reality to the character of "The Ram" by giving us the man behind it. The ending is often discussed, and all I will say is that it was perfect, as I spent the last minutes leading up to it with a stomach tied in knots, fearing artistic capitulation or immense depression were the only possible outcomes, only to be surprised and pleased with what was chosen.

What is possibly more often discussed (and always of fascination to me) is the character of Randy and how he fits into this world. Some look at his choices and see him as weak, others seem as the pinnacle of life-choice and recognition, still others see him as selfish and unsympathetic. It's easy in more melodramatic vehicles to form these attachments and detachments, because characters in them are usually designed for this purpose, even when they are then filled out and rounded with complexities and greyness. Films like this, though, beg you to realize that you are to see these characters as real people. Real people can be liked or disliked just as easily, but hopefully one puts greater thought into that than into one's taste in melodramatic characters. Randy is a good-natured man, and that is the most important element of his character when considering his worth. He wishes no harm on anyone and avoids negativity in almost every situation. He's supportive of his fellow wrestlers and earns their admiration, respect and friendliness. He's not a stubborn ox of a buffoon with Cassidy or his daughter, knowing when he screws up and knowing that he did so, even when he continues to do it. His choices at the end of the film are informed by this, and to suggest that he acted selfishly without regard for others, or that regard for others didn't enter into positive choices is willful ignorance of this. Randy makes very valiant attempts to be what the regular people want him to be, though he knows better how to be what his fans want, and knows that while he can rely on fans, he is also less likely to hurt them if he retires than he is to "retire" from the lives of the regular people around him. He's not a bad man, and he doesn't make bad decisions--just bad choices and wrong ones. It's an impressive role for Rourke which desperately deserves the Oscar, a performance that doesn't overshadow a role even as it inhabits it. It's almost as if we're watching Rourke himself, even though there's too much of Randy there for it to be the actor behind him, an amalgamation that is thrilling, heart-breaking and, yes, affecting.

Excellent film.

Amistad
Amistad(1997)

I normally start a Steven Spielberg review by discussing the asinine attitude that has developed around him--either hero worship or envious/rebellious denigration. I've done that though, so for those unaware, let me strike my stance as follows: Spielberg is an excellent director who is typically overrated a bit too much by his biggest fans and very thoroughly underrated to ridiculous extents by those who refuse to any element of sentimentality in their personalities. I'm tired of both attitudes and the complete polar extremes' existence with such a popular director clears a swath of free space between them. I'm somewhere in that space, leaning toward the positive.

Sengbe Pieh (here referred to only by his "Christian name" of Joseph Cinqué, and played by Djimon Honsou) is one of a group of fifty slaves who revolt on Spanish ship La Amistad and slaughter most of their captors. A mix of intentions from Sengbe and the surviving Spaniards Ruiz (Geno Silva) and Montes (John Ortiz) leads to the ship's capture by the American Navy when they land on American soil, and the slaves-to-be are taken to New Haven, Connecticut where they are to be tried. The reading of charges by District Attorney Holabird (Pete Postlethwaite) is interrupted by numerous claims to the possession or rights involved. Lieutenants Gedney (Ralph Brown) and Meade (Darren Burrows) claim the Africans are spoils of salvage, Montes and Ruiz claim rights as the original "owners," Spanish Ambassador Calderon (Tomas Milian, he of many an Italian exploitation film) claims them for Queen Isabella (pubescent Anna Paquin), and Secretary of State John Forsyth (David Paymer) works with Holabird to secure these rights to Calderon--to curry favour with her for soon-to-be-ex-President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne). Underground publishers of The Emancipator ex-slave Theodore Joadsen (Morgan Freeman) and activist Tappan (Stellan Skarsgård), however, attempt to argue in the favour of their release by way of a writ. When all of this simply ties things up, the outside observer Roger Baldwin (Matthe McConaughey) steps in and offers his services as a property attorney. Tappan shuts him down in righteous anger (because of Baldwin's focus) while Joadsen takes an interest in the young attorney. They attempt to recruit former President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) to help them, but Adams refuses on grounds of disinterest. Baldwin turns out to be a good choice, though, and nearly saves the Africans--only to have the politically-motivated machinations of the President appeal the case to the Supreme Court.

Treading yet more familiar ground for me, this is based on a true story. If you go into any film looking for an education on historical events, that film had better be popularly considered a documentary--if not expertly considered, preferrably. This isn't one and any pretense to it is not given. Spielberg takes an interesting story in the history of the United States, and one relevant to the issue of slavery and uses it to serve the purpose of educating, emotionally, about the horror of slavery and the glory of the United States as a country and set of laws and systems. The events work very well to suit this--most of the complaints about its accuracy have little to do with them, and indeed the final outcome is truthful, as are the events with regard to Van Buren's interference, Adams' reluctance and most of the rest. The parts that are changed are primarily things that are retroactive: suddenly, Van Buren's fear is of civil war, an idea generally not considered to be under discussion so publicly twenty years before it would occur, and Van Buren would not have been campaigning for re-election--because no one campaigned then. This is hardly earth-shaking or story-ruining, however much an assault it may be on historicity.

What's most memorable about this film are the details that have survived its original release. Djimon Honsou's biggest credit prior was probably that of Horus in Stargate, which is not exactly star-making material, nor a particularly meaty role. This role, however, won him quite some measure of acclaim as well as a Golden Globe nomination, and probably paved the way for his later successes. It's definitely to Honsou's credit that it does so, and not to any hype machine. Sengbe is a strong man, a leader to this small group of the Mende people he is forcibly confined with, but one who suffers great humility and self-doubt. He's proud and stubborn and willing to take action, but has little faith in himself. He's not (thankfully) portrayed as a lone brain amongst the stupid savages, but rather the only one who chooses to take interest in and attempt to decipher the bizarre (and I mean that honestly, this society IS bizarre) society they've been forced into. This is also, in part, because they have forcibly chosen him as leader in light of a past that includes the killing of a monstrous lion. Sengbe (Cinqué only in the film, as I said) is an interesting character because it manages to take the stereotypical idea of the African from the past and re-purpose it outside the stereotype. Yes, Sengbe was in a tribe of hunter/gatherers, yes, his people used primarily close range weapons, yes they wore little clothing by our standards and so forth. But this does not make any suggestion as to his intelligence and capability. It's very well-written and not played too much for laughs when Sengbe and Baldwin attempt to communicate--at the least, it's balanced on who is the object of fun, and even more probably swings toward the Africans as the ones more "right" in their interpretation of the Americans as ridiculous in their systemic complexity.

The other performance the film is remembered for is certainly Anthony Hopkins' as John Quincy Adams, the President lost to his father's legacy, remembered, as the film presciently notes (more than likely as an injoke based in hindsight, though quite possibly true at the time as well) that he is remembered more for his middle name than any actions. Hopkins, though, won an Oscar, and it, too, was deserved. His Adams is smart and strong of will, but shies away from the limelight now, disinterested in larger issues though he has stances on them. He feigns senility at first, attempting to dissuade his moralistic pursuers in this fashion, but relents when appeal is made to his intellect by Baldwin, and to his skill. He's frustrated at first by the attentions of Sengbe via translator Ensign Covey (Chiwetel Ejiofor, who also went on to much bigger roles, including that of Firefly's "Operative," which geekdom will probably assure remains his most well-known role), but shows glints of appreciation for Sengbe's analysis, and is finally impressed when he instead speaks to him face-to-face (though of course still translated), finding inspiration for the words to bring before the Supreme Court.

The final (and least pleasant) element the film is remembered for is its depiction of the slave ships. Many films have "happily" portrayed the horrors of slavery in practice (or disturbingly pretended there was no horror to it), but few have had the cojones to show the shipping conditions for the "merchandise." Truly unpleasant, the film begins with the action that Sengbe frees himself with: he scrapes away at the wood around a nail, which he finally frees with bloodied fingers to manipulate the shackles he's held with and remove them. He takes clear revenge on the men who were carrying them, violent and angry, but we seen in this none of the stereotype of "savage," and only pure fury at the conditions he was taken and held under--which we witness later when Baldwin asks him about his story and how he came to be in this court. Taken by surprise by other Africans (as future slaves often were) to be traded to the Portugeuse, Sengbe sees the violent abuses of the ship's masters as they flay the backs of slaves, tie others to rocks and drop them in the ocean and strap them all down naked in rows flat on the floor or in small cage-like separations. It's not pleasant to see, though I think my own brain has developed a protective denial that makes it incapable of comprehending the truth of the fact that somehow people once believed that this was acceptable and normal. I know it's true, but that disconnect at least separates my experience from the reality of image--and the image alone I wouldn't wish on too many, let alone the actuality.

Once again, Spielberg has achieved something excellent in his historical film-making, using the events surrounding La Amistad to explore the ideas of slavery and of the way the United States governmental systems work. It's not his best work, but it's supremely entertaining and well-made as is very nearly always the case with him. Inexplicably, especially in early scenes with Adams, there is a distractingly saccharine attempt by John Williams to conflate the images of Adams onscreen with political heroics. It comes off as a mis-cue, and really makes the film stumble a bit on those moments.

The Mechanic
The Mechanic(1972)

After seeing Once Upon a Time in the West, I had a hankering to see more Charles Bronson flicks. Obviously the first stop was Death Wish, and the sort of "proxy" choices I got to anyway (The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven). This one caught my eye because it fit the image of "Charles Bronson movies" as I had built them in my head. I thought of him (by reputation) as sort of a 1970's Van Damme, someone who would appear on TNT's "Movies for Guys Who Like Movies" back in the 1990s, someone appreciated by the sort of person who guzzles a beer and cheers for the psychopathic cop who stomps all over civil rights to get the bad guy. Maybe a Chuck Norris? I don't know. Still, I took my mental image of him and this movie seemed exactly it--yet, I'd seen these other films of his and found that he was not at all what I had imagined. This film does not change that fact.

Arthur Bishop (Bronson) is a mechanic; he doesn't fix cars or craps tables, he fixes situations--by killing people. He wanders into a hotel and sets himself up in an otherwise untouched room, setting down a suitcase next to an open window. From it he draws a stubby telescope, which he uses to take pictures of an apartment across the street. Then we see him examining these images, tapping his fingers lightly on the images that seem to be drawing his attention. Now he makes his way into the room he was spying on, moving to the oven where he puts a compound on one of the gas lines that eats away at it, replaces tea bags, places a pudding-like substance in a book and then leaves. Clearly he's at work, and it's not long before we see the results. Soon he's back in the fancy home where he was examining his pictures, receiving a call from an old friend. That friend is Harry McKenna (Keenan Wynn), who asks Bishop to put in a good word for him with the organized crime group they both work for. Harry's son Steve (Jan-Michael Vincent) wanders through and looks curiously at Bishop while taking money coldly from his father. When Bishop orchestrates Harry's death, Steve is left alone, and curious about what Bishop does, sure it relates to his father's business. Bishop is reluctant to reveal himself until he watches Steve ignore the suicidal threats of his girlfriend Louise (Linda Ridgeway) and even lets her get so far as slitting her wrists and waiting a while before throwing her car keys to save her own life. Bishop takes Steve on as an associate, which leads them through a very messy job and a recrimination from Bishop's employer. A hit is assigned in Italy, but Bishop finds a secondary hit has already been assigned.

It's difficult to explain the appeal of Charles Bronson to the sort of people I am around most often. They're not utter snobs only interested in art films, but generally a more sparkly sort of action is necessary. This is 1970s action though, which is a very different breed from what came about in the 80s and 90s, and the new breed that arrived in the past decade. Stunts feel more authentically dangerous, because you can tell they are not so carefully orchestrated, with the only precaution likely coming down to stunt doubles and maybe extra padding, or something to that effect. Violence, of course, often comes off as a little less grisly without those "real" squibs and "realistic" fake blood that have followed (though squibs were used--often they looked a little off, as did the blood), but that has never bothered me too much anyway. That difference in stunts though adds something; in the 80s and 90s it seemed like stunts were obviously contrived. They continued to be entertaining and thrilling, but were obviously not natural occurrences. Most recently, a naturalistic tone has been returned to them, but now it's just the mark of even more careful orchestration. It was sort of an excess previously, with images of gigantic cranes with wire riggings and fire trucks and engines standing by, gigantic trampolines and air cushions and the like all over the place, where now it seems those things are carefully hidden, and perhaps narrowed down to only the relevant elements for each stunt. But in the 70s, boy, it looks like they said, "Well, this ought to be safe if we use a professional and have a soft crash at the end!" It makes things seem loose and dirty, and more real for it. Clearly the events and the essential run of the stunts is pre-determined, but it seems less likely that they just set a car on a guided track and pulled it into a wall and more likely that they just drove the bloody thing, or dropped a brick on its gas pedal and let it go.

Michael Winner (who also directed Death Wish) did this one with Bronson and seems to have a very similar mentality to film itself. Dialogue and performance of it seem to be a very minor concern to him, with much of it actually sounding like it was recorded in ADR rather than live, and little of it sounding natural. But he draws the focus away from that and into the events and the physicality of characters. If you read the dialogue, it doesn't seem quite so silly-sounding, yet at the same time as it does end up sounding that silly, the silliness is muted by the way Bronson and Vincent play it and the way Winner directs it. Bronson has never been one to overstate a line (barring possibly his response to the rebellious children in The Magnificent Seven), so he just sort of rolls almost every line out of his mouth sounding like the last one. It's essentially flat, but never toneless or dead despite this. Something about his look, the way he carries himself and moves, manages to overcome that inattention to dialogue (with Winner clearly caring little for it either) without damaging the story in the process. It doesn't become an issue of a film you watch to see Bronson or stunts or violence or gags or effects, but one you watch because it has Bronson, and then find pretty engaging anyway. It's a curious style of film-making, and one that is purely instinctual. This is why there is difficulty in explaining the appeal: you either like Bronson or you don't. It's not that he's an amazing actor, nor even that he's as macho as the beer-guzzling variety of fan likes to think. The proper term would be closer to "bad ass," because he's silent in his strength, even when he's running with a shotgun and taking out criminals. I've talked about this kind of actor before--actors who aren't strong, but aren't bad, and simply have this screen presence that makes their films enjoyable anyway (unless the film itself is simply awful). Bronson is easily one of those souls, and that and Winner's measured but loose direction make for a hell of a fun film.

The Third Man
½

The first advice I have for you is simple: don't read anything about this film, including what I'm about to write, before you watch it. I could attempt a review that didn't spoil certain elements, but it would be terribly, terribly difficult and fail to address the movie itself, really. Obviously this means there will be some spoilers to follow here, so make your choice now as to whether you read on. I myself had the film pseudo-spoiled in various ways over the years, first with Leonard Maltin's review of, I'm not kidding, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. This is because that film has a little in-joke relating to this one, and naturally Maltin's tastes would not forgive him if he failed to make a note of a connection to a film from this period. Second, well, the presence of Orson Welles and notation of the role he plays makes for a give away of some kind, though you can't be sure what, you do know for sure that something is awry in this world if you know that in advance (even if you just end up with a flashback, you still know a flashback is coming).

Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) is an American novelette writer, primarily of westerns, who has been offered a job in post-war Vienna by his old friend Harry Lime (Welles). When he arrives in the city, which is divided into Russian, British, American and French "zones," he heads to Lime's hotel only to be informed by a porter (Paul Hoerbiger) that Lime was hit by a car and killed. Now left stranded with no job, no money and nowhere to stay, Cotton wanders aimlessly until he stumbles across the British military officers Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) and Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee), who are investigating the late Lime for racketeering. Martins is annoyed by the police in general, and especially these two for harassing his friend, dead though he is. Paine is the only soul to have heard of Martins' writing, though, and is very pleased to have him around. He mentions Martins' writing in passing to another man, Crabbin (Wilfrid Hyde-White), who happens to be the head of a cultural center, and assumes Martins is a great novelist, offering him a place to stay and a series of lectures to pay his way. Harry is still curious about clearing Harry's name, so he looks up the people whose names are connected to Harry and to the events surrounding his death, first with Baron Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch), a seedy man with a small dog who tries to push Martins into acceptance, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), who loved Harry and so begins to share Martins' suspicions, Dr. Winkel (Erich Ponto), whose name Martins can't seem to grasp, and eventually back to the porter who first informed him of Harry's death, who says he saw the body carried from his window. What the porter says that no one else does is that a third man helped to carry the body--something everyone else denies. Martins is convinced murder is involved and begins his own sloppy investigation, against the wishes of Calloway, who would prefer to investigate Lime's alleged crimes instead.

My response to this film is surprisingly easy to sum up: disappointed. I've heard so much about this film, and watched it released by the Criterion collection, and so expected something quite special from it, which I usually find in films that I have that kind of hype from. This time, I did not. It's not a bad film at all, but it didn't strike me as anything particularly special. I know Graham Greene is an author, but do not know him so much as one, primarily identifying him with "not Bonanza" by virtue of a quick joke in Donnie Darko, mocking someone else's ignorance of him. I don't know Carol Reed's films, except by name. I've seen Welles on film before, as well as Cotton (though I didn't recall this strongly) and Howard (in very small part). I attribute some of this, with annoyance, to the obviousness of the twists with knowledge of Welles' role. The gag that I previously mentioned first introduced me to the film was made amusingly irrelevant upon finding out Lime was dead at the very beginning of the film ("Harry Lime Lives" is written in a sewer in that film). Still, it was no mystery whatsoever who the "third man" was, nor was I very easily persuaded that Lime was dead, and the two concepts easily wandered into each other and removed any semblance of surprise from the picture.

Welles is often remembered for his role in the picture, Welles himself attributing to it the nature of the "star part;" Welles calls a "star part" one in which your character is mentioned endlessly in hushed tones for half of a production before you actually appear. Truthfully, I found Welles unspectacular, much like the film itself. He was no disappointment (this is Orson Welles, after all), but he made no real place for himself. He has a great set of facial expressions, especially his first one seen, and a wonderfully smug and condescending character, with a smirk to match his constant address of Martins as "Old Man," but does not truly set the role apart. Cotten is something like a more energetic Gary Cooper, a nice role as a typical noir hero, a drunk who easily wanders in over his head and has none of the suaveness to get himself out. He blunders and stumbles and does not ever manage to get himself out of it by wit alone, usually by luck or simple honesty with the trusting. It's a strong contrast to the purely egocentric and morally carefree Lime, but not without its own flaws.

The one other note I can't let pass is Anton Karas' zither score. The opening of the film has the strings of a zither being plucked and strummed behind the cross-fading credits, but the same instrument is used throughout for every scene. It came off as almost insane to try and use it for scenes of tension or chases, with the bright, warbling twang of a zither flying at complete odds to the tone of the scenes themselves--it gives just a hint of madness to the scenes themselves, but not enough to overcome the feeling that someone accidentally put the wrong part of the score on the wrong scene. It's all wonderfully played and nice music, but the complete lack of instrumental variation is grating after a while.

There is a positive to this film though. Robert Krasker's Oscar-winning cinematography is just as brilliant as the award suggests--it's not apparent or making itself unknown in every scene, but the ones in which it does are breath-taking and can easily overtake the shrug-inducing mediocrity of the events taking place onscreen. Standout elements include the excellent ferris wheel scene, where amazing shots of the support structure of the ride and the grounds below are almost distracting in their beauty, where later scenes, playing more to Krasker's role in the lighting, use the streets of Vienna as full canvasses, with the cobblestone streets allowing for textures on three sides instead of just two, filling the screen instead of narrowing it to a hallway of sorts. Lime's first appearance is in this environment, and it's a pretty amazing one--even knowing what was going on, it was a heart-speeding moment, for which Reed also deserves credit, as the scenes of shoes and a cat alone widen the eyes. Naturally the most remembered scene, though, is the final sewer chase, with a very pretty sewer system (yes, really!) making for a dark, claustrophobic and intentionally confusing chase. Confusing, that is, in the sense that Harry often finds himself trapped and cornered at every turn, often re-treading the same ground, however quickly.

Still, in the end--it's a film noir, and not the best or worst I've seen, but nothing that really made it pop for me. Truly disappointing.

Good Night, And Good Luck

I'm terrible at seeing Best Picture contenders. This is amusing only if one considers that I'm actually interested in them. This film was nominated four years ago, and only now have I gotten around to seeing it. Sure, there are plenty I haven't seen nominated forty years ago (or even seventy years, for that matter, hell, eighty), but I was alive, conscious and interested in film when this was released. I still haven't seen two other films from 2005 nominated (the winner, Crash, and Munich, and actually I've not seen all of Brokeback Mountain), nevermind 2004, 2006 or 2007. This is even despite the fact that things like McCarthyism fascinate the hell out of me--injustice perpetrated by the gloryhounds, overly powerful and the bigoted is a weakness of mine to see condemned. I did not go in knowing much about Edward R. Murrow, especially in light of my age, being far too young to have seen or heard the actual broadcasts for which he is known.

Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) is speaking before the Radio and Television News Directors Association in 1958, leaving no confusion as to his feelings about the state of the television news industry. A slow fade brings us back to 1953, as Junior Senator from Wisconsin Joe McCarthy (played by himself in stock footage throughout) is at the height of his fame and notoriety, propagating what would later be known as "McCarthyism," his Communist witch-hunt in the United States Government. In a meeting with his coproducer Fred Friendly (George Clooney) and the writers for CBS News, Murrow brings up the case of Milo Radulovich, who had been ousted from the Air Force for refusal to denounce his father's alleged ties to the Communist Party. CBS Chief Executive Bill Paley (Frank Langella) is reluctant to air something that could risk damage to corporate sponsorship and government relationships, but reluctantly agrees to allow Murrow to air the program. The Air Force is displeased, but positive response encourages further shows--and encourages Murrow to take an open stand against McCarthy's methodology. Behind Murrow, writer Joseph (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Shirley Wershba (Patricia Clarkson) attempt to hide their illicit marriage from their coworkers, while fellow journalist Don Hollenbeck suffers by association, slammed by Hearst's Jack O'Brian, begging Murrow to defend him. Murrow is relentless though, and takes on the bill-paying celebrity interviews to supplement his ethics-driven journalism.

I was always surprised when I discovered the running time of this movie--it's rare, these days, for a Best Picture nominee to run at only an hour and a half, but this film does. It's also less common for films to choose black and white and succeed on this without driving motivation being related to budget. It was a decision apparently made around the decision to keep McCarthy appearances purely from stock footage (thus requiring that all images be black and white, because those were), and it works. It doesn't seem pretentious or artificially chosen, it seems simply like a natural choice. The running time also doesn't seem to be an improper choice, however short it is in the modern age. The story is told economically, efficiently and with great care and skill. I've seen the other film Clooney had directed at that point (with Leatherheads subsequently added to his credits, but remaining unseen), and was quite surprised and delighted by the film, but recognized far more of Charlie Kaufman in it than Clooney.

This time there was not a clear identity, but it was brilliantly assembled, with interesting transitions from scene to scene. Usually a slow fade to black and an abrupt return to image would mark a shift in scene, but it is never jarring. The more interesting ones are the montages that are placed between the sessions where a show is discussed and where it is aired. They don't feel like standard, run-of-the-mill montages, being somewhat more measured and interesting, probably enhanced by a slow jazzy score that brings down the pacing of such short cuts to make them feel more full. This kind of filming was interspersed with scenes that were filmed as reality, from speeches and words taken directly from Murrow's real life (including his actual address of the RTNDA), and with dialogue overlapping in an Altman-style. The sound is carefully engineered to bring the narratively important conversations into the forefront without sacrificing background noise and conversations completely, maintaining the feeling of a real news office (even if some of us, say, haven't ever seen such a thing). Most interestingly for the sound, the music is primarily live singing by Dianne Reeves and a small jazz combo doing standards, and this is occasionally used like some dialogue as a sort of "voice-over" through transitions to tie two scenes together. This kind of care in assembly is the kind that can melt my heart to a film and make me truly appreciate the interest, effort and desire to create that so obviously was put into this film.

Strathairn's nomination for Best Actor was absolutely deserved, with my brain failing to recognize him and instantly associating him with the identity of Murrow despite having never seen Murrow before. I often found myself thinking of the character onscreen as the man instead of an actor portraying him, and even the more openly famous cast members easily ingratiated themselves to the idea of losing themselves in the background to Strathairn's Murrow, with Downey showing none of is typical quirks and Clooney never dominating, always working equally with Strathairn but easily taking on the command that the real colleagues claimed Friendly had, especially when he is seen dealing with the Air Force Colonels who visit to express displeasure with the Radulovich story. This, though, is where the film shines--even Strathairn's excellent performance doesn't draw attention to itself as a performance, just like Downey's, Clarkson's, Langella's or Clooney's. It enhances the film, rather than detracting, to have it filmed in this way that emphasizes the events, the images and the dialogue over all else, but with the dialogue and events carefully snipped, placed and stretched to fit exactly with the flow of the film. I am utterly impressed with Clooney's direction, and with the script he and Grant Heslov put together--as well as the original words of Murrow and his colleagues.

Truly an excellent film.

Blue, White and Perfect
½

I've now seen all four of the currently released Michael Shayne pictures from the 1940s, and I'm almost completely out of steam to review them. There's not a lot of differentiation because they're b-roll pictures that acted as companions to bigger budgeted main features.

Shayne (Lloyd Nolan once again) is now confronted with a girlfriend, Merle Garland (Mary Beth Hughes, returning to the series as a different character), who wishes him to leave the detective business so that she will marry him. Shayne agrees, asking a friend to set him up in the Thomas Aircraft factory, where he masquerades as a riveter, but in fact aims to prevent sabotage (since it's wartime and all). He stumbles across a diamond smuggling plot which leads him to the Daisy Bell dress company, where he meets with Rudolph Hagerman (Henry Victor) as "Colonel Henry Breckenridge Lee, Jr.," a southern salesman. The perp who put him on the trail of the diamonds in the first place happens to catch him, though, so he's left trying to follow the diamonds on a ship, where he meets up with former flame Helen Shaw (Helene Reynolds) and playboy-type Juan Arturo O'Hara (George "Superman" Reeves). Naturally the diamond thieves aim to protect their quarry, but O'Hara seems to know more than he's letting on as well.

Much like Sleepers West, I was more entertained by this film than the other two. Nolan continues to shine in his role as Shayne, especially his amusing turn as the disguised Southerner, where he even goes so far as to carry himself differently and avoids really harping on his dialect choice. The best part was doubtless his interaction with the Tobys, who own a store right next to the Daisy Bell company. Mr. (Frank Orth) and Mrs. Toby (Mae Marsh) are left stunned and staring as Shayne wanders in and out of their store, attempting to keep himself below the radar in his investigations--or in attempting to continue his deception of Merle regarding his occupation. Reeves is interesting to see long before his Superman days, and interesting in his role as a whole, with a similarly subdued approach to an accent he doesn't naturally possess. Neither is of course perfectly accurate at it, but it's refreshingly low-key, especially for a film that not a lot of star power or money was dumped into.

Sleepers West

I've already reviewed two Michael Shayne Movies (Michael Shayne, Private Detective and The Man Who Wouldn't Die), so my comments on the two remaining films (this one and Blue, White and Perfect) are going to be limited.

Michael Shayne (Lloyd Nolan, as usual) returns for another caper, this time carrying a key witness in disguise on a train (hence the title), one Helen Carlson (Mary Beth Hughes). Of course, what's a key witness without a hitman out to get her? A quick stop for the train picks up Carl Izzard (Don Costello) and Everett Jason (Louis Jean Heydt), the former interested in Helen Carlson's deciding not to testify, the latter simply on the run from his old life--with a pile of money in his suitcase. Shayne's tripped up by the re-appearance of Kay Bentley (Lynn Bari), who he came close to marrying a number of times prior. She's traveling with fiancé Tom Linscott (Donald Douglas), much to the chagrin of Shayne. The twist is Linscott is working for Governor elect Wentworth, who is tied into a dirty court case involving ex-thief Callahan--the man for whom Helen is to testify.

Usually the strongest element of a Shayne picture is Nolan, who doesn't let us down in any way this time, continuing to have a glib tongue and a good smirk for his detective's brain, but this time the plot is the star. Fox having long since abandoned Shayne-creator Brett Halliday's original novels, this time the story is drawn from Frederick Nebel's novel Sleepers East (yes, they changed the direction of the train). Tightly wound into a complex knot, we have everyone working against each other and for each other, with porters discovering the fortune Jason carries with him, an extra detective on the train by assignment who isn't sure of what that assignment is, Izzard working as cold-blooded hitman and future husband Linscott working in self-interest at cross purposes to Shayne. Shayne of course is interested in helping his friend (and perhaps a bit of fame), while Kay is after a story for her paper, the Denver Tribune. Jason takes interest in Helen by pure coincidence and now everyone is trying to keep them on or off the train for every reason imaginable. It all unfolds with perfect believability, with a nice guiding hand from director Eugene Forde (who also directed the first Shayne picture, as well as some Charlie Chan ones).

There's a nice stunt sequence of a train accident and even a nice running subplot that doesn't relate to Helen directly about a rather wild-eyed train conductor--nevermind the bantering (though occasionally a bit uncomfortable in its unavoidably pre-civil rights near-racism, it's at least not overbearingly awful in that respect). No clunky performances are to be found, and the 74 minute running time races along at quite a clip, being more engaging than the prior (or actually later, I have no idea why this box set is arranged like it is, film The Man Who Wouldn't Die) and more entertaining for it. A nice little b-roll film, and a good addition to the Shayne corral.

The Tune
The Tune(1992)

I was introduced to Bill Plympton's animation style in college, with just a handful of shorts, not including (oddly enough) the Oscar-nominated Your Face (I'm pretty sure I've never seen it, though I could be wrong). 25 Ways to Quit Smoking I definitely saw and found endearingly absurd and prettily animated. Having a best friend who is actively interested in animation and animators, my interest was re-ignited in Plympton and I picked this film up on a whim, knowing it was his first-ever feature-length, but having heard that it ran more like a sort of collection of shorts.

Del (voiced by Daniel Neiden) is a songwriter (more in the Brill Building sense than the James Taylor sense) who has just been given a 47 minute deadline by boss Mr. Mega (voiced by Marty Nelson), with only girlfriend Didi (voiced by Maureen McElheron, who wrote the film's songs and co-wrote the story with Bill) to encourage him as he sets out on the road after hitting his personal writer's block ("My love for you/Is equal to.....?"). After the spectre of the withering criticism emerges randomly to chide Del, he finds himself in an extremely complex cloverleaf (in the highway sense) which leads him out into an unusual place--where the Mayor (also voiced by Nelson) introduces him with the film's first full song--"Flooby Nooby." The town (of the same name) is used to try and bring Del to a more pure method of songwriting--not attempting to calculate a pop hit but to act on feeling instead. From here he wanders from place to place, with song after song sung to him (whether in his head or a truly bizarre alternate universe we can't be 100% sure) trying to bring him to the song that will impress Mr. Mega.

Plympton's animation style is extremely easy to recognize--most of it is composed of coloured-pencil-based line drawings with "realistically cartoony" characters, with strong, life-like shading on cartoon-proportioned faces (cheeks, in particular, often have extremely dark shading at their bottom edges, especially on smiles). Some parts of this film, though, wander into other styles; the frames displaying the lyrics of "Flooby Nooby," for instance, are static images shown in a rapid-fire motion to match the tempo of the song. Most of it, though, is in the trademark Plympton style, with faces made of play-doh, resembling Gumby-style stop-motion, only smoother and brighter, cleaner and certainly stranger. The character designs are all wonderfully varied (a plump body with a thin head and a tiny brush of red hair for Del, a huge nose that takes up the entire face of the Mayor and so on) and fascinating--despite their lack of realism and the strange things that often happen to the characters, the faces are somehow "believable" anyway. As with the rest of Plympton's work I've seen, there's a beautiful quality to the animation that makes it seem easy to swallow (in belief terms) even when a door opens in a man's face and out jumps a smaller version of him that runs around and opens another door--you never have any idea what on earth to expect of it, but it just keeps going and all surprises you just a little, yet simultaneously comes out in a way that your brain completely accepts (though not without an element of, "Holy crap! That is so bizarre...and awesome!" The one disappointing element is unavoidable--Plympton put the film together piece by piece as he had money, and the varying styles of segments can be jarring when they switch, or at least a little off-putting. So long as you think of it as a collection of segments though, it isn't too bothersome.

The major criticism I've seen levelled at this film is mostly directed at McElheron's music. I think some of it misses the point (one person was disappointed at how "normal" it was, for instance). Plympton and McElheron were acting on their love for American roots music, and that seemed easy enough to gather to me--when you're clearly wandering from showtune to mid-period country (post-Hank Williams but pre-modern, slick, cookie cutter garbage) to blues to "surf" music, it seems to me it's obvious that Del is wandering through basic musical tropes because his business is not writing fantastically experimental music, but writing a hit. That's what Mr. Mega wants and, in some fashion, what Del wants, even after he decides to pull it from his heart instead of his brain. The songs, however, are a little weak sometimes--simplistic instrumentation occasionally douses a song that seems like it should have more (exceptions being the blues song, for instance, which fits naturally with simple orchestration), but generally they are saved by fascinatingly absurd lyrics to match Plympton's mentality. It's not an obvious pattern of absurdity or the bland calculated absurdity of those who simply copy the kind they've already seen, but the kind that turns corners you didn't even know were there, let alone that one could turn at them. My criticism extends more to Neiden's weak (and slightly irritating) performance as Del. It's reminiscent of Emo Phillips, but without the feeling that there is a speech impediment involved--intrinsic or contrived, whichever, seeming drawn out and artificial, often calling more attention than it should to the economic animation Plympton uses (most likely to save money). On the same note, two animated films based around music are amongst my favourite films of all time--Yellow Submarine (a favourite of Plympton's apparently) and The Point. Let's just say none of these singers are Harry Nilsson, nor are they Lennon, McCartney or Harrison (but possibly Ringo--which is not meant as denigrating from me, as Yellow Submarine made him my favourite Beatle for a long time).

But, Plympton's animation gradually takes the film in increasingly surreal directions and brings the focus more to itself and away from the audio (which instead ends up helpfully complementary instead of dominant), making the film tremendously enjoyable and simultaneously fascinating.

Inside Man
Inside Man(2006)

I'm normally mixed about watching Spike Lee films. I often very happily go in to see them (well, I can't say I've ever seen one in a theatre, so "going in" is technically not accurate, but you get the idea), but am wary of Spike's attitude, of which I am not a fan. I've ranted numerous times about the feelings I have about Spike Lee as a person, but it's worth noting that all of his films that I've seen have been excellent as films, so long as I keep Spike away from it in any commentator capacity.* The presence of actors I have a more comfortable feeling about is certainly helpful (Turturro, for instance), and this one has Denzel Washington, Willem DaFoe, Jodie Foster and Clive Owen. I'd also understood it to be a more "populist" film, and thus less likely to include the little pieces of the Spike attitude that annoy me (such as his decision to try and get an injunction against SpikeTV for trading on his name).

Detectives Keith Frazier (Washington) and Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are two New York City policeman who are out of favour for big cases, but have been asking for a change in this. A group of people dressed as painters who appear in a bank only to lock it down and take everyone in it hostage gives them their opportunity, and they are sent in to take control of the situation. In control of the tactical team stationed at the crime scene is Captain John Darius (DaFoe), who has a brief clash with Frazier, who is unfamiliar to him. The painters, who all call each other a variation of "Steve," are led by Dalton Russell (Owen), who introduces the film. Russell is ultra-confident and has no doubts about his control of the situation, not even becoming bemused at the thought of playing with the cops who are trying to stop him. They prevent outside phone calls or any other attempts at gaining outside help by confiscating all cell phones and keys, then dress all of the hostages just like themselves. Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), who founded and owns the bank is upset to find out which bank is being robbed and immediately calls in under-the-radar cleaner Madeleine White (Foster) to try to negotiate outside the police force in order to keep something safe which he refuses to describe. When the bank is finally cleared, Frazier and Mitchell are left lost as to what crime was intended in the painters' entry, as no clear motivation appears. Told to drop it, Frazier cannot deny his instincts and pursues it to its end.

The first question I had as I started to watch the film was whether this film was perfectly populist and un-Spike, or if it was just a more populist but still-Spike film. The Russell Gerwitz script is not in line with the race-obsessed tendencies of Spike, but doesn't shy away from that important issue (though it is not, as Spike often seems to believe, the only important issue), especially in conversations between officers and in the interrogations of the hostages and painters from the bank (who are indiscernible for the cops), which even gets into the old "post 9/11" mentalities. It's always refreshing to me to see Spike get into bias against other races or groupings, as it brings a sigh of relief that Spike does recognize other people are and have been oppressed or judged unfairly. The scenes with Waris Ahluwalia as Vikram Walia are the most intelligent of these, addressing simplistic bias and judgment, but showing that Do the Right Thing spark of recognizing the way that people also treat prejudices with tongue-in-cheek sometimes, or occasionally even both those having them and those suffering them smirk at mutually seeing a truth in them.

The focus, though, is on the events and the plotting and planning of Dalton Russell. Viewers will likely spend most of the movie attempting to determine who is the titular inside man--is there a cop working with the robbers? A cop in the bank? A robber in the cops? Or maybe it's all a load of bollocks and some jackass producer thought that would be a "neat title," and it has no relevance whatsoever? There are hints and paths that can lead a conscientious viewer to many conclusions prior to the film's own conclusion, but it takes a full viewing to be sure of how to interpret the title (and that interpretation may be that cynical last one, I shan't clarify). Puzzling out Russell's seemingly inexplicable confidence, even in the face of those cultural references that are thrown out (Dog Day Afternoon, especially). Frazier is smart enough to be aware of some telling moments in Russell's actions, but still can't quite get the last piece to understand why Russell is doing it at all--any more than most viewers can. The final explanation of it is a surprise, but not an O. Henry twist (or even a telegraphed twist in the fashion of certain egotistical directors of the modern age), it's simple a re-purposing of the entire film, but fluidly and naturally. It's not perfectly satisfying or fulfilling, but by no means is it a letdown either.

The actors are all in professional form, with Owen giving his usual flat vocal (all I can figure is he's concentrating on eliminating his accent) performance that somehow works anyway behind his strong physical presence. He makes for an interesting actor in this capacity, managing to vary his roles despite all that, though I'm not sure I've caught exactly how he does it. He seems very close to his role as Dwight, but has not got the menace of it, though a similar level of confidence. Denzel's role is the kind he often has as a cop (I should say I have not seen Training Day yet), a sort of smart smart-ass, aware of his surroundings and devoted to his job, but with a peculiar edge that keeps him separate from most of the people around him. It's mostly their show though, the two of them, with Russell playing with Frazier, but Frazier still trying to figure out what game they're even playing. While there are strong performances from the supporting cast, they are mostly just there as support, and no one jumps out particularly.

In the end, though, the film is much like its own ending--a bit of a surprise, but nothing earthshaking nor disappointing at the same time.

*His comments on the Italian anti-Partisans, the responses he's had in classroom discussions about Do the Right Thing, his bizarre hypocrisies...Yes, there are clear issues here that I have. No, it is not because he is black. It is all about his ego.

Swimming with Sharks
½

I'm an absolute sucker for a certain type of packaging. My own personal lingo (to differentiate between different varieties) leaves me with the term "slipsleeve." A number of people know how obsessive I am about these silly things (usually a slip of glossy or matted cardboard that replicates the cover art), but a certain type is something I endlessly pursue. This type is actually not cardboard or paper at all--it's transparent plastic with an image screen printed onto it that in some way modifies the existing cover art. It's utterly ridiculous, totally unnecessary and probably expensive to produce. However, I can't resist the stupid things. I bought Fargo years ago because I saw one of the few remaining copies that had one of these (and subsequently traded it away when disappointed for another film that also had one, though that was coincidence, I'm not interested just in these sleeves) and snatched it up. I'm still regretting my trade and hoping to stumble across another "sleeved" copy of it (and currently refusing to open my newer copy because it doesn't have one, just in case). Why the hell am I talking about this? Because Swimming with Sharks was released with one, once it was released as the This Is a Special Edition You Schmuck edition. I picked it up when it was released knowing nothing about it, only intrigued by the cover and Kevin Spacey. I forgot about it for a while, found out it was cheap in a few places and tracked it down. And now here I am.

Guy (Frank Whaley) is Hollywood producer Buddy Ackerman's (Spacey) assistant. His predecessor is Rex (Benicio Del Toro), who tries to tell Guy how things are, but Guy is thoroughly naïve and does not quite get it. It's not long before the appearance of Buddy clarifies things for Guy, immediately excoriating him for mixing up Sweet 'n' Low and Equal, condescendingly pointing out the difference in the packing colouration. Guy's life is quickly swallowed by the abusive Buddy, who sends Guy out to destroy every single copy of Time magazine in town that has a negative article about him. He throws coffee at him when it is too cold, calls him brainless, stupid, worthless and generally abuses him verbally without flinching. The cowering Guy attempts repeatedly to let it roll off his back or learn from it, not seeming to realize that this is not all building toward a release, but a continuing pattern. Dawn (Michelle Forbes), another producer (though more of independent or art films) wanders in to sell a project to Buddy and is taken with Guy. Guy is taken with her as well, but loses most time intended to be spent with her to picking up Buddy's sunglasses from a desk to hand them to him two feet away (OK, I made that one up, but close enough). Dawn is frustrated with his spineless subservience to Buddy, and Guy can't quite figure out how to balance the two, until he finally snaps and takes Buddy hostage and begins to torture him for all the abuse he's suffered.

The folks I watched this with were left questioning why I had understood this to be a comedy (which is what everyone told me and of course the back has quotes like "Hysterical!" though The Good Girl easily reminds me how wrong these can be any time I think I can rely on the back for genre) as it gets very, to quote the general sentiment, "intense." Of course, this also quickly descended into an argument about whether the use of the word "mongoloid" by Buddy to describe Guy was racist or not (I still maintain the usage was not, because my general understanding of the current definition and connotation has nothing to do with its race-based origins, except in etymological terms). Still, this is a legitimate response. The intensity vs. humour part, not the "racist?" part. This is a pretty dark film, and I've heard "black comedy," sure, but the dramatic portions (generally the hostage-taking portion) tended more toward just "black" than comedy. Bits would turn out humorously, but largely it was vaguely disturbing.

I have (thankfully) never had a boss like Buddy (and hope I never do) so I cannot attest to any feelings of cameraderie or familiarity when seeing the Buddy/Guy (no, not the blues musician) interactions. I expected, though, something much more over-the-top, and almost felt disappointed sometimes by the abuse (mostly because it was clearly being followed by abduction and torture, which I occasionally thought it really didn't justify, even emotionally), but that's merely an indication of the fact that writer/director George Huang was drawing on his own experience, and that of friends, in writing the script, giving it a solid tinge of reality. Eventually, I did find the abuse emotionally justified enough that it didn't seem repellent, out of character or ludicrously imbalanced. Spacey and Whaley deserve no small credit for this as well, with Spacey perfect as the casually abusive and egocentric tyrant, who never shows an easy turn of weakness and maintains the character even through the torture, while Whaley manages to believably go from stuttering lamb to vicious and angry spirit of vengeance. Forbes has the right edge of jaded familiarity with the Hollywood system to accept that she's making it in Buddy's world mixed with the remnant of humanity that makes it acceptable that she would take interest in guy.

It's Huang's transition between the elements of humorous abuse to disturbing torture that work best, though. Smooth transitions, all of them, but often jarring emotionally--a good laugh from a ridiculous abuse by Buddy switching rapidly to some form of scream or violence against him that makes the laugh die in your throat. Quite an achievement for a first time writer/director, not one of these ever feels false. Managing them is not an easy feat and usually stumbles or caves to pressure and tries to create a balance of one to the other, usually with a bias toward the positive (or perhaps an artsy balance toward the negative), with one usually winning out for a large portion of the end of the film, but the right balance (not necessarily an actual balance) for this film is kept right until the credits roll.

As Good as It Gets
½

There's a running gag with anyone who knows me and my tendency toward DVD collecting and film-watching. Generally, there's a feeling that, "If you've heard of it--he has it," which is followed by a bemused suggestion of any romantic comedy. The joke, of course, is that I really don't own many. Think of one--I probably don't own it. It's not something I feel above or refuse to watch or have never seen. I own a handful. I've seen a very large number, as it happens, because I've got a romantic streak rooted firmly in the fictional and fantastic (not to be confused with Romantic streaks or my not-really-romantic love of fantasy, or my romanticization of the fantastic) and that streak is an absolute sucker for most romantic comedies (or romantic plot lines). All the same, usually it's pretty formulaic, and enough so that I feel no need to own them unless there is something to set them apart, a personal association of some kind or otherwise exclusive element. Receiving Oscar nominations in most of the big categories is a good bet, as is starring Jack Nicholson--so this was a shoe-in for my tastes.

Melvin Udall (Nicholson) is an obsessive compulsive, germophobic misanthrope of an author who lives in an apartment building in Manhattan on a shared floor. His first visible move is to attempt to coax Verdell the dog onto the elevator to be loosed on the streets, because he's tired of dog urine in the hallway. Unsuccessful, he instead dumps the dog down a garbage chute, leaving his owner, painter Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear), distraught, until he's returned, whereupon Melvin's reputation leads Simon's art dealer Frank Sachs (Cuba Gooding, Jr, before he flushed his career down the "lame comedy" toilet) to confront him with accusations. Melvin is, ah, slightly less than tolerant of people in general, and Frank's race is, at the very least, easy bait for Melvin. Unfortunately for him, Frank will have none of it and intimidates Melvin, swearing that he will make this up to Simon in the future. Melvin goes about his usual business, though, heading to the restaurant he goes to every day where he is served by Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt), who is the only one willing to put up with his antics. A stupid decision by someone working to find Simon a model leaves him hospitalized and Melvin coerced into caring for Verdell by Frank (who quickly recognized how he could take advantage of Melvin's racial fears), while Carol's sick son Spence (Jesse James--who names their child after culturally ingrained figures?) leaves her unable to return to work. Melvin, distraught by all the change wrought in his life, attempts to fix all of it by first bonding with Verdell and then hiring a doctor (Harold Ramis) to take care of Spence--so Carol can return to work, of course. Frank pushes one last favour out of Melvin, asking him to drive Simon down to Baltimore to ask his estranged parents for help. Melvin reluctantly agrees but demands Carol go with him.

I can't recall where, but I imagine it was my freshman psychology class (one of the handful of days I made it to the 8am class) where a clip of this film was shown to display the behaviour of an obsessive compulsive, which piqued my curiosity. Considering my milk-curdling disaffection for the use of "OCD" as an adjective (when it's a noun!), it's easy to guess that the subject at least holds enough fascination for me to be familiar. Generally anything that interesting to me is interesting enough to draw me into a story, and when it's (allegedly, at least) pretty accurate (they did use psychiatric consultants, at least), well I've just got to take a look at it. I was stumbling through a list of Best Picture contenders a while ago, and this movie became more interesting to me, so I did finally pick it up. It's an interesting idea to have a realistically (if not necessarily "real"-ly) portrayed obsessive compulsive in a romantic comedy considering it's the kind of quirk one runs across in reality in someone one finds otherwise ideal (which the film briefly notes itself). More to the point, it's the kind of quirk that can involve "training" oneself to deal with it (because it is not abuse or the like), but one that can be endlessly frustrating or irritating to someone who doesn't know it very well or suffer it themselves. Generally this kind of thing is not put into a romantic comedy situation for that very reason--it's hard to root for that guy who can't even bring himself to step on a crack in the sidewalk and is afraid to let anyone else touch him.

This is really what sets this one apart: it's not an intensely real attempt to portray romance, but it's also not the usual simplistic story of two perfect, pretty people who just have to overcome the things they conveniently neglected to say at the right time, or circumstances that simply turned the wrong way or what have you. It's somewhere between these two ideas, with Simon's hospitalization being somewhat less than funny and even rather unpleasant. The other thing that sets it away from the typically gimmicky rom-com market is that it doesn't treat Melvin's issues as gimmicks, even if it does happily milk them for humour's sake. For the good of all, though, it does not milk them in the sense of slapstick, carefully orchestrated scenarios, it just occurs as a natural result of Melvin's sardonic response to generally natural situations. The lack of a filter or restraint on Melvin's misanthropy is also used for humour, but does not pull punches conveniently at times that would assist the romantic angle--he says nasty things to Carol, though often without realizing it. This is where it gets interesting and Hunt and Nicholson earned their Oscars. The response that Carol gives Melvin when he crosses these lines is usually one of shock because he has gone further than she ever expected, but with a defensive reflex that usually bites back after a long enough pause to really let the natural shock make itself known. Melvin's moment of realization and his natural defense of refusing to apologize or retract slides across Nicholson's face as it contorts itself through all possible responses, trying to find the right one that won't make him vulnerable, settling on one for a moment and then faltering as he decides this will either not save the situation or protect himself. This reality of interaction is offset with a naturally unrealistically coincidental and important-event-packed story which is the natural draw to hold interest and make film romance so appealing. This unreal element is a criticism to some, but it's there for a catharsis, to give us something we never see in reality--so it's all right by me.

What was an extra pleasant surprise, other than the plotting edging more toward reality (though certainly not setting foot inside it), was the presence of innumerable bit parts for both directors and future television presences from shows I've enjoyed quite a bit. Melvin is annoyed to find two people in "his" booth early on--one of whom is Lisa Edelstein (who plays Dr. Lisa Cuddy on House these days), which furthers the risk of losing his privilege of dining there in the restaurant, as manager Brian does not like him--Brian being played by Predator cast member and Lethal Weapon scribe Shane Black (who also wrote and directed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and co-wrote The Monster Squad). Skeet Ulrich (who's a bigger name in general, but starred in both Miracles and Jericho) is Simon's model-from-the-street Vincent, and one of his buddies is Jamie Kennedy (lame comedy star, but also one of the primary cast members in Three Kings). The man who returns Verdell to Simon is Bill Murray's brother Brian Doyle-Murray (adding a second Groundlings alumnus after Ramis). Psychiatrist Dr. Green is Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, as well as Silverado--which he also directed. Julie Benz, who will probably never escape the role of Darla on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer/Angel, plays a receptionist in love with Melvin's writing. Wood Harris, who became Avon Barksdale on The Wire has a single line as a busboy. Todd Solondz (whose name I recognize and whose work I know by name but whose films I have not seen) is a random man on a bus. The icing, of course, is omnipresent voicework artist Maurice LaMarche (most famous these days for his role as "The Brain" on Pinky and the Brain/Animaniacs) as the phone voice of Simon's father.

Private Parts

I was digging through a fire sale of sorts when I found this, having never heard of it. I checked the credits (as I do with any movie at a low price I've never heard of) and noticed it was directed by Paul Bartel and placed it in my "to buy" stack immediately. Shortly thereafter, I discovered "Trailers from Hell", a site that has directors commenting on trailers for grindhouse, exploitation, horror and...actually mainstream (as of now, the most recent is for Ben-Hur, of all things!) movies. John Landis commented on this trailer, amusingly, but with an honest appreciation for it, telling us he didn't want to give too much away, because it's a "really good film." I was certainly intrigued by now, though the only Bartel film I've actually seen other than this is Death Race 2000. Not that Death Race 2000 is something that would make one shy away from Bartel (quite the opposite, in fact, if you ask me), but it's still only one film. Actually, I decided to double-check myself and he, too, directed some episodes of Amazing Stories, which I've always loved and had more than its fair share of quality directors behind episodes (having been assembled under the eye of Steven Spielberg). He does appear in small roles in various films, of course, often for cult directors (probably owing to his work with Roger Corman--like Death Race 2000). All I recall is that after I finished watching that first one, my father responded with surprise that Bartel had directed and planted the name Eating Raoul in my head--which I've yet to see.

Cheryl Stratton (Ayn Ruymen) is a girl who has not yet legally reached adulthood, having moved to California with her friend Judy (Ann Gibbs) from their home in Cleveland. When Judy catches Cheryl sneaking a peek at her adventures with boyfriend Mike (Len Travis), she flies into a rage and Cheryl skips out, seeking out the King Edward Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, which her Aunt Martha Atwood manages. Martha is reluctant to take on new occupants, being vaguely puritanical and wanting to maintain her idea of respectability in terms of the hotel's clientele. She eventually relents and lets the somewhat painted Cheryl in, but she'd already failed respectability as it was. Mr. Lovejoy is never dry (and I don't mean he likes a good bath and singing in the rain), Reverend Moon (Laurie Main) is an eccentric and openly closeted homosexual priest with a thing for young men (though at least men, insofar as we see), Mrs. Quigley (Dorothy Neumann) is a senile old woman forever asking after prior tenant Alice, and George is a shut-in photographer who oozes just a little too much creepy. Cheryl is determined to be seen as an adult, though, and is trying to find her way into both adulthood and sex--first, of course, voyeuristically observing her older roommate and later attempting to use make-up and dress to draw the attentions of men (for more "adult" activities). Martha is no fan of this, nor of Cheryl's attempts to find male attention from George or the locksmith's son Jeff (Stanley Livingston). Unbeknownst to Cheryl, her choice of venue for finding adulthood has a few kinks she was not aware of--the most important of which is a tendency for those who come into the hotel looking for her to turn up dead.

I think something is, alas, lost in this film being viewed more than a quarter century after its original release, when its ideas and themes are more commonplace (I saw a lot of it coming), but the tone is still unusual enough that the film itself is not lost for it. The words I see associated with most everything I see Bartel associated with are "black comedy." This film is not an exception. The eccentricities and oddities of this movie are definite and quite amusing. Laurie Main (whose other film roles I've seen are in My Fair Lady and Time After Time--weird!) is hilarious as the lascivious but apparently harmless priest (whose eyes light up whenever handsome young men appear), and Neumann's bizarre behaviour has a wonderfully non-sequitur nature that doesn't have the modern, clumsy smack of being insane just for being insane. This is certainly in contrast to the plot of the increasingly strange behaviour of George, which most strongly relates to the theatrical poster image of Cheryl's face superimposed on a transparent doll filled with water--and a syringe.

Landis made comments about an "Argento" or "European" sort of tone when he was discussing the film (which I, ever interested in no-spoilers-whatsoever, thankfully forgot), which is the most interesting thing about it. Not so much that it is (or is not) Argento-esque, so much as the fact that the low budget is readily apparent, but easily overtaken by strong cinematography from DP Andrew Davis and a very strong feel in general. This is Bartel's feature debut and it doesn't really look at all like it is any such thing. It's beautifully shot and looks more professional than some bigger films from the same time, especially with such a rich colour palette--likely where Landis saw Argento. The actors are all excellent, with even the eccentric characters and their humorousness not stretching the suspension of disbelief too close to the breaking point and keeping Ruymen's believably young and curious performance just that believable.

I did spend most of the movie trying to remember what Paul Bartel looked like (I had vague images of a mostly-balding man with dark hair and a somewhat dour face), because I was convinced he would appear somewhere in the movie. Main threw me off for just a moment, but I realized not long after he appeared that his face did not match my mental image (however vague). Finally, he did make an appearance as a random homeless person in a park who snaps off a silly line to Cheryl at one point, but it fulfilled my expectation, in some way sealing in my mind the comfort with which Bartel pulled off the project as a whole. It's a weird film ("Clearly not for every taste" as Leonard Maltin puts it), but a cleverly made one, and one that happily dabbles in taboos and fetishes without doing so for purely exploitative reasons (OK, maybe the bath scene, just a bit). It seems like Bartel (and writers Philip Kearney and Les Rendelstein) are simply in their natural element--or at least in one that seems perfectly normal to them, making for the perfect ground to explore (even if done with a clear sense of titillation) these things and use them as the backdrop for what I suppose you would term a horror movie (though the body count is low and more inconsequential than you might expect) with a nice steady drip of bizarre and highly amusing humour in its veins (instead of, thankfully, being injected rapidly from a full syringe...).

Rabid
Rabid(1979)

Early films by directors I admire seems to be the order of the day, at least so far. My impressions of Cronenberg have been wildly varied over the years, having seen most of his iconic films and even seeing the last two, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, in theatres. I watched Scanners and had difficulty staying awake. I rented Videodrome and my dad asked what it was, and he said, "Oh another yuck-fest," with a disappointed/disgusted look. This was my first real inkling of his squeamishness (something I was almost done with by then, myself). I recall finding the name Cronenberg important at the time, but I imagine this was more due to my habit of reading my subscription of Fangoria cover-to-cover (which is a lot more reading than you might imagine). I learned a lot from reading those, but I can't definitively attribute to it my interest in Cronenberg. Certainly The Fly made a strong impression on me (if you might recall the arm-wrestling scene, perhaps), but I had not really seen any others at that time that I can recall--beyond, perhaps, a brief glimpse of Naked Lunch (which, at last viewing, also put me to sleep, somewhat inexplicably--realistically caused by exhaustion at the time though). I've had a few people comment on Rabid after telling them I purchased it, mostly telling me it was a disappointment. I didn't expect much as I have seen plenty of Cronenberg's films at this point and know the weakness of his earliest ones (which typically falls to his budgetary limitations).

Rose (Marilyn Chambers--yes, the porn star) and Hart Read (Frank Moore) are a young couple motorcycling through Canada when a stalled van and their speed results in an accident that leaves Hart with a broken hand, injured shoulder and concussion, but Rose in a coma and in desperate need of skin grafts. The accident occurs near the Keloid Clinic, where Dr. Dan Keloid (Howard Ryshpan) is discussing the expansion of his plastic surgery practice with his wife Roxanne (Patricia Gage) and business partner Murray Cypher (Joe Silver). Dr. Keloid tries a new procedure in the process of Rose's skin graft, attempting to neutralize the morphology of the skin cells transplanted so that they can differentiate into the type of skin that should naturally be present there. Keloid is pleased with the results, especially in the emergency context they took place, but Rose remains in a coma. When she screams into consciousness, it's the middle of the night and recovering patient Lloyd Walsh (J. Roger Periard) is the only one to come check on her. When he does, she embraces him and attacks--drawing blood from him through a new appendage that has developed beneath her left arm. Lloyd survives but is groggy and amnesic when Dr. Keloid examines him and the profusely bleeding wound under his arm--which fails to coagulate--but an artificial coagulate slows it enough that Lloyd decides to leave. Lloyd's departure is cut short when he begins foaming at the mouth and attacks the man driving him away. Rose has become aware of what she needs to do to survive--draw blood--but attempts to escape, little knowing that she's leaving her victims in a state that mimics rabies and is spreading rapidly through Montreal.

The vampire (this is vampire movie?! Cronenberg?!--sort of my reaction) is a natural choice for Cronenberg, though I never would have imagined it all the same. He's notorious for his interest in the physiological horrors, and in the psycho-sexual horrors, and the vampire has always been these things. Of course, it's not the typical vampire and it's not the typical response to them either. Rose is a vampire of need who realizes her need, yet seems to become more alien through it--a strong performance for Chambers. She tries to feed only on strangers, and she even tries to feed on an animal, but she's only so successful, and fails to recognize the chaos she's leaving in her wake. In Romero-esque fashion, the city of Montreal declares martial law and locks itself down under this epidemic, with her victims biting other people and spreading the infection. Mind you, this is closer to The Crazies than Romero's dead films, but the comparison remains. The imagery of the proboscis Rose uses and the way in which it is used (anyone surprised it's somewhat phallic?) is pure Cronenberg, as is the choice to take one victim in a porno theatre, but the rest of the film is more in line with his earlier work (Scanners, The Brood--which are earlier in a general sense, but later than this), having that grainy look of 60s and 70s film (which I guess isn't surprising since it's from 1977) and a sort of Larry Cohen-like straight-laced drama to it. There's that greater menace that Cronenberg's films carries (as compared to Cohen's), but it's still a greater percentage of the film that fits more into the Cohen mold. There's nothing at all wrong with this, but it is going to disappoint someone looking for The Fly, Videodrome or Naked Lunch. I've always liked David Cronenberg himself when I've seen him interviewed or even acting (as in Clive Barker's Nightbreed), because he has a relaxed attitude but a sharp wit, a sense of humour and a clear intelligence that he doesn't seem to lord over anyone, rather using it to share his enthusiasm for the things he cares about. This is probably what drives me most to see his films, because I know they are made by someone who means something by them and who wants to make them, who recognizes the value of horror films, and the ability to make something that isn't one, making it a reasoned choice to do it in the first place.

Who's That Knocking at My Door?

It seems most reviews of this film go through its factual history before anything else--first a student film in 1965 called Bring on the Dancing Girls, then I Call First and finally Who's That Knocking at My Door. There, done. I try not to repeat reviews I've already read, though I'm happy to contrast with or reference them, so I don't want to deal much more with that essential history, though it's probably helpful to know that J.R.'s fantasy of prostitutes was added at the behest of Joseph Brenner, who suggested that such an addition could allow for marketing the film as an exploitation flick. This is, more personally, one of only a handful of Scorsese films left for me to see--now all that remains for me are Boxcar Bertha, Kundun, New York, New York, and A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Cinema, and a few others--mostly shorts and documentaries, so my background covers what followed this, even if it covers little of what preceded it (I've seen Scorsese's My Voyage to Italy, so I know that, well, I haven't seen the films that influenced him, from Italian cinema at least).

J.R. (Harvey Keitel) is an Italian-American in New York City (probably the Bronx), and he and his buddies spend their time as they see fit. Their first action is a street fight with no clear motivation or provocation, and their later actions are no more thoughtful or complex. They spend most of their time drinking, chasing women or just joking around with each other (though this, too, usually revolves around alcohol in the end). J.R. stumbles across a girl (Zina Bethune), though, while waiting on the Staten Island Ferry. She's flipping through a French magazine that catches J.R.'s eye because of an image of Ethan Edwards--John Wayne in The Searchers. He asks her about the film, which he loves, and he shrugs and admits that it can be a "nasty" film on the part of all the characters, which the girl agrees to before she finally recalls it herself, and they chuckle over a mutual appreciation for western movies. J.R. keeps remembering this meeting and his time with this girl throughout the rest of the film, from this meeting to a rooftop conversation they have, to a time they spent necking on to the moment she reveals something J.R. does not expect, and is not exactly good at dealing with.

It has been said that this film is mostly just of interest to those who like Scorsese, and I've got to say I think that's a pretty accurate assessment. It's not a perfect film, and it most definitely bears the mark of being (originally, at least) a student film. It's an expert "student film," for sure, but is just as rough-edged as the phrase suggests anyway. Technically, Scorsese had a handle on things from the beginning, this film can tell us easily. He also knew how to create his "music video" set pieces, and did so a few times here, though one was that "sexploitation" addition. Structurally and narratively though, it's not a mess, but it does look a bit like a carpet that has unraveled just a bit. It's paced perfectly, but it still feels a bit like some loose ends sort of fall off the main story. Of course, that's the other problem--the main story is thin, weak, and not very well developed. Then again, the story is clearly not the object of the creation just as it isn't the focus of the viewing experience.

Keitel and Bethune (and supporting cast Lennard Kuras, Michael Scala, and Harry Northrup) carry such a minimal story pretty well, actually. Oddly, this felt like the most real and natural performance I've ever seen from Keitel, who usually seems to have a focused seething anger, or a concentration on restrained intensity in everything he does, but here perhaps had not yet developed that--or whatever the cause may have been. He's likeable as per usual, but he also has that note that fills you with dread when the girl he loves reveals the secret she has kept from him. His response was, for me at least, entirely expected as it matched most male leads in Scorsese films: misogynistically judgmental and obsessed with defiance of cuckoldry, losing any and all caring for other people when it comes up. Bethune has an appreciably strong response to this, albeit a likely appropriately weak-willed one (for the context, I mean) that doesn't completely deflate her and victimize her.

The two bits you must see in this, though, are the parts that were the basis of Scorsese's continuous use of music married to imagery. The first is the "sexploitation" scene with J.R. and the prostitutes, played to The Doors' "The End." Oh, yes, this was a bit of a surprise when Coppola typically has the rights to imagery tied to that song thanks to Apocalypse Now, but I actually think it worked even better. Perfectly cut, edited and choreographed (even if retroactively), it matches the song itself, in a sense (not lyrically, of course) that Coppola's scene did not (though it felt more lyrically appropriate). The other is Ray Barrett's "El Watusi" set to a slow motion scene of J.R.'s friends playing with a gun, which has that interesting juxtaposition of a cheerful, simple song and a scene of distorted drunken joy that turns, ever more wrenchingly because of the slow motion, to a tense and worrisome one. He also makes use of Junior Walker and the All-Star's "Shotgun," but I mention that more because it's a great Stax recording than a great scene (it's dialogue focused so there is no association of exact image to exact sound), and The Genies' "Who's That Knocking?" (which gave the film its third title), which is set to a more fast-cut scene of Catholic imagery.

Dog Bite Dog
Dog Bite Dog(2006)

The Weinstein Company purchases the rights to many Asian action flicks and releases them through their Dragon Dynasty label. OK, that's a fact that most people reading this are probably aware of or do not care about, but it's a half-roundabout way of getting to my real point. There's an automatic association in many minds of Asian action cinema and martial arts. This isn't fair or remotely accurate, but there it is. I've read some reviews of this film that take umbrage with the preconception that the viewer was settling in for a nice kung fu movie and was unpleasantly surprised. Some friends were recently disappointed to discover that Hard-Boiled was more about guns than martial arts--which was more due to my own claims that "this stack" (where I was keeping my unwatched Dragon Dynasty discs) was where my martial arts films were. This, however, would likely be an even more unpleasant surprise. This film does have hand-to-hand combat, but it's nothing like the careful choreographing of the more popular and familiar martial arts films. It's ugly, gritty and beastly.

Pang (Edison Chen) is an assassin imported from Cambodia to take care of a target, guzzling food thrown to him like an animal. After he makes his target and does his job, Pang is pursued (as you would expect) by the local police, specifically Inspector Ti Wai (Sam Lee) and his teammates, 'Fat' Lam (Lam Suet), Tang Wing Cheung (Lai Yiu Cheung) and Chief Inspector Sum (Cheung Siu Fai). A hostage-based standoff goes off plan for them though, when Pang makes his true nature apparent. He is absolutely feral and will do anything and everything to do his job and maintain his freedom. Some members of the team are simply unprepared for this, while others are left agape at the lengths to which Pang will go. When it goes far worse than they could have imagined, Wai is set off in relentless pursuit of the assassin, with the two of them leaving a growing pile of bodies in their wake as Pang seeks to retain his safety through instinctual (and unnecessarily cruel) self-preservation and Wai seeks to keep Pang from anything even resembling safety. Pang's nature allows him to comfortably act completely outside the law, however, and he gets quite a headstart on Wai's pursuit, stopping in a garbage dump where he happens across a girl, Yu(Pei Weiying), who is being raped. Wai's natural instincts lead to the rapist's death for reasons other than his crime, but he stops short of killing Yu, instead finding himself drawn to protect her. None of this stops Wai, though, who will stop at little or nothing to take revenge for the deaths Pang has caused.

I read words like "nihilistic" and "dark" and "unpleasant" when I was perusing this film shortly after buying it, determining whether I definitely wished to own it or not. None of these words turned me away (I think Irreversible is the only film where I decided it was just a bit more than I really wanted to see), but it did at least prepare me for what is a thoroughly dark film. I thought, with a chuckle, of Unleashed with Jet Li as I watched it (a comparison drawn by Bey Logan in his commentary with Edison Chen, actually)--except this time "unleashed" is dead serious, and we are definitely dealing more with a "mad dog" (as the subtitled police describe him) than a trained attack dog. Pang is vicious and unrelenting--it would be unfair to call him cold, heartless and almost even unfair to call him cruel--and extraordinarily unpleasant when dealing with anyone but Yu. Of course, the word "nihilistic" should suggest to anyone that, yes, the cops are not shining beacons of morality either, and Wai is hardly restrained in his efforts either. The violence is bloody and painful without being gory, making absolutely clear that there are definitely risks and repercussions when dealing with it, and putting the right kind of light on the savagery exhibited.

Morality is an interesting issue here, seeming to be thrown out the window in keeping with the title--while it certainly refers to Edison and Sam as the titular "dogs," even going so far as to incorporate canine snarls in one of their fights, it also refers to the cutthroat nature of the world it displays. No one is innocent, no one is free from violence and no one is consistently on the "right" side, even when one takes violence as inevitable. Everyone participates in unnecessary and cruel violent acts, and so no one comes out rosily heroic, or even antiheroic. There seems to be an emphasis on pardoning Pang in the way the movie progresses, but it's difficult to overlook the acts he continues to commit, to pretend as if his newfound relationship with another human being somehow excuses the number of people he has already killed, some of whom had no desire to even interact with him--let alone threaten him. Both Pang and Wai are explained though, with Pang given background as a child raised from birth in Cambodia to fight, and only to fight, and Wai as a troubled son of a "hero cop," who is being investigated by Internal Affairs. This lands us in a realm near reality as we know why (even if only eventually) both of the characters do what they do, though hopefully we don't see any justification.

I was a little surprised to note that calling the film "dark" may not actually refer to its tone--however dark that is (and it most certainly is). It's also a visually dark film, with deep, deep shadows and often silhouetted characters onscreen instead of clearly-lit faces. There's a muted palette to the entire film, too, with early scenes shown all in a dark, grimy set of blues and later scenes in greasily bright, yellow tones. This despairing colouration definitely works to enhance the despairing tone of the film itself, with a natural environment drawn for the darkness shown.

This is not a pleasant film. This is not a happy film. This is not exactly a satisfying film, even. Some find it preachy (I didn't see it as preaching much outside the uselessness of the cycle of violence, albeit coupled with a recognition of its intrinsic inevitability), and some find it dull (this one I can't explain). It's a good film though, one to watch when you're in the right state of mind--though thankfully not quite as dark as I thought it was at one point, feeling it was the end and thinking I was in desperate need of something cheerful and fluffy to follow it up with until it followed itself up--not with anything cheerful or fluffy, but with something that completed the image of the film and brought me back up to a less negative (though still not terribly positive) frame of mind.

Wilde
Wilde(1998)
½

I have an aversion to reading poetry--I feel my brain can't quite ever find the right way to read such things to itself, and is more interested in absorbing word and meaning than in carefully constructing anything like meter. I also have an aversion to most literature you are "supposed" to read (dense writing often puts me off, though I have a contradictory affection for The Heart of Darkness and some other titles). I'm known to have no interest in reading plays, either, despite a brief theatrical "career" in high school. I'm more interested in seeing them (or, I guess, performing them) because that's what they're (theoretically, at least) for--to be performed. Without writing to describe, it becomes a trial to maintain understanding of characters whose natures are described only by their words. Somehow, despite all this, I took to reading The Picture of Dorian Gray in college, purely of my own volition. I picked a copy up quite cheap and simply decided to read it, knowing the essence of the story for as long as I can remember. As best I can recall, it was the first instance of language itself appealing to me in writing. I've not really read anything else of Wilde's since then, and I guess I can't easily explain or justify that.

Oscar Wilde (Stephen Fry) is a rather flamboyant Irish writer whose first appearance in this film is regaling a Colorado silver mine's workers with the tales of an Italian silversmith. He is openly drawn to the young, beautiful and lithe bodies amongst them, but his wit still holds their interest, a testament to his skill with it. He returns to London, though, and marries Constance Lloyd (Jennifer Ehle), the couple quickly birthing two sons, but the young guest Robbie Ross (Michael Sheen) seduces Wilde, pushing him to embrace his homosexual urges. Wilde gives in after minor reluctance and begins to revel in the feelings of freedom that being with another man gives him, the feeling of honesty and revelation. At the opening of his play Lady Windermere's Fan, though, he runs across the rather angelic Lord Alfred Douglas (Jude Law), with whom Wilde is immediately smitten. Douglas, whom Wilde calls Bosie, is young, impetuous and arrogant, though, with extreme issues with his abusive father, the Marquess of Queensberry (Tom Wilkinson). Wilde pursues his newfound love endlessly though, often at odds with the advice of his friends and former lovers, leaving his wife and children behind constantly--and finally being charged with "gross indecency" by the enraged Marquess, who wants Bosie to have nothing to do with Wilde.

My father took issue with the "sainted" approach taken by writer Julian Mitchell (who writes a good Wilde) and director Brian Gilbert (who doesn't seem to leave much of a stamp of himself on the film) in biographizing Wilde himself, which is not an invalid interpretation of the Wilde displayed onscreen. Little is made of any transgressions by Wilde, who is supported by his wife, mother and friends thoroughly, almost a hapless victim of the self-centered Bosie and his oppressive father. But I submit that the intention of this film is to display the tragic nature of Wilde's life, neither a ranting polemic against homophobia nor an endoresment of homosexuality so much as a display of the loss that can come from the former, letting it be simply an accepted fact in this film world that this was Wilde and this was how he was, and this is what happened because of those who refused to accept it. As such it would have muddled things a bit by showing sidelong failings of Wilde as a person (which are of course inevitable). It is not intended, I feel, as a film to show the viewer the complete picture of Wilde, but to display a witty and erudite man and how the judgment of others could bring him low publicly without truly making a declaration about the quality of his character.

Fry is, as many have said, a perfect Wilde. A wit himself, a student of Wilde's writing and even physically similar, Fry makes a figure that is easily identified as Wilde. Law is often a bit stolid in performances, but here is quite satisfyingly passionate, and easily believable as the angelic youth that captures the eye and heart of Wilde, being an instrument of Wilde's public destruction and yet still a character with understandable flaws that cause this.Wilkinson, who I've liked for some time, also turns in a performance that was extra-pleasing, pushing himself further into the character than I usually see, hiding behind bushy sideburns and a hateful glare.

Still, there was something mildly unsatisfying in the film for me. The fault, I think, lies mostly in Gilbert's ho-hum direction, or perhaps in the pacing--it doesn't feel like a biopic attempting to cram more into its space than it can reasonably hold like some, nor like it omits too much like others. Something just feels a bit tepid about it all, and mostly too episodic. There's a strong connecting device in the reading of a story about a giant in alternating voices, but it doesn't manage to connect the scenes between its appearance, though its own readings sort of hold to each other and sandwich the scenes between into place all the same.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

I'm learning, and have been the past few years, that there are certain films to just keep a sort of distance from or see immediately upon release. It's not quite so urgent if you aren't surrounded by the irrevocably driven fans (I'm not), but there's still an atmosphere (closely related to general hype) that permeates some and makes the viewing experience unfair and inaccurate. Anything involving Johnny Depp falls into this category essentially without fail. If it's Depp under Tim Burton's direction, forget about it. Go find a pre-release screening or wait a year or so, unless you are the fanatical type. It's not fair to rate these movies against this oppressive atmosphere of "OMG JOHNNY IS SOOOO HOTTTT" that tends to ignore anything else about the movie he's in. Of course there's an amusing irony in that Depp is an iconoclast, especially as regards fame and such shallow appreciation of the famous, but that's a whole other issue.

Sweeney Todd (Depp) is a formerly exiled barber named Benjamin Barker, whose exile is sourced in the jealousy of Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) who still lives in London. Turpin took a liking to Barker's wife Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly) and had Barker exiled to Australia, raping Lucy and leading her to poison herself, taking on the Barkers' daughter Johanna as his ward. Now returning under the name Todd, he tells a fellow ship occupant, sailor Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower), the story of his unwarranted punishment and his plans to return as a barber to London. Todd, however, does not know that Lucy has poisoned herself, and is only told this later by meat pie baker Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), and that his daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) is precariously placed in a position similar to her mother's. When he learns this, Todd vows revenge, and seeks to get Turpin into his barber's chair, but first must establish a reputation for himself. The two stumble across the streetside display of Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen), an Italian barber who professes to be the best in the world. Todd challenges him, and takes the opportunity to declare his reputation to the very soul who will pass it to Turpin--Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall), assistant(/unsightly and perverse thug) to Turpin. Bamford decides on Todd as the winner of the contest and sets things in motion, with Pirelli coming to see Todd and avenge his lost reputation, with the method of body disposal now becoming clear to Todd via Mrs. Lovett--she will bake them into meat pies, and Pirelli's assistant Toby (Edward Sanders) will become their (unknowing) assistant.

Much like my early and now-lost hatred of westerns, I used to hate musicals. I was repelled by seeing the likes of The Sound of Music (still don't like that one, sorry), and finding difficulty accepting that type of musical. After viewing this one, I briefly extrapolated and attempted to solidify what exactly I still have a distaste for in discussion with my father, who likes musicals a lot. My eventual settlement was mostly on the kind of musical that seems to be made specifically to make a musical--songs are extraneous fluff and are burst into by characters for no apparent reason. This is loose (as Sound of Music does have narrative songs, after all), but it's my best attempt. I've always liked Little Shop of Horrors and never thought about The Wizard of Oz being a musical (despite the fact that it certainly has characters launching into song outside a performance setting), and many I've seen recently sat well or better with me. A certain approach to the music is definitely important to me--much like my feeling about music in general. Certain types (not genres, mind you) come off as bland an uninterested, and stick in one's head without being catchy. You hum or sing them because they are simple and lodge themselves in, buzzing around your head like gnats. I find this kind of musical irritating and too artificial to be enjoyable.

Sweeney Todd is not one of these musicals. Stephen Sondheim, I'm told, has been accused of being too "rock" (the fact that this is even considered a legitimate criticism in the first place devalues the critics who claim it in my eyes--considering my longtime favourite is clearly in a Motown style for portions, making Dreamgirls quite amusing to me, as it sounds like a musical and nothing like Motown), and in my vague memory I swear accused of being too verbose, or something to that effect. This density of words, though, helps his music to maintain dramatic integrity. The focus on words makes the songs a more natural outlet for them and simultaneously buries them for people who are put off by the obviousness of song in a musical and enhances them for those who wish people would stop talking and sing. In fact, I just heard Sondheim himself commenting on his own curiosity regarding the relative new-ness of "song-speech" to moviegoers (as opposed to those viewing musical theatre regularly), and the difference it can make to some. Rhythm of vocalization tends toward the rapid, primarily, which is my natural preference--in most arenas of music I'm most easily drawn in by rapid, staccato vocalization. Beadle's song is the least musical, though I'm not sure if this is a stylistic choice by Sondheim, an aspect of Burton's choices in recording, or a reflection on Spall as a singer.

Critical discussion of Depp is similarly marred by the camps set firmly in favour of anything and everything he does (one expects this audience would give a film of Depp sitting, breathing and blinking for two hours a standing ovation) and those who have grumpily parked themselves exactly opposite out of annoyance at the first camp. This is nowhere more apparent than Depp's singing, which I've heard praised and criticized in equal amounts. The truth of the matter is that it sounds like him (ie, no auto-tuning, or at least very little or extremely well-done auto-tuning), and he hits and holds all the notes. Criticism of him as a failure as a singer or non-singer is petty and antagonistic, haughty and self-important--but most importantly, irrelevant. Those who claim he is a revelation as a singer are probably overselling things a bit, but he wouldn't be an unwelcome voice in--as many expected--a rock sort of band. This kind of singing, much like my taste in musicals, is more to my own personal taste--natural talent or trained skill that is used simply to display range or complex vocal parts is boring to me, with emotion taking a more important place in the sound, by my mark. Johnny succeeds tremendously on this front, keeping his character physically and emoting perfectly the dark, damaged and vengeful tones of Todd.

Bonham Carter of course has the problem of being the girlfriend and pregnant-mother-in-filming of the director, so nepotism is whispered by many, but, like Depp, Sondheim approved of her, and Sondheim has a reputation for being protective. Much of her singing is spiked by a Cockney accent that can easily be used to pull away need or use for a range when so emphasized, but she, too, does not let down her role at all. Angela Lansbury allegedly (I've never seen a stage performance) helped to make the stage version "the Mrs. Lovett Show," but Burton chose to make it a sort of even mix of Todd and Lovett, with Carter sharing an equal role with Depp throughout in cinematic and focal terms. The rest of the cast is less harshly considered for their singing voices (I've got to say, Wisener's was the most boring, though it may have been her "help, I'm a caged bird"-style songs) because either they have primarily a cult audience (Rickman) or they are not well known outside those who respect their prior work, mostly in character actor roles (Spall)--or perhaps simply aren't that well known yet (Wisener, Sanders). The one exception left is the most glaring: Sacha Baron Cohen. Cohen is of course known primarily for his chameleonic devotion to the roles of Borat, Ali G and Bruno, and can easily make distinguishable characters and hide himself completely in them. Pirelli's accent is a bit distracting, though (admittedly this makes sense over time--which I won't explain), and his song is not terribly interesting musically.

The film won an Oscar for art direction and deservedly so. Burton's never been at a loss for peculiar and interesting aesthetics, and this isn't an exception. He designed a look for Todd and Lovett that is in keeping with the portions that he maintains in nearly all films--silent horror figures. They have pale, pale skin and dark circles around their eyes, and the whole film is toned to greyscale in most respects, with exceptions only for fire and blood, enhancing the grand guignol* aspect and giving the entire film just the barest hint of German expressionist film-making--except as transposed to gothically "real" London, with the lack of exaggerated shadows and distinct contrasts. It's absolutely beautiful and perfect in its darkness. Not a disappointment in the Burton/Depp collaboration history.


*I've been waiting to be able to use that word and not wonder just a bit if I'm using it slightly out of place. I know I'm right this time, though, which is awesome.

It's a Wonderful Life

Oh yes, here we go--R.C. is reviewing It's a Wonderful Life, another Frank Capra movie and we just know he's going to love it. No, I'd never seen it before--really. As I watched I knew I had not, in fact, seen anything more than a famous shot from the end that plays on a television in Gremlins (a more constantly viewed film for me) and probably some other movies as well. I decided Christmas Eve was the time to see it, so that's when I watched it. I did not watch the colourized version, though I have heard that it is pretty decently done--and so I may get around to it sometime. Most of you (by which I mean everyone in the world other than myself) probably know the plot better than I do, but I find comfort in familiar formatting so I'm still going to give a synopsis next.

Angels, portrayed as literal celestial bodies (one unnamed, voiced by Moroni Olsen and the other named as Joseph, voiced by Joseph Granby-with neither originally credited) discuss the fate of one George Bailey, determining that the as-yet-wingless Clarence Odbody (voiced, and later played, by Henry Travers) should be sent to help him. First, though, they show him the life of Bailey (played as a youth by Robert J. Anderson), saving the life of his younger brother Harry (Georgie Nokes) from near-drowning, losing hearing in his left ear in the process. He shows great compassion for his employer Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner), who is stricken with grief after the death of his son, when he prevents him filling a prescription with a fatal alternative, and then the senior angels show Clarence more of his life as a man, now preparing to go to college before he takes on his dreams of architecture and world-traveling. A stroke that hits his father (Samuel S. Hinds) brings Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) more sharply into the role of antagonist, where previously he had just been a bit of a jerk,* but now sees the chance to shut down George's father's building and loan, continuing his financial takeover of their town of Bedford Falls. George takes a stand in the boardroom against Potter and the board ropes him into heading the group instead, leaving George to sacrifice his plans for the good of the town, though this does put him in place to interact more with Mary Hatch (Donna Reed), who loves George and has done since they were children. Still, Harry (the older version played by Todd Karns) is given George's college money and goes off to school--and then on his return, he brings his new wife Ruth (Virginia Patton) with him, whose father has given him a job that prevents him from taking over the Building and Loan, so George remains tied to it. It's a struggle as the depression comes on and George finds himself stuck when a bank examiner visits and $8,000 disappears. He begs even the vile Potter for help, but when he is told that he's worth more dead than alive, he takes the words to heart (and financially, they're true) and decides to leap off a bridge--which is where Clarence makes his appearance.

This movie plays annually, though I have no idea where or when (exactly--Eve? Day? Time on whichever day?), as I've never seen it do so. I sat down and watched it with my father, who had seen no Capra before it and has always loved it (making him more curious about the colourized version, but I didn't want to spoil the original before I'd even seen it). I've seen a handful of other Capra films prior (and reviewed all five of the ones I have seen) and so I did see this one with a frame of reference, unlike, I think, most people seeing it. It's the third one I've seen with Jimmy Stewart in the lead role, though, and I think I've got enough of a background now to say that I have that frame of reference and it's worth something. I've also talked before about how little I concern myself with the "schmaltz" aspect associated with Capra's work. As I've said before, Capra knows how to work sentiment and keep it ringing clear and true, never false. If you go in with a cynical sneer (which some think I wear 24/7, but they are mistaken, and if they get to know me they eventually realize this) you will probably not enjoy yourself, but I'd actually hope that it would be wiped from your face, and even believe it might, unless you're dead set against it.

Jimmy Stewart mentions the role of George Bailey as one of his favourites (if not THE favourite) of all time, and it's a brilliant one. It's rare for him to be asked to cover both ends of the spectrum of performance, usually either relegated to the stoic and dramatic or the comedic and heartwarming, the good soul he's usually identified as. George Bailey, though, covers both ends readily. Through much of the film he sacrifices and sacrifices but maintains a happy face, a smile that is at least across his face if not his mouth, and a certain lightness to his bearing. When things turn south beyond voluntary sacrifice, George's stress of years spent in service of others breaks him, quite believably. George is not perfect, nor does he become a complete ghoul. When things go wrong he does verbally abuse his loved ones, from his uncle Billy (who's played by Thomas Mitchell) on to his own four children. He has no patience and mutters and scowls, he curses and questions and generally has no patience for anything. But he doesn't blame anyone else or pitch a fit about all the things he's done for others. He does willingly ask Potter to spare him his dooming fate as left by the circumstances that have brought him so low, but never by trying to leverage his own actions. He only offers more of himself to take himself--and thus his family--out of the frying pan. When he tells Clarence the world would be better off if he'd never been born, we know he believes it, that he is in fact a good and decent soul and does not think anything more of his kind acts throughout his life than that they are the actions he should have taken regardless, not something to be lorded over others as a great part of his own character. Stewart manages this impeccably, and we're never left feeling George is egocentric nor ungrateful. Certainly he doesn't recognize his own value, but he doesn't truly devalue anyone else--yet at the same time he pulls no punches when the chips are not only down but gone.

I'm not sure how much more there is to say of a movie that ranks so highly with the public and critics, that is so entrenched in the public lexicon (even if that is because it's public domain), that hasn't already been said. It's touching and it's funny, it's charming and heartwarming, but it does all of these things, as only Capra can do, without clubbing us in the face with any of them. The characters are strong and real in a theatrical way and we want the best for them and laugh and cry with them, and it all just works as it does in Capra films. It's a shame that sentimentality has been made a dirty word for film by those who abuse it, when those who could use it, like Capra, made films that stand up now with no concern despite their age.

On a final note--the morons at Paramount who assembled the two-disc version I own and viewed apparently can't comprehend the film's buying audience, advertising, of all things, nothing but the Queen Latifah remake of The Last Holiday. Really? A remake of a classic Alec Guinness film from 1950 on a DVD for a 1946 black and white classic? Who thought that made any kind of sense? (Of course, I have bigger issues with the fact that that film was made in America, where "holiday" doesn't even mean the same thing anyway, thus making the title very silly).


*This word was removed from the film by censors. No, really. Also: "lousy," and "dang."

Fight Club
Fight Club(1999)

Ugh. I'm absolutely fine with reviewing this, but I know I'll be lost in a swarm of lukewarm thought and a stew of "This movie is so badass!!1" and people quoting the movie like their life depended on it. Like many films, this one has suffered and slogged through not its own shortcomings but that of a rapid fanbase, at least half of which has no idea what they just saw, but finds it "cool," and those who try too hard to get what they saw and think it's "smart," both sides of this group signing internet posts with "I am Jack's post in this thread" and exchanging "fight club" in its first rule for whatever else they think might be funny (and they are often wrong). Please do not come from this group of people. They are obnoxious and sully the films they love--hell, they even sully the bad films they love, nevermind the good ones. If you aren't sure what I mean--let's all have a brief moment of silence for the long ago passing of the freshness of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Yes, you know what I mean now, don't you?

A deliberately nameless man (so as to encompass all of the nameless and faceless, who is played by Edward Norton) is suffering from severe insomnia, restless in the life he's living and its endless rash of consumerism. A doctor suggests insomnia doesn't matter as it isn't fatal, sending our narrator to a testicular cancer meeting to experience real grief. In the arms of the tearful Bob (Meat Loaf Aday) and his "bitch tits" (due to the fluctuations in estrogen and testosterone from the removal of his testicles, he has grown breasts), Norton is encouraged to cry, and finds release in this. This night he sleeps perfectly, and so he begins to attend every support group he can find, until Marla (Helena Bonham Carter) begins to appear at multiple groups as well, whose obvious mutual fakery leads him to the inescapable truth of his own lie, ruining his emotional release and thus, once again, his sleep. Adding to his insomnia are constant business trips between time zones, on one of which he meats soap-maker Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), who shares the narrator's distaste for consumerism, but has chosen, unlike him, to reject it outright. He expounds upon his philosophy to the narrator who finds himself nodding more and more in agreement, but is confronted by actual loss when a gas leak causes his apartment to explode and destroy all of his possessions. Tyler suggests that he can stay at his place, but only in exchange for the narrator hitting him as hard as he can, to make them both feel alive. After the ensuing fight draws a crowd, they begin to form fight clubs as psychotherapy for the men of the world, their secret physical conflicts toning down the banal confrontations in normal life to a less stressful level. Soon Tyler wants to take their philosophy to the next level and extend it to all society at once, recruiting members of the fight clubs to help him in random acts of property-damaging but otherwise-victimless mayhem, appropriately naming themselves Project Mayhem. And now the narrator begins to wonder just how far he himself is willing to go for Tyler's ideals.

The ending of this film has been ruined for many people, including myself. Of course, I've seen it before and read the book, so I'm definitely not speaking of myself in that respect, but the first time I saw it I already knew the essence of the ending, what it all "meant" and so on--or, at least what people think it means, who don't bother to put much thought into it. I'm going to skate around it as best I can for those who have not, as I intend to never consciously be that guy--the one who blathers mindlessly all sorts of big endings assuming people know them like a jackass when they may only know a handful, or a completely separate group from the ones I do. And, for anyone who follows my reviews (and I know no living soul reads all of them to the letter), you may be surprised by a phrase preceding that declaration. Yes, I have, in fact, read the book this is based on. It was, I think, the only book I actually read when assigned in my postmodern literature class. Heck, I probably wrote a paper* and everything. Still, there was some disagreement (in an all-too-literal and ultra-romantic reading by myself that half-ignored the actual text) about the very end of the book between myself and the class, so I think I can't rightfully claim perfect remembrance of it, especially now. Still, there was one thing that I noticed immediately upon reading the book. The tonal focus of the two is pretty strikingly different: both address the same core issues (consumerism and emasculation in modern American society) but the film focuses on the former and the book, I felt, on the latter.

In the book, I was a little more interested in the emasculation reason, because the former is what has been so heavily ridden by the group I introduced this review by discussing. This ceaseless quotation of lines referring to how one is not what they own and so on by people who clearly own things and take great stock in that ownership has always been irritating, and is symptomatic of this seeming obsession with certain unrealistic ideologies. Some people seem to have this strange idea that one day we should just quit consumerism/capitalism/commercialism cold turkey, feel the movie espouses this belief and fail to think about the consequences. This movie is a reflection of those consequences, though. Tyler tells the film's narrator that he is the kind of man the narrator wishes he was, but by now the narrator is doubting Tyler's methods and motives, so this claim is thrown into doubt. Yet on and on rolls the obsession with the "awesomeness" of Tyler Durden, the recitation of his axioms and the worship of his mentality, completely missing the idea that his mentality is not a good, realistic or healthy thing. It is an extreme form and a dangerous one. This is not a film designed to convey the Tyler Durden Way of Life?, nor is it, by contrast, an attempt to suggest that there is everything to live for in the way of life he opposes. It puts forth his ideas as a spark, but attempts to stamp them out somewhat before the flames take hold too strongly and burn everything to the ground, but unfortunately too many seem to miss the latter half. The coals and embers are definitely intended, but a raging fire is not.

Beyond the philosophy of the film, there is David Fincher. This isn't to say Fincher is divorced from the film conceptually or disinterested in the concept, but rather to say that a lot of what makes it so special (what causes that base appeal to the more mindless elements of the masses) comes from Fincher's artistry. Fincher is a craftsman (to harken back, however vaguely and rather contradictorily to Andrew Sarris' division of directors after the "auteur theory") and a technician, obsessed with getting every minute detail of his films into place. He is the god of the world of his films, and he digs his fingers into every crack and pulls the sides separated by it inward and pushes them outward so that that crack is exactly the right measure. Fight Club is immaculate on this front: a fractured narrative seems rarely fractured, catapulted from the fear center of Edward Norton's brain at the beginning of the film toward its inexorable end. There is never a feeling of loose ends (even if there are some), nor of dragging pace. Everything is placed and filmed in just the right way for the tone and--here comes the contradiction of Fincher as a "technician"--meaning of the film. It's gritty and dirty but has the fluidity it needs to maintain momentum with absolute consistency. It's meticulously designed and put together, but never feels forced--which is only another sign of Fincher's control. The Dust Brothers' electronic score matches perfectly with our mental expectations of the way things are filmed and vice versa, marrying sound and image the way a music video should be (and as a fan of the format, I see no insult in that).

Norton and Pitt are very talented and always capable, but don't always put the whole of themselves into their work--here, they most certainly do. The narrator's climb from schlub to nonchalant street-brawler is completely believable and does not once ring false, while Tyler's energy and conviction harken back to Jeffrey Goines in 12 Monkeys, a madman who knows more than his psychopathy belies, but this time, in Tyler, there's a far greater element of control. Carter holds her own against them, too, as cold and detached as a stranger in her first appearances, smoking stone-faced behind dark sunglasses and later emotionally open, frustrated at the dichotomy of her treatment at the hands of the two roommates. Meat Loaf once again throws a great fist into the face of his hecklers, bringing a soft tone and high pitch to his early performance and a puppy-like eagerness to please to his later fight club and Project Mayhem appearances.

Is this movie as good as the fools I've so rampantly criticized say? No. Nothing is. No film is or should be the centre of anyone's entire life (of course, they do normally fade in the eyes of those folk, despite their firm espousal that this is the finest film ever made--until their next best film ever made). Perhaps for the time of filming it should be a focal point or even a centre for cast and crew, but even that is dubious. But the crime is that that cloud of hype and nonsense obscures an excellent film. Don't watch it for quotable lines or to pump your fist, clothed in Nike wristband, at all the calls for the downfall of consumerism, watch it to see a masterful director and a more greyed discussion of changes wrought in our society to contrast with its origins. It's very good at these things, and not to be missed.


*Let me see...ah, well, apparently not--though I was reminded that I did, in fact, read Ender's Game as well, but then I had already read that.

Sideways
Sideways(2004)

This film sort of wandered by me, interesting for Paul Giamatti but otherwise unremarkable until it received numerous Oscar nominations and even won the won for adapted screenplay (with Giamatti oddly not nominated). I still wasn't running after it, but did plan to pick it up if the right price wandered along, and so it did. I picked it out to watch tonight for no real good reason, then saw the wine offer in it and thought, "Hey, I know! I'll have a glass of the Shiraz I have while I watch!" this quickly turned into "drain both third bottles in the apartment," and I've been left vaguely tipsy. It may not be the best time for a review, but I'm keeping track of typoes, so what the hell.

Jack (Thomas Haden Church) and Miles (Giamatti) are two friends from college, clearly randomly assigned roommates from their freshman year, the latter definitely declared, the former obvious from their disparate personalities. Jack is about to marry Christine Erganian (Alysia Reiner), and his bachelor party has sort of taken on a life as a weeklong excursion to wine country for a series of tastings and a few rounds of golf with Miles. Miles is recently divorced from his wife Victoria (Jessica Hecht) and thoroughly depressed, but has a book in the offering for publication. Jack is convinced it will be published and tells everyone they run across exactly that. A brief visit to Miles' mother leads to her suggestion of a return to Victoria followed by a morning escape to avoid lunch with his sister Wendy, leaving Jack and Miles to begin the actual trip. At The Hitching Post, Jack points out a "hottie" (Virginia Madsen) whom Miles identifies as Maya, a waitress who has been at the restaurant the past year and a half. Jack claims Maya has quite some interest in Miles, but Miles insists she is married and Jack is wrong, leaving Jack to shrug, despite his pledge to get Miles laid, and attempt to work on his own plans instead. At the next winery, Jack begins to hit on Stephanie (Sandra Oh), who happens to know Maya, and the four go out on a double date. Miles finds himself very interested in Maya but filled with insecurity, while the obvious lie of Jack's impending marriage and the subtle lie of claiming Miles' book is definitively being published hanging over both of them.

I read or heard once that Sideways was really only good for "men in midlife crises" or something to that effect, but merely nodded and smiled at the time and decided to make up my own mind. The characters of Miles and Jack are, amusingly, not far off from many teen movies, especially those of the 80s. Jack is in search of nothing more than getting laid by someone else before he is tied to the same woman for the rest of his life and Miles is the tightly wound soul who refuses to believe a woman will be interested in him. Miles, however, is not quite so moral as such a character would normally be, introducing the movie to viewers by lying to Jack's family about appearing to take Jack on his trip. This is actually an interesting maneouvre, and probably has a strong effect on how one perceives him throughout the film. As one might guess from my opener, keeping the opening sequence in mind to determine a character is not something I was really doing in my viewing. As such, Miles ends up coming across as an ultra-insecure man in middle age who has taken enough hits that he has decided to recognize his role in life. His primary interest and hobby is wine, with a distinct loathing for Merlot and a strong appreciation for Pinot Noir--later explained to Maya as an appreciation for the fragility and need for care that Pinot has, as contrasted with the ability of other grapes to grow anywhere, clearly alluding to his own state.

Church's performance is utterly appropriate for the role of Jack, but Jack is not a complex man. His hunt is squarely centered on the hunt for tail and nothing more; he has no deeper motivation than a "last gasp of freedom." He's an out-of-work actor (whose career makes a few nods to Church's actual one) who wants to help his friend out of depression but doesn't really understand or pay attention to him. Nothing against Church, but it's not exactly a revealing performance--but this falls more to the character (not, mind you, on author Rex Pickett or screenwriters Alexander Payne or Jim Taylor) than anything else. Giamatti on the other hand, gets the chance to take his normally (barring American Splendor) sidelined underdog and make him the central figure of a film. Giamatti's character would, in a less interesting film, be a pure moral model instead of the consistently willing deceiver that he is, but even this is clearly just a sign of insecurity, too. He's not uniformly insecure either, though, willing to take chances like a real person that sometimes don't turn out right, but buried under disappointments.

I haven't got an awful lot more to say about the film, it's light and pleasant, with a full humanity to it, but just the slightest hint of wit wafting into some scenes. I suppose this all may be the wine talking (or not wanting to talk?) but there it is--the film is thoroughly enjoyable, and I'm most certainly not a middle-aged man in a midlife crisis. I don't think it even matters that I'm male, to tell you the truth, as it's smart about the relationships in the film, condemning but not morally avenging Jack's infidelities and working in some nuance to the relationship between Maya and Miles.

Das Boot
Das Boot(1981)

NOTE: This review refers to the 209 minute "Director's Cut."

Das Boot has a peculiar release history, having a number of cuts not far from Blade Runner, but a much greater disparity in running time between any of them. Originally released theatrically at 150 minutes, later in two miniseries forms, one set of three 100 minute blocks and one set of six 50-minute blocks, then finally was re-edited (and re-cued) with this version. I spent a long time trying to figure out whether this was the version I should introduce myself to the film with, though only this and the 293 minute version are currently available (in Region 1, anyway, and legally speaking). A helpful soul on Amazon, of all places, gave reviews that gave me somewhere to start, suggesting the director's cut was the one anyone should see and the miniseries version was for "devotees" of a kind. Still, three and a half hours is a lot of time to devote to a single movie (see my prior discussions of Once Upon a Time in America and Gone with the Wind), so I've only just now finally gotten to it.

In World War II, the Germans put many young men, increasingly young, onto Unterseeboots, or U-Boats (submarines if you just must have plain English) and setting them out to see in vain attempts to blockade the British naval fleet. War Correspondent Lieutenant Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer) is assigned to U-96, under the command of its unnamed Kapitänlieutenant (Jürgen Prochnow), meeting with him and the boat's Chief Engineer (Klaus Wennemann) as they wander into a bar celebrating the Ritterkruz award being given to the drunken Kapitänlieutenant Thomsen (Otto Sander). At the party are the 1st Watch Officer (or 1WO, Hubertus Bengsch) and the 2nd Watch Officer (or 2WO, Martin Semmelrogge), with the rest of the crew outside and drunk, Chief Bosun Lumprecht (Uwe Ochsenknecht) singing at and hitting their car (with his fists, that is) and the rest of the crew managing to urinate on it drunkenly. The next day is more sober, but jubilant as U-96 is launched and the rather green crew sets out on war patrol. Much of their time is spent horsing about, doing standard duties or pining for lovers, including the French lover of Cadet Ullman (Martin May), who he fears will be killed when the French Partisans discover she is pregnant with a German's child. Whenever submerged, Petty Officer Hinrich (Heinz Hoenig) is glued to the headset on the hydrophones, and otherwise translating radiograms. Chief Helmsman Kriechbaum (Bernd Tauber, who bears a weird resemblance to James Remar, though not the gritty voice) attempts to navigate for the ship's course, eventually losing control of it to stormy waters and the unseen sun. Only on occasion do the eager young men see action, first attempting to attack a British Destroyer that manages to get the drop (quite literally--depth charges) on them, later stumbling across an apparently unguarded fleet of ships. Plans for a return to base are cut short by new orders from headquarters, demanding they brave the Strait of Gibraltar and land at La Spezia, Italy--a narrow straight to say the least, but more importantly a heavily guarded and ally-controlled one.

I mostly know Prochnow from his roles in, well, Beverly Hills Cop 2, In the Mouth of Madness (as a cross between Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft--of sorts, at least) and Dune, so this was, you can imagine, a bit of a new experience of the German actor for me. The Captain is a tough man, clearly experienced in war and concerned about the welfare of his crew and the "war effort" as they used to say. He's sarcastic and less than respectful when discussing the political aspects of Germany at the time, but this does not get in the way of what he feels is his duty to the crew and military that comes from that country, frustrated by the failing war patrol's attempts at blockading. He smiles and speaks to the enemy combatants above him as if he were talking to a supernatural being that he was on even terms with, hurried but unworried when it comes to their reciprocation of attack. Alongside him in the number 2 position, Semmelrogge puts in a cheeky performance as the vulgar member of the crew, slinging whatever smart remark or oddity comes to mind in any given situation, experienced enough to stand behind it, but not quite so unworried as the Captain is. In stark contrast to either of them (criticized by both, in fact, for his cleancut nature and support of the Nazi party) is the number 1. Bengsch has the unenviable task of portraying the one full-fledged, proud Nazi in a film long after such folk, shall we say, fell out of fashion. He does so with chin up, just as he should for the 1WO, usually thick-skinned but occasionally too offended by the attitudes of his shipmates to stay around them. Werner is greener than anyone else, with even the youngest of the crew able to dash quickly from aft to stern and back at the slightest call, despite the close quarters. Werner, however, is at first thoroughly proud of his assignment, taking many pictures and babbling on occasion until he stumbles into real danger.

All of the men go through a sort of disillusioning change, the forced extremes of close quarters, unchanging living combined with harrowing moments of tense anticipation as the enemies above threaten to drown their ship leave them haggard, bearded and pale. Whenever they (and the audience) can hear that faint whine of a Destroyer's propellers overhead, there's a breath-caught moment of absolute terror for the entire crew (and the audience) as the depth charges can't be far behind. Even the seaworthy mechanic Johann (Erwin Leder, whose image seems to grace most stills used from the film) finally snaps under this pressure at one point, after the ship is violently rocked repeatedly by the explosions they can not see, but only feel and hear. Werner becomes sturdier, going from a clean cut appearance similar to the 1WO to a scraggly man in civvies when the ship stops to port at Vigo in Spain--leading the rather comfortably-lived officers stationed there to mistake the 1WO for the captain, as he is the only one in uniform when they land. These performances can be hysterical (especially in Leder's case) but always ring true to the claustrophobic and terrifying experience of complete isolation and unknown fate that these crews suffered through.

Responses to this film are interesting, and occasionally actually sort of disturbing. Most literate critics tend to acclaim its highly accurate, very realistic feel, while some dopey, creepy folks write simplistic reviews with things like "why would we want [Germans] to live?" or the alleged fact that three quarters of German submarine operators never made it back was cheered at the first American screening. This is mind-boggling to me. The quote comes from an incredibly ignorant review on Amazon (where the brilliant soul seems to think this film is American) which notes the obvious reason for his disinterest in Germans living: the Holocaust (as well as attempts to "take over the world," which concern me some great measure less than the Holocaust). Now, not to get too sarcastic here, but I don't think Jews are an underwater lifeform, nor that concentration camps were built in secret submarine bases. The souls placed on submarines may or may not have participated in it, but it seems highly unlikely that they had any role other than a military one in the war. Beyond that, they were still people, as Wolfgang Petersen's film works so hard to show us. He does make much of the crew apolitical (and even has Kapitänlieutenant Thomsen and some others make disparaging remarks about Hitler) and one would hope this would be enough for someone to recognize this, but apparently not.

I've seen a fair number of war movies in my time, though, and many (if not most, or even all) are not pro-war films, and in fact usually pretty anti-war. Most of the time I shrug and nod, "yeah, war's bad, I don't like it, good movie, on with life." This one really got to me though. Perhaps it was knowing those things that ignorant and sick minds have said and thinking of the fact that they were said by real people of real people, and that even those ignorant minds had some point and proved that the folks dropping charges were not evil either, but I just wanted the combat to end, I wanted the crew to stop having to sit and wait and listen to sonar pings and fear the next charge they heard would be the last thing they'd ever hear besides rushing water and screams, but knew that the solution was not to kill the ones doing it to them, for they were simply in the exact same position of trying to stop the enemy. Certainly, pretending a world without war is possible with humans is beyond naïve, but to actually make me start to desperately wish it was not so, and make my complacency on the subject rattle and dislodge so is an amazing achievement. For me, this brilliant little (ok, I suppose my own discussion of its length discounts it from being "little") film was the most successful in its antiwar message ever, for representing the "other side" in a way that doesn't even acknowledge the side attacking them, leaving it simply a display of the fear and effort so pushed into events that only serve to enforce political gain and loss, and a display of the men who have to suffer for it, even without regard for the politics they serve or fight.

The Cowboys
The Cowboys(1972)

I've got a funny point of view on this film. Apparently a very funny one. The two critics I pay attention to (meaning that I read their reviews, but don't necessarily make any judgments based on them) both gave this middling to piddling reviews (Ebert, who I think is a crackpot with a deft ear for language, gave it 2.5 out of four stars, Leonard Maltin gave it two). I'm young, which puts me outside the generation that grew up on westerns, and into one that has a general distaste for them. I'm a left-leaning moderate if not a liberal, at the least on military policy (though not a military-hater by any stretch of the imagination, or really at all), putting me at odds with the Duke (though actually on track with director Mark Rydell and some of the actors). Still, I myself grew up thinking westerns were all brown and flat and dusty and boring. I bought--as many my age do--into the bullshit that says that westerns are all simplistic, gung-ho machismo and lack subtlety, nuance, and any kind of tolerance or realistic presentation of races other than white men, or of women. Sure, people make exceptions (and I started there, too) for recent films like Eastwood's Unforgiven (actually I didn't see this until I realized I like westerns) or maybe Silverado. Peckinpah is an occasional exception for his near nihilism and violence, though still a drunken misogynist by reputation. But, damn...what a great fucking movie.*

Wil Andersen (John Wayne) is a cattle man, and he has a herd to drive to Belle Fourche, SD from near Bozeman, MT, but a sudden gold find has left him without the hands to do it. His friend Anse (Slim Pickens, always a welcome face and voice) asks Wil how old he was for his first cattle drive and eventually draws out the reasonability of drafting kids from the local schoolhouse. Wil still scoffs, but the next morning, he and his wife Annie (Sarah Cunningham) wake to find a group of boys outside anyway. Wil is annoyed but Annie asks him not to be too rough on them, so Wil offers to look at hiring anyone who lasts a count of ten on the still-wild filly he has been working on taming. The boys are very reluctant upon seeing the horse's general disdain for the safety of humans, but eventually one pipes up and holds on as Wil's jaw softens a bit and his eyes widen ever-so-slightly. The boy rolls off the horse and introduces himself as "Slim" Honeycutt (Robert Carradine), the rest all hold easily to their mount, too, ten in all: Fats (Alfred Barker, Jr.), Dan (Nicolas Beauvy), Steve (Steve Benedict), Weedy (Norman Howell, Jr.), Stuttering Bob (Sean Kelly), Charlie Schwarz (Stephen Hudis), Hardy Fimps (Clay O'Brien), Jimmy Phillips (Sam O'Brien) and Homer Weems (Mike Pyeatt). When Wil asks for the next, up steps a new, older boy, fifteen like the eldest, Slim. He holds onto the filly and even calms her to a trot before handing her off to Slim with a snide comment, sparking a quick fight. Wil says he's not sure about this new boy, Cimarron (A. Martinez), but takes on the rest. The final member of their group is the cook, and the one Wil has sent for has skipped out on him, but sent another cook in his stead. The new cook is black (which is treated smartly, might I add), and proves himself as a cook with the slightest of provocation, giving his name as Jeb Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Brown). While Wil is now set with hands, a man with long hair (and no name, but he's played by Bruce Dern) appears and asks to be added to the crew. He attempts to deceive Wil to get in so Wil refuses him, unsurprisingly leaving an otherwise simple cattle drive vulnerable in the dark to the ex-criminal cattle rustler and his friends.

I'm going to touch on this subject gingerly: I was quite annoyed when I got about twenty minutes into this movie, but it had nothing to do with the film. My mind started picking at an old wound, something given away about this film and it found the spot where it hurt and masochistically dug in. I remembered all too early what some jackass had written in the "life synopsis" section of a Bruce Dern autobiography--"but he may be most remembered for his role in The Cowboys where he [censored to save you, dear reader, from the spoiler I could not avoid]." Let's just say it gave away his fate and who put him in a position to balance on that precipice of chance. I was thoroughly annoyed and convinced the movie was ruined, however unsurprising a move it was, but on it rolled and I was sucked in yet again. I was very excited watching this movie because I was sort of expecting a familiar style of western--I know now that they are not so simplistic as I was once led to believe, but there can still be a formula and a familiarity to any of them, even when contrasting the downers of Peckinpah with the earlier black hat/white hat conflicts. I was surprised consistently by many parts, aspects, devices, performances and structures in the film.

Many people, especially people who would fit my description (young, white, mostly educated, left-leaning, definitely on the lesser side of masculine), do not like John Wayne. Many disagree with his politics (actually this one does include me), others criticize his acting and claim he was a one-note actor with no range and little believability who just swaggered his way through roles as a "man's man," which is generally said by such folk with a derogatory sneer. I am not one of these people (with the conflicting politics exception aside). I own a large number of John Wayne films and do quite like the Duke, and have no qualms with his movies, generally speaking. OK, I'm not rushing out to drink the Green Berets "Kool-Aid," but the westerns I'm good with, and many of the other films. I like icons, and I don't feel the need to rail against them inherently. Wayne's performance here is like many of his good ones--subtle and nuanced, everything I had always read was antithetical to the clumsy, stupid, judgmental racist he allegedly was, by the accounts of the critical people. I can't claim he was none of the above, but I certainly don't think he was as much any of them as such people seemed to think. Here he's a man who has lost his only sons and is now taking on a whole cub scout pack of boys for sixty days, with some great reluctance. He's a proud and stubborn man, but he isn't afraid to admit when he's wrong, or to knowingly shoot himself in the foot with his pride. He's a familiar, comfortable and fatherly figure to both the boys and, in an interesting way, the viewer. He and Slim Pickens are the old hands here, and feel like old friends even if they aren't to you, because they're so easygoing and likeable.

The boys are uniformly good, and in a very surprising way. It's difficult to find actors of ages like this (around 9-15) who act their age successfully. Of course, adding a range is helpful, but no one really goes outside that range of age. Usually you get kids who are smarter than their age but don't know enough to know how to hide it (creating an obnoxious arrogance in their performances that reeks of endless praise and insufficient discipline in their artistic career), or kids who couldn't act their way out of a paper sack. Carradine is making his film debut here, long before his Revenge of the Nerds stardom (or, for that matter, playing Bob Younger in The Long Riders with his brothers Keith and David), and he is quite good as the eldest of the boys, smart enough to be 15 without being ridiculous, playing a Vivaldi piece (!) on guitar that he has learned. Carradine portrays him as unsure in a strong presence like Wil, but clearly aware of his leadership role when it comes to the rest of the boys. Nicolas Beauvy allows for the public humiliation of crying on film, but leaves it a believable set of tears, not a tantrum or a falsity, but the natural response that a fearsome sole like the long-haired bandit invokes. The rest all do quite well, with solid dialects and a pleasing ease in the physicality of their roles that has just the right note of tension to show their youth and inexperience--but the skill to subvert that tension when they have finally emotionally aged and must take on the bandits that outnumber the group. This element is often criticized as "wrong" for showing kids participating in violence, but this evades the entire point of the film, which is showing their emotional maturation and aging, and that this act is not revenge for the theft of the cattle, it is not cold-blooded, it is done because it is their job to take in those cattle for Wil, and they're all needed to get them back.

This is not to say that the performances of the other two adult lead roles, in Brown and Dern, are anything to sneeze at. Brown has the right match of unfamiliar threat to him when playing with the boys (in the sense of playing mindgames) and when disagreeing (rather vehemently) with Andersen. He's very quiet and restrained, but full of vigor held just underneath it, lashing it out with perfect control when appropriate. Dern is in a star-turning role as the unnamed villain and is scarier than all hell, eyes glinting with psychosis and a twisted sense of honour, pride and selfish dignity. It's no surprise that poor Dern was typecast after this, because he makes an excellent villain, and whatever criticism there are of a "magical black man" role like Brown's, his performance elevates it to something more real.

The most pleasing thing, though, is best exemplified in the performance of Sean Kelly, whose stuttering is obviously a lead in to a recurrence of it that affects the plot. Kelly drops the stutter at the right times and he does so right, not as if he is a robotic actor turning it off, but as a boy who is pushed into it, and who reels off a nasty line to Wil's provocations that sounds exactly like the sharp-tongued profanity of an early adolescent. But the problem is still hiding back there--many of the plot points are obvious set-ups, dead giveaways as to what's coming, but Rydell (and perhaps Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr., possibly even author William Dale Jennings--but I'm suspicious when the plotting is the one fault that, however matched, equalled and overcome, is still visible that the original author is the one responsible) does these things right, time and again. One liners and the wit and wisdom of Nightlinger never fall off their tightrope and into self-parody or artificiality, and whenever a line would normally lead to a big rimshot moment, it is turned by the actors and Rydell into a perfectly normal moment, in the same way that those things actually happen, rather than the theatrical occurrence.

A lot of credit can be given for this tone to John Williams (I snickered when the Vivaldi lute part played, wondering if ever Williams would write or insert a classical-style guitar piece and have the other John Williams play it), whose score is as magnificent (with respect to Elmer Bernstein) as always (gosh, sorry about the Bernstein crack, but it was right there...). It's mostly a full-throated orchestra, but with clever accents from guitar, bass and harmonica (with clear instrument-themes of castanets and maracas for villains, as is often the case with western villains). Williams' score is not a complete deviation from most western scores in this respect, but it, too, takes the movie from the full-bore western dynamic and places it back in the realm of "any movie"--in a good way. Strong themes with heroic strains are absolutely present, but they have only the faintest odour of "this was written for a WESTERN!" to them, which made the opening (which, in the current DVD release, has a pure display in an opening Overture, Entr'acte and Exit Music) much more memorable and pleasing for its solitude.

*Pardon my French. I normally refrain when reviewing, though I happily use blue words in reality, but these are the words coming to me this time. Sorry. In fact: Five fucking stars. Take that.

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

I think I confused myself, and I'm not sure why. Perhaps it was Leonard Maltin's review (yes, I keep one around, a habit I picked up from my father, facilitated by bookstore employment and my sister 3 years ago in reverse order) where he called this movie "tiresome," but I was sure I recalled this film had poor reception upon its release. Apparently what actually happened is it was critically acclaimed and flopped popularly and in dealing with ticket sales. I've been asked recently what it is exactly that I think is funny, since I'm kind of a failure to my generation in terms of my sense of humour. I don't like any of the animated television shows that are popular, I loathe Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller (really, I hate them--ask anyone who knows me, they've heard it a thousand times). I like some stand up comedians, but only a select few, and I avoid most comedies marketed to other people my age. Well, the answer is going to now be, in part, this movie.

Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a small time thief, currently in the process of finding out what his young relative (sorry, missed which one!) wants for Christmas, unfamiliar with the latest trends in children's media. Unfortunately, he's doing this by attempting to rob a store in the middle of the night, and soon the cops are after him, and in a fleet of foot moment, Harry stumbles into a movie audition. Agent Dabney Shaw (Larry Miller, acerbically deadpan as always) is impressed by what is actually, unbeknownst to him, an actual reaction to a script that bears some resemblance to reality by sheer coincidence. Soon Harry finds himself in Hollywood, at a party being held by Harlan Dexter (Corbin Bensen) where he is introduced to Perry "Gay Perry" Van Shrike, a private investigator who also works as a film consultant for just such an occupation. Also at the party is Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan), who catches Harry's eye and is a big fan of the "Johnny Gossamer" crime novels. As you might guess from the details above, we are soon launched into a big, twisting crime mystery with numerous dead bodies and a decent handful of guns, all intertwining and fulfilling genre clichés and conventions--deliberately.

While I'm normally loathe to try and apply specific genre labels to anything, this relates more to limiting and contradicting intention of a film than anything else. Here, though, writer/director Shane Black's intentions are clear: he's making a neo-noir black comedy. Black, of course, is the creator of Lethal Weapon, who has scripted many films I love (including, well, Lethal Weapon), usually more in the crime and action side of things, though he was also involved in the cult favourite (and one I grew up on) The Monster Squad. A rather obvious bit of trivia, though, is his small role in Predator as Hawkins. Black knows what he wants from this, his directorial debut, though, as he draws clear lines to authors like Raymond Chandler (the film is split into chapters, which are named after Chandler's works) and nudges towards authors like Brett Halliday (née Davis Dresser) and his private eye Michael Shayne (a handful of the films based on this character are in my backlog of reviews--and of course this one technically is too, as his Bodies Are Where You Find Them forms the basis for this film), with a brilliantly designed set of prop books for the in-film character of "Johnny Gossamer." As with things like Shaun of the Dead, Black knows how to make a movie that's self-referential to genre conventions: he doesn't hate the stories of the 40s, he clearly loves them, for all their formula and predictability. He plays with these expectations though, usually fulfilling them, but turning a few on their ears. He twists and turns like a noir, and has a schmuck in over his head like a noir, but he's got quite a sense of humour about him.

Black and cinematographer Michael Barrett put a nice image to the film, with thick, bright varying colours throughout, giving a lot of life to the film in the way of strange bar lighting, neon light and general mixes of colours in most scenes throughout. The sense of humour is used through devices like a self-aware and fourth wall-breaking narration by Lockhart, who comments on the films failures to put things together subtly and on its failures to escape convention. Wit is the order of the day, though, not sharp and literate Wilde-type wit, but barbed zingers from character to character and sharp turns on lines and ideas which are a little more personally involved and emotional than the prior variety (or the kind seen in more direct Michael Shayne translation). Subject matter, though, is on the dark side in much of the film, with Black's script not glossing over things like the violence of murder or the horror of some acts perpetrated by humanity. But Black has the balance right; when it's funny it's pretty hysterical, and when it turns serious or romantic, it does so on a dime, never missing a beat and never confusing itself. This kind of neck-snapping turn annoys some people who feel this means a movie can't decide what it is, but in my mind it's the mark of someone who wants all of it in a single movie, and the correct transition, however rapid, can easily make it work--which Shayne does.

Downey, Jr. was finally regaining his stride at the time of the filming here, at least in the public eye, but he is in full stride as an actor. Comedic timing is becoming a lost art, and funny lines in character are becoming something of a rarity (two of the things which most ruin many "comedic" actors in modern times for me), but Downey has both in spades. While there's a familiarity to his occasionally trailing mumble that I've seen in other characters from him, it is exactly right for Harry, and his desperate confusion in response to the situations he does not know how to deal with leads both to hilarious lines and to rather affecting ones. Kilmer is often a very stoic actor, usually hidden behind a façade or veneer, and it often bothers me enough that though I find him an interesting actor, it's hard to find him engaging. I think a lot of the problem is Kilmer's natural instinct is to be comedic which has to be restrained for more serious roles. He's perfect as the snarky and sarcastic Gay Perry though, with no aversion to playing a homosexual character, but a gratifying aversion to making him a stereotype. He's got some nice moments when he reveals himself to Harry, though, saying that he is not a "nice man," coming off as exactly that for saying it, but not so much that it contradicts the claim, conveying the drop of a defense to reveal a fact that is not going to change.

This is a very fun and very funny movie, and Black continues to put together good scripts without simply repeating himself. The Lethal Weapon series was strong four movies straight, even if the quality trailed from sequel to sequel, as Black's scripts always perform brilliantly under good chemistry, and Downey and Kilmer have just that. They bear no resemblance to Riggs and Murtaugh, and neither do the sets of experiences. It's a new film, with recalls of ones that Black has not been involved in before, and recalls that are both amusing and integral to the way the film is written. It truly is a shame it missed out in theatres--come back and give it another go.

Catch Me If You Can
½

I don't know if it's a colouring of only personal response around me or big critical response or a mix, but I have this recollection of Catch Me If You Can being considered a pretty entertaining movie and that's all, disappointing as a Spielberg film. It seems to me that it was simply in a bad period for the trifecta of Spielberg, DiCaprio and Hanks, all of whom were not riding fame (though none were quite so hated as they all have been at some points). I do know Leonard Maltin says it had "no resonance," for instance, and others noted that it was not Spielberg's best. Watching (and reviewing) as many movies as I do, it's become very difficult to find the will to pointlessly compare and place in order the films of any directors, actors or genres. Certainly separating "good" and "bad" is something I can and will still do (read my Amityville II review, for instance...), but beyond that I simply don't see the point.

Frank William Abagnale, Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the son of Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken) and Paula (Nathalie Baye) in New Rochelle, NY, where his father is a successful businessman, running a shop called Abagnale's, but suffering the scrutiny of the IRS. Eventually attempts at loans and the like fail and the Abagnales are forced from their home and Frank is forced from the private school he is attending. A brief experience of his father's smooth-talking leads Frank to take an offhand comment about his "substitute-like" appearance to take control of his new classroom at school. A fatherly response of chuckles leads Frank to begin to pursue this life full-time. When Frank Sr. and Paula divorce, Frank refuses to choose which to live with and runs away from home, using bad checks and eventually fake checks to make his way in life. When this becomes less satisfying, a chance observance of an airline pilot leads him to a new choice of "profession," as he begins to "deadhead" on airlines, masquerading as an airline pilot for Pan Am on flights for other airlines. His forgeries eventually catch the eye of the FBI, especially bank fraud specialist Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks, based on real-life agent Joe Shea, whose name is changed for unknown reasons). Hanratty wants nothing but to catch this mysterious forger, while Frank fantasizes about bringing his parents back together. Hanratty will not stop, though, and neither will Frank, and the two give the film its title, playing the age old game of cat and mouse.

Does this film fail to be the identifying "best" film from Spielberg? Sure. But who cares? Why does that even matter? No group efforts of varying content can ever be completely equal in all eyes, or even most eyes. Even if this was Spielberg's best work, if someone feels some of the casting or crew is wrong, it would then fall behind other films. This kind of comparison is pointless and unnecessary. Noting that it is "not the best," is, I suppose, vaguely helpful in bringing it down to earth from the strange and mystical realm of "Spielberg Film!" but these days, enough anti-populist elitists and contrarians have taken Spielberg down enough notches that this isn't even all that necessary in itself. There is no longer the expectation that any Spielberg film will automatically be excellent or entertaining. Similarly, it's pointless to grade or downgrade a movie about real events (short of pulling a Birth of a Nation) based on its authenticity. If you don't know by now that things are going to be fictionalized, now you do. They are. That's it, let's move on from there. Take a film about real events as a re-purposing of real ideas, events and people for the use of telling the audience something, or letting them explore another life, and maybe seeing something about their own in the process--this is what Spielberg usually aims for, perhaps with a slice intended to explore his own feelings about some events (often father-related) and maybe tell something to those who have experienced similar ones.

DiCaprio and Hanks were both in sort of transitional states, too, when this was released, in the public eye if not the critical one. DiCaprio had finally shed his "boytoy" image that so stained his career after Titanic made him the male idol of 12-14 year old girls everywhere (barring those who didn't care and the contrarians there, but certainly a very, very large number), but had not yet begun to be recognized as the good actor he really is and was. It was odd, considering how well thought of his roles in films prior to Titanic were, and the thoughts about those following. Here he turns in a performance in line with his work for Scorsese, our awareness of Frank's ignorance of these occupations prior to entering them easy to see on DiCaprio's face, but his method of working people over for information is also perfectly suave and believable, he always gives just enough to convince the audience he really is in an unfamiliar situation, and just enough to convince us no one will catch him--and even a little extra touch to make us hold our collective breath for a moment as we fear he's about to be found out (especially in a great scene with Martin Sheen as his father-in-law-to-be). His work is thankfully being re-evaluated by the masses and not just critics now, and the same is, I think, being said for Hanks as well.

Hanks of course started his fame in the 80s in movies like Big and Joe Versus the Volcano, or even Turner and Hooch. He became a bit of a "blockbuster actor" following those lighter roles when he did work like Philadelphia, Forrest Gump and Apollo 13. He did some other light roles, but it seems like after Toy Story, he was neither easy popcorn draw nor Oscar-baiting guarantee, falling into a sort of limbo where everyone still recognized him but neither ran for his movies nor ran away from them--he was sort of a big and familiar face, a big bland one with no clear identity as comedic or dramatic actor, nor as well-rounded one. He did good work in this period like Road to Perdition and this film. Hanratty is an interesting character, and interviews with Hanks shows he saw exactly what that interest was. Hanratty is our antagonist, but he's a lawman and a good one, in both the moral and the professional sense. He takes on a sense of responsibility (Almost fatherly!) for Frank, but does not let it get in the way of his job as enforcer of the law. It's here that I've also got to mention what is an unusual turn for Spielberg. Normally Spielberg's commentary on fathers refers to absence or failure, though the idea of replacement is not new to him. Hanratty does not move completely into such a role though, becoming more an equal than a superior or authority figure.

The secret performance of the film, though, is Walken. Walken is the unusual father for a Spielberg film, continuing to love and protect his son, with his absence being purely and squarely on the shoulders of Frank himself, who has run away. Frank Sr. has even planted the seed of the big life that Frank leads, though he never takes the fatherly step to discourage his son, instead feeling too much pride in his son and wanting too much for his son to be happy. Social engineering is not exactly the best of careers in the long run though, and certainly not a legal one (as Kevin Mitnick, though he ended up in a position similar to Abagnale after he, too, served his time). All the same, Walken's lifelong love of his wife is palpable and touching. While Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn manipulate his moment of choking up and push us to see that he did so, Walken himself surprised me by being utterly believable in his response to the pain of the divorce he was still attempting to deny to himself. It was amazing and magnetic, and a shame he was not recognized for it (okay, okay, he WAS nominated for an Oscar...), as it was the most out of character and the most "normal" and "human" I've seen him in ages--and I love "odd" actors, including Walken himself.

So, what's the final verdict? This is a very entertaining movie. I am not going to waste anyone's time (especially my own) comparing it to any other films, except to say that anyone with an interest in films about social engineering and conmen (especially of the Confidence or Matchstick Men variety) should give this one a shot. It does a very good job with it, neither overplaying the monotonous aspects nor underplaying them, giving them that tinge of taboo excitement without boring us.

The Toxic Avenger: Part II

I watched all three of the Toxic Avenger movies (ok, there are four now, but at the time...) many times, though the sequels had to be rented so my viewings of them were fewer and further between. They're often trashed or denigrated, but I still fondly remember seeing the posters for them at the tiny movie rental alcove in the grocery store we went to in my hometown. How I remember this I'm not sure, considering I was five when this came out, but perhaps it's not as simple as that and the video release was somehow long, long after that.Still, it got to the point that even Troma began to deny the middle two films, as they were "erased" in Citizen Toxie, the fourth film. Still, they're actually out there and even Lloyd has reconsidered (so long as you watch the uncut version with full gore).

The Toxic Avenger (John Altamura/Ron Fazio, a mix of performances due to a mid-filming firing) has cleaned up his hometown of Tromaville, NJ and so the only job he has left is as "concierge" at the Tromaville Home for the Blind, at which his girlfriend Claire (Phoebe Legere) naturally also works. Into it, though, sweeps evil conglomerate (as if you couldn't guess from their name) Apocalypse, Inc. The Chairman (Rick Collins) and his right-hand woman Malfaire (or gyno-American as Lloyd might say--Lisa Gaye) send a bomb to Toxie (through a shipper that must be an acronym for Parcels United Service...) at the home, destroying it utterly. Naturally a hideously deformed creature of superhuman size and strength will not be stopped by something as simple as a bomb, so Toxie must now contend with the troop of fighters the evil Chairman sends from their limo (which includes a masculine and moustachioed transvestite, a black midget, an indian..). When this fails, the Chairman asks his board for suggestions and Malfaire puts forth their latest plot--Toxie's psychiatrist (Erika Schickel) has been bought out and will push Toxie to head to Japan to find his father, "Big Mac" Junko, which will put him in place to be faced with their new weapon--the "anti-Tromaton," which will render him a puddle of "something."

As I've said, much dirt has been slung at the two middle films in the Toxic Avenger series, and I can certainly understand why. Lloyd Kaufman admits that he and Michael Herz made some concessions to the MPAA when they released them, and unfortunately that sort of thing cripples a movie from a studio like Troma, because part of the point is the gratuitous sex and violence. What always bothered me, and will surprise few people, are the changes made. No longer is he Melvin Furd, but now "Melvin Junko," and various other characters and actors were changed--Sara (originally played by Andree Maranda) is now Claire, Melvin's mother is now played by Jessica Dublin instead of Sarabel Levinson, and even Toxie is now played by Altamura and Fazio, where he was originally played by Mitchell Cohen and voiced by Kenneth Kessler. The tone has changed radically, from a darkly humourous and ultra-violent horror/action/hero movie into a cartoonish comedy with lots of violence. Legere plays Claire as a bouncy, energetic, overly-falsetto airhead accordion player instead of a blind woman who happens to be the butt of many blind jokes by the filmmakers. Fight and chase scenes often have a synthesized version of "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" (!), and Toxie's new voice is kind of nasal. Still, Claire is the only change that really bothered me. It works for the cartoon to have this out-of-control accordion playing girlfriend (who makes me think of the Real Ghostbusters version of Janeane Melnitz), but in the film it's irritating. She's not in this particular film too much though so it's not a huge complaint. On the other hand, it has a hovercraft chase scene to rival Die Another Day.*

The new tone is interesting and almost makes for a more normal movie, as if Troma accidentally tripped and spilled their workings into a regular movie, and a more character-oriented plot. It ends up kind of bizarre, really, because this is like a singular period in Troma history, with no other films beyond the 2/3 sequels (plural because the same applies to Class of Nuke 'Em High 2 and 3) really hitting this peculiar ground. It's almost like a bridgepoint between the similarly bright and clear later and current films and the earlier, dirtier, grittier ones. Future traditions like Joe Fleishaker are still growing here (he had previously appeared in Troma's War), as are some of the amusingly ridiculous and contrived phrases people spout. Toxie's narration includes numerous instances of clearly deliberately forced alliteration, and the "hideously deformed creature of superhuman size and strength" phrase begins to take its prominence (though only the Toxic Crusaders cartoon rode it as hard as it did). It's kind of sad that Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD was not made for another 2 years, because it would have been the perfect film for a crossover, but such is life, I suppose. Lloyd also managed to begin the eventual tradition of smarter nods than you might expect, with a great response to a Shakespeare quote by the villain uttered by a homeless woman later on--though his commentary reveals even more surprising influences that you would never suspect in a million years.

It's not a bad film (though honestly Lisa Gay is terrible, and not in the Troma sense so much as wooden and awkward and awful--everyone else at least acts correct for their parts, however ridiculous, melodramatic or reduced to caricature they may be) and gets a bad rap simply because it isn't the original film, but it works a lot better with the gore re-inserted and isn't quite so distractingly different with that inclusion--even as a youngun who had never even seen the unrated original, the reduced violence in this confused me quite a bit as a viewer, though I happily found this made it more acceptable to other people. Well, in my mind anyway. I don't think Troma will ever be acceptable in any general circles.

Oh, and watch for the appearance by Go Nagai, apparently a huge fan of Troma, but known to everyone else for creations like Devilman and Mazinger-Z, as well as his own parody of the latter, Panda-Z.

*I've never seen Die Another Day.

Three Kings
Three Kings(1999)
½

When I still believed in such things, I watched this a while ago on some movie channel as a "guilty pleasure," but found myself completely sucked in. Later, when the director of all plays at my high school endorsed it without provocation (she typically a fan of, say, Bogart, but having, I later learned, a strong appreciation of the action-type film) I slid back that wall of defensiveness, until it was completely eroded by my eventual refusal of the idea of a "guilty pleasure." I refuse to believe in feeling guilty for anything that causes pleasure unless it's something one should feel guilty for doing in the first place (so if you enjoy torturing people, you still have a guilty pleasure, sorry--you psychotic freak).

The United States Army is celebrating its "victory" in Iraq after the ceasefire signed at the end of Operation Desert Storm, a tent filled with illicit alcohol and "party music" where Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) and Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze, no, really, THAT Spike Jonze) are amongst the revelers, until both their party and that of Archie Gates (George Clooney)--whose party involves banging reporter Cathy Daitch (Judy Greer) noisily--are ended in embarassment and threat by commanding officers. On duty the next day, Barlow and Conrad are taking members of Hussein's army prisoner, stripping them to guarantee the absence of weaponry, when one man's pants are dropped to reveal a document hidden where the sun-don't-shine. Barlow commands the nauseated Conrad to remove it and they sneak off to a tent with Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) to discuss what it could mean. They're convinced that it displays a bunker of some kind, and rumours slide through the camp about their find, leading back to Archie Gates. Gates decides to take command of their operation, and they determine that the mapped bunkers contain stolen Kuwaiti gold, which they plan to take (feeling morally justified in stealing from Hussein) in a hastily assembled plan. Their only other compatriot is Walter Wogaman (Jamie Kennedy), who is assigned to derail reporter Adriana Cruz' (Nora Dunn) attempts to follow Gates (who is intended as her escort). All goes according to plan until Gates finds it impossible to ignore the plight of the Iraqis attempting to rebel without the assistance of the United States military and decides to fight back while taking the gold. Everything goes to hell when that happens, with too many goals to balance them properly leading to an absolutely FUBAR mission that was illegal in the first place.

If one looks at the surface of this film (trailers, cover and poster art, stars, etc) one is inclined to believe it's going to be a clumsy action picture treading on dangerous and uncomfortable ground by discussing something like Iraq. In watching, one finds that it plays with many of the clichés and expectations involved, enjoying and displaying some, condemning others, but most enjoyably sarcastically lampooning some in a wonderfully strong, full injection of rather black humour. Jonze (shockingly, really) plays a stereotypical redneck who joined the Army to see "action," and later agrees without thought that his job is to kill "all Arabs"--not angrily or aggressively, but floating along with his distorted and world-less view. Elgin educates Conrad, though, in the finer points of "acceptable epithets" to launch at the Iraqis they ARE there to stop (which are the ones that apply only to them and are not derivative of African-American epithets). It's a nice nod to the absence of "political correctness" in most blue-collar type circles, but without happily endorsing it either, instead choosing to leave the natural probable racism in place but undermine it with the clear hypocrisy. Barlow is a naïve but well-meaning soul, a lot more aware and intelligent than his friend Conrad, but convinced that the Army is there to free Kuwaitis and do something good, despite the evidence thrown in his face by Iraqi Captain Said (Saïd Taghamoui). Conrad and Elgin also get a few notes on the subject of the ridiculous occupation, as Gates (the most worldly of the group) is confronted with the same knowledge, which he has been carefully ignoring to continue to survive and operate inside the strict rules he has chosen by occupation when they meet up with a rebel (Cliff Curtis) being tortured by the Iraqi government.

Director David O. Russell, who also screenwrote the film, makes many interesting choices (noted prior to the film's playing on the DVD) in terms of colour filtering and playing with things like speedup and slow motion, though he thankfully does the last in a more unusual (though, as there seems to be little left to do that isn't, still not 100% original) fashion with a sort of low frame rate grain, usually in place with the movement of bullets to both trace and emphasize their effect (quite successfully). It doesn't feel like careful stylization to look "bad ass" so much as like Russell made choices to tell things in a way that made them more clear. When violence is fairly commonplace in film, it becomes more and more difficult to build importance into violent acts occurring against characters we have not had time to get to know. Interesting internal shots and discussion of the effect of bullets on the human body are interesting to see and bring one note of as-yet-unseen interest to the scenes of action. Most importantly, Russell gets a good performance out of Ice Cube, who can be quite good (Boyz N the Hood) or mind-numbingly awful (Ghosts of Mars--and I LIKE Ghosts of Mars).

This is an excellent film in the action sense and has a wonderfully acerbic wit to it, a greater sense of humour than one normally finds paired with such rather intelligent discussion of the faults of modern warfare, which seems less interested in saving people and more interested in purely theoretical politics and boundary discussion. Highly recommended, I'd say--keep an open mind and look at something a little differently. It addresses the morality of war without getting preachy and takes jabs at the aforementioned amoral approach to conflict without drawing anyone to firmly as "good" or "bad."

Big Fish
Big Fish(2003)
½

I some strange fit of synchronicity, I began to read Robert R. McCammon's Boy's Life this morning while waiting in my dentist's office. Synchronicity, you say? Well, it's like this: McCammon's book is, by his own admission, intended to capture a young boy's youth (like Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, only, I imagine, a little darker and/or more violent) as told through the stories of the now-grown Cory Mackenson. His introduction as a middle-aged man introduces, immediately, the idea that there is a "magic" in the young that leaves us as we age, that those of us who are past that time are jealous or wary of that magic and so brush any and all of it aside when it appears. As the icing on this peculiar coincidence, Cory's hometown is Zephyr--a fictional small town in Alabama.

Will Bloom (Billy Crudup) has just received news that his father, Edward Bloom (Albert Finney), is taking a turn for the worse in his health. Will has been estranged from his father after becoming fed up with his endless "tall tales" and "big fish stories," not talking for three years, primarily after Edward hijacks his son's wedding to tell one of his infamous stories. Will's mother Sandra (Jessica Lange) is ever-faithful to her ailing husband and has no issues with him, while Will's wife Josephine (Marion Cotillard) is curious about him after Will's stories of him. Will wants to know the man behind the stories, but all Edward tells are the stories of his youth as filtered through his "flavoring" as he puts it. We are treated to many of these stories ourselves, shown being told at various times, both in the present with the skeptical Will and in the past with the enthusiastic and interested young version of the same. These stories are shown to us with a younger Edward (Ewan McGregor), who progresses through travails with giants (played by the real life sufferer of elephantiasis Matthew McGrory, who actually stood only about 7'6", until he sadly passed in 2005), humongous fish that hunger for gold, woods filled with jumping spiders, secret towns, a witch (director Tim Burton's fiancée Helena Bonham Carter) and the love of his life, Sandra (who is played in her youth by Alison Lohman).

There's an interesting mix of response to this film--most of it is positive, but a lot of it is assumptive or declarative, which is amusingly contradictory in light of the film's seeming basic message. I saw one of the producers tell me that everyone loves Edward Bloom, "including the audience" and read another review that equates Bloom to a "drunken uncle" that you try from whose grip you try to wrest the microphone. Burton seems to poke at any such black and white declarations both outside and inside the film. A momentary intrusion of fantasy into Will's life blurs the line for even Will, while many other scenes begin to push away some of the fantastical elements that Edward works so hard to construct (even if storytelling is as effortless for him as it seems it is). My feelings were somewhere in the middle, as Edward's stories are too fantastic for anyone to really take seriously, too close to legend and fairy tale for anyone to take them wholly seriously, so there's not the harm of a rambling drunk behind them, while at the same time, it's a lot easier to empathize with Will than some other folks seem to think. It's easy to see Will's frustration at the emotional distance of his father, and at his refusal to be straight with him at any point. Some criticism was also levelled at McGregor's bright grin and complete disconnect from the people around him, but this is exactly what he should be--Edward envisions himself, within these stories, as exactly that, the bright and simplistic hero.

We can see glimpses of probable reality behind some of the stories told, while others are impenetrable. The vengeful and effortless competition between Edward and Don Price (David Denman), the way that he is seen slumped every time Edward achieves some monstrous (usually sporting) victory really nudged me into the belief that more than likely Price was indeed the stereotypical ultra-popular quarterback type high schooler and had actually perpetrated most of these embarrassments on Edward. This is, of course, pure conjecture on my part and doesn't guarantee anything, any more than the suggestion that Edward did at least flirt with the idea of affair with Jennifer Hill (also Bonham Carter), even if he never did actually go through with one. It makes one a bit curious, much like Will, to know just what did happen to his father throughout his life--even if it's more banal, sometimes it ends up being interesting anyway, and does not devalue the stories, as few are likely to believe stories of werewolves anyway. I applaud original author Daniel Wallace (who I assume had the original line), or screenwriter John August (who at least kept it, if he didn't create it) and whoever else was responsible for the interaction between Will and Dr. Bennett (Robert Guillaume) about the story of his birth, where the simple story of Will's birth inspires a clear note of appreciation from Will, giving an honest note to his claim that he rather likes the story.

The fascinating thing about this film was that it was a Tim Burton film. I can always rely on Burton for a few good things, one being elements of the fantastic and another being a score from Danny Elfman (my love for whom is relatively well known, at least by virtue of my decent collection of Oingo Boingo records and CDs), and on neither does he disappoint here. However, this was, while clearly a Tim Burton film, not so wildly eccentric as Tim's films (or hair!) usually are. I suppose this falls back to Daniel Wallace, as it would be difficult to take stories and events like these and push them into that ultra-bizarre territory Burton created primarily for his 80's films. For this it's hard for me to like it, as a Tim Burton movie, more than some of those prior works (I believe I would have to vote for Beetlejuice as tops, since even now I can go back and watch only to wonder how in the hell anyone, even if it wasn't Burton, could come up with these insane ideas--but more importantly how Burton could so seemingly effortlessly drop them into film form), but it's a very good film in its surprising way. I was pleased to see such a very relateable film come out of Burton, one that really connects emotionally as it does so well in Finney's interactions with everyone, with a typically strong and real performance from Crudup, as well as an appealing fascination from Cotillard. It was nice that he was not above unusual nods to prior films though, especially the "breakfast machine" from Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (inspiration for one of my favourite pieces by Elfman) and even the more unusual (and not-so-Burton-related) appearance of Billy Redden, in a pseudo-reprisal of his infamous banjo-playing role in Deliverance.

I can't let this review escape the locality of my own computer without noting the presence of a few more actors though. Naturally, as with many, I have a great appreciation for Steve Buscemi's peculiar look and style, his nervousness and quick offense at some comments work perfectly for estranged poet Norther Wilson, with a nice lighter tone than some of his heavier roles (Fargo, Reservoir Dogs...), and also Deep Roy. I appreciate his work for the last few decades, his endless appearances and hard work, apparently willing to try anything and everything from puppetteering to full-fledged acting, but I'm a little bothered by what seems to be an attempt to cultivate a cult around him (especially as it really doesn't seem to be working). This is admittedly irrational and totally unimportant, but it bothers me, as it has led some to relegate Kenny Baker to a background role in the performance of R2-D2 in the Star Wars films when Roy was the secondary actor for the role. Still, props to his strange deadpan approach to all of his roles and his openness to any kind of role.

Monster
Monster(2004)
½

Ah, the biopic. Generally reviews end up being either, "This movie is so intensely terrible, Aileen Wuornos was a remorseless piece of shit and deserved to die!!" or "This is such a true portrait of the horrific events and unstoppable events that tragically led Aileen Wuornos to her awful end, painting a faithful picture of the real human being she actually was." I tend to sneer sardonically at either of these, even if they come from writer/directors behind them (which one hopes neither does). It's not going to be the point, even if it's intended to be, because this simply isn't reality, and all film (short of Andy Warhol's peculiar inanities, I suppose) is heightened reality, no matter how real or realistic it may be.

Aileen "Lee" Wuornos (Charlize Theron) is a prostitute considering suicide under an overpass when she decides to get a beer and spend the last cash in her pocket at a gay bar, where the timid Selby Wall (Christina Ricci) reaches out to her. Lee is first offended by Selby's approach, loudly proclaiming her heterosexuality, until Selby defensively (and hurt) admits that she simply wanted someone to talk to. Lee reconsiders and uncomfortably sits back down to a night of drinks and laughter that continues. Selby is staying with Donna (Annie Corley) after her father caught her trying to kiss a girl, and Donna does not want Selby to be around Lee at all. Lee, however, sees the only kind soul in all the life she can remember--and she recounts much of it to the audience. When Lee takes on one final John to try to get money to take Selby out, she finds things different from before. Vincent Corey (Lee Tergesen) seems like any other, but begins to get more and more angry finally turning the occasion into a chance to take out his obvious misogyny by beating and raping Wuornos, until a wild motion frees her hands and allows her to shoot him down. Scared by her actions, Lee returns to Selby and begs her to leave off the normal life and come with her to stay together. Soon Wuornos has decided that the more profitable killing of Johns is the better occupation, seeing it also as a chance to, subconscious, take revenge on all the men who have mistreated her. As is always the case with such stories, the ending is inexorable, and the killings are not easily hidden as they pile up.

I'm not interested in what this movie tells me about the real Aileen Wuornos, because it doesn't tell me anything. It could be accurate to the minutiae, that that car had a dent right there in that fender, that Wuornos was exactly the height of Theron--it still isn't reality. We don't see all the details, and we're relying on human memory, and a lot of it the memory of a single person. If for some reason this is your first experience with a film purporting to be a true story or if it's one of a long string of them, just remember--this is a movie, and nothing more. What a film like Monster can tell us is something more general, something about how a person, a personality, a thing, an entity, a life, a being, a murderer, a monster can be formed from the same origins as anyone else. Writer and director Patty Jenkins smartly does not focus on building up a horrible childhood for Wuornos, instead, in what was almost the most chilling part of the film to me, letting Lee tell her own story, talking at the beginning about her way of dealing with reality through imagination, while images hint at abuse taking place behind it, or when she refers nonchalantly to an event being clearly when she was thirteen, because she had just given "the baby up for adoption." This completely neutral acceptance of events that most of us would still find horrifying, or at the least somewhat troubling is just a statement on how far removed Wuornos is from the average person. Her violent response to all of this is proof that the events still resonate in her, that she still holds some kind of grudge for them, and it is further proof of how far those events disconnected her from the idea of causing others pain.

The important thing, though, in truly characterizing any human is to realize that they are human. There are certain segments of the population that like to pretend that the serial killers and genocidal political leaders of the real world are some kind of perfectly inhuman monster with no redeeming qualities, no personality and nothing resembling an actual human nature in them. This is a bizarre mentality, though an easily understood one--it's easier to distance oneself from these concepts if one draws lines like that, however much denial they realistically require. But the truth is that each and every one of us is human, be we law-abiders, law-benders or outright homicidal law-breakers. There is probably some kind of abuse hiding behind many violent crimes, or at least behind the willingness to commit them, and that probability does not make the perpetrator of them innocent or defensible--simply explicable. This is not a bad thing, and is in fact a helpful thing. Remembering that there is that possibility in all of us allows us to keep it in check, allows us to be open to the idea that it could be anyone.

Ricci's Selby manages to evoke a completely different kind of monster, one that is, to my mind, almost worse in terms of core value and personality, though certainly not as bad in action. Selby pushes Aileen to provide for her, flies into frustrated rages when things do not go right and takes advantage of Lee at all opportunities. She doesn't truly value anyone else as she's yet to find her own value, and this is a dangerous mix with someone as similarly aimless as Lee. But of course we can see that Selby is not acting out of a cold and indifferent selfishness so much as one that is not aware of how things are or what the things are that she is dealing with. This kind of selfishness is almost more dangerous because it can be the catalyst behind actions like those of Wuornos, inspiring more violent reactions than might naturally occur.

Theron's performance has been lauded endlessly, even earning an Oscar, and there's good reason. It's a fantastic performance, but so is Ricci's, as both of them fully embody the characters they are playing, contrasting with roles both of them are more typically imagined in--a much weaker, mousier Ricci than I've seen (even subduing her natural spunk and, um, assets, in the process) and a more aggressive, energetic Theron than I can recall seeing. I naturally can't speak to the accuracy of Theron's performance with regard to the real Wuornos, but it's an absolutely believable character, as is Ricci's, and a strong supporting cast that also includes Bruce Dern as Thomas, the one man who doesn't try to gain from, use or waste Lee, who shows a real kind of concern, but this is absolutely Theron's show, with Ricci fighting for her share of it.

This isn't a terribly pleasant movie (it's about a serial killer after all!), nor a very happy one even for the ultra-antihero-but-still-sympathetic protagonist, but it's a very good one, with an excellent score by "BT," and a fun selection of music under the consultation, apparently, of Journey's Steve Perry (who I guess could not resist the shameless self-promotion of the inclusion of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing," which followed INXS' "New Sensation"--to my great delight, which was only added to by the appearance of Tommy James and the Shondell's "Crimson and Clover").

The Man Who Wouldn't Die

Michael Shayne is allegedly the "quintessential private investigator"--or perhaps the alleged quintessential cliché of one. He was the star of several Lloyd Nolan B-roll pictures in the 1940s, which consistently did their job as secondary films in a feature.

Michael Shayne (Nolan) is still the smart-alecky Irish detective we know from his title role in the previous film, this time not appearing until a decent bit into the movie, when he is flagged down by Catherine Wolff (Marjorie Weaver, not reprising her role from the prior film). Mike is bemusedly wary of Catherine, considering her reputation, and asks if she is attempting to pick up or drop off a husband. Instead she reveals that she wishes him to come back to her home and investigate an attempt on her life from the night prior. The Wolff home will not allow police to enter because Dudley Wolff (Paul Harvey) is currently being investigated by the government and has little trust in any government agents as a result. His young wife Anna (Helene Reynolds) shares a seeming secret with him as they are both surprised Catherine is home in the first place, having attempted a mysterious burial the night before. Dudley suspects that it was this victim who is in fact responsible for the shooting attempt thanks to a clue left behind, but his reluctance to bring his dirty laundry into the open is what pushes Catherine to bring in Shayne, who masquerades as her off-on-work new husband, Roger Blake. When another late-night appearance leads to an actual murder, the police are finally called in in the form of Chief Jonathan Meek (Olin Howland, whose name rings suspiciously close to Walt Kelly's Howland Owl, but probably just coincidentally), a bumbling policeman if there ever was one, and coroner Tim Larson (Jeff Corey). A revelation of identity leaves Mike competing good-naturedly with the inept Chief Meek to discover who, or what--as Catherins suspects it's actually a ghost--is behind the murder.

Another strong entry of good entertainment, The Man Who Wouldn't Die is a fine successor to Shayne's name-bearing film, and puts a good stew of characters into a mystery adapted for Shayne's sensibilities. Once again Nolan puts in a nicely pitched performance as Shayne, sharp in reasoning, clever in conversation and never at a loss for a barb to strike at anyone handy. Weaver puts in a new role that is a variant from her last one, but this time comes out as the pampered daughter of Dudley and so ends up naïve and gullible, but more importantly sheltered. Dudley is an archetypal protective and cynical father, happy to poke fun at his daughter's husband chasing but more than willing to suspect any man who gives in to the chase of being after nothing more than his money. He's stuffy and suspicious and Harvey has this to a "T," with a nice honest change-up as appropriate when he re-evaluates his opinion of circumstances and the people in them. Howland, though, gets an extra nod as an excellently goofball policeman foil to Mike's smarter P.I. (though Mike is occasionally put through the paces of physical comedy all the same), always trying to appear as though he knows exactly what's going on but clearly clueless at any given moment. His physical response of insecurity to Nolan's sureness is perfect and gets quite a chuckle at all the right times.

While the idea of a truly supernatural Shayne mystery is inherently rather suspicious, director Herbert I. Leeds gives some good suggestion to the contrary, with creepily glowing eyes cut out in an otherwise dark space in the scenes where the mysterious gunman appears to take potshots at the bedded.

Good fun, and worth seeing for it.

Pat and Mike
Pat and Mike(1952)

It was by pure chance that I happened upon this one, merely acquiring it as part of a "buy one get one" type deal to decrease the cost of Robert Redford's Quiz Show, but trusting in Cukor and the reputations of Tracy and Hepburn, especially the two of them together, though Tracy was the only one I had never seen in a role before (that I can recall). It wasn't until later that my brain finally stumbled with a thundering thud over the obvious fact that I have a set of twins for an aunt and uncle on the maternal side, and they happen to be named Patricia and Michael--who go by, well, Pat and Mike. Even more surprising is that Pat (naturally also short for Patricia) in the film is sports-oriented--as is my aunt. Of course my mother put a bit of a damper on my enthused coincidence-ometer by noting that they were born in 1951--a year prior to the release of this film. Oh well.

Pat (Katharine Hepburn) is a physical education teacher at Pacific Technical College, engaged to Collier Weld (William Ching, who reminds me a bit of a smoother-faced Kevin McCarthy). She specializes in no sport in particular, with talent in most any, though we first see her at golf, where Collier is attempting to gain the financial support of the Bemingers (Loring Smith and Phyllis Povah) in building a new gymnasium.* He maintains that this rides partly on Pat's performance against Mrs. Beminger, which he reminds her of repeatedly. Mrs. Beminger offers advice to Pat as she repeatedly fails at the game, putting or driving--whatever the aspect, she can't seem to get it right. After taking too much of Mrs. Beminger's condescension, she sits her in a chair and drives five balls in a row without pause, perfectly, then leaves in a huff. Charles Barry (Jim Backus) tries to cheer her with nudging her toward professional playing, encouraging her to enter a tournament, which she eventually agrees to. After one day's play, she returns to her room, and there she finds two men have broken in and attempted to hide from her in her bathroom--Mike Conovan (Spencer Tracy) and Barney Grau (Sammy White). Mike offers to make them all plenty of money by setting up future rounds, but Pat is infuriated by this and ejects them. When Collier appears again and ruins her game yet again, she changes her mind and Mike draws up a contract, taking her under his wing. He tries to build Pat up and make her the number one female athlete in the world.

It was sort of interesting to see what was obviously a romantic comedy where the romance really didn't enter into things for 90% of the film. Also of note to me was the fact that Hepburn was 45 at the time of filming, an unusual age for a romantic role for a woman in Hollywood (though perhaps somewhat less rare then) and not even too far off in age from Tracy (who was about 52). Admittedly, they notoriously had an offscreen romance and this was their seventh film together, but it was still a pleasant surprise. This sort of advancement of, well, one woman anyway, continued a bit within the film, with Mike eventually noticing that Pat's skills were ruined only under the endless control and disapproval of Collier, suggesting that in fact the best relationship would be "five oh, five oh" rather than Collier's "75%" control. I wasn't expecting any of that and it was indeed nice to see, even if it was par for the course (argh, sorry!) when dealing with these two, and often with Hepburn in general.

George Cukor continued to bring out the best in Hepburn in his direction, with nice sharp sparring (often seemingly, probably intentionally, suggestive) between Tracy and Hepburn, and a nice dichotomy between Pat's sporty "tomboy" elite and Mike's gruff "palooka" style mannerisms. Around them can be found Aldo Ray as the punch-drunk Davie Hucko (who has an entertaining broken record conversation first with Barney and later with Pat), and a slew of then-sports stars (of whom I recognized approximately zero, to the surprise of no one). Tracy surprised me, I'd always expected a deeper, gruffer voice out of him, but he has an easygoing manner that was very pleasant and definitely made me want to see more of his work. Cukor, while on the subject of impressions, continued to impress me--I definitely want to see more with him at the helm.

The surprises of the film came in a few odd casting choices. Not odd as in bad so much as retrospectively surprising. The first was Sylvester "Spec" Cauley, who was played by George Mathews, who I stared at the whole time he appeared, waiting and waiting for my brain to connect that distinct voice and doughy look with some flittering memory. It finally struck me--he was in the New Jersey "PSA" type film, X Marks the Spot of all things, which I naturally knew from Mystery Science Theater 3000 rather than regular viewing. The next I didn't identify until I wandered around the web afterward--a fight between Mike and his "business partners" (hoodlums, of course!) is re-enacted by an excitable busboy at the police station--played by none other than Carl Switzer, who is most known for his role as a child which involved an artificial cowlick and the name "Alfalfa." But most surprising of all is someone I'll often shruggingly pick up a movie to see--the aforementioned "business partners" were Cauley, who I've already identified, and one Charles Buchinski, who made me respond involuntarily with an audible, "Charlie!" You may know Buchinski from after that all-too-common story where someone (be it himself, his agent, a random passerby or his goldfish) said "Buchinski" was not a good name for a star and he became, yes, Charles Bronson. And Pat kicks his ass, adding an extra layer of amusement.

*Gods, I've typed out both "physical education" and "gymnasium," someone help me!

Amityville: The Demon

And so I finish the box set that I debated and finally acquired for the purposes of getting the bonus disc it, alone, includes. I didn't pay much and I'm rather pleased with the final experience I got of all three films and the features, especially considering the rather worthless Amityville II. 3-D's gag was mostly the usage of "3-D" in theatres--an effect which failed to make it to the Region 1 release of the film, and so I cannot comment on the effectiveness of (though I will note that Leonard Maltin did speak well of it).

A couple goes to a seance in the infamous Ocean Ave. house in Amityville, NY to try to speak to the ghost of their lost child Ricky, but when John Baxter (Tony Roberts) and Melanie (Candy Clark) from Reveal magazine appear to check into the legitimacy of the endless claims of haunting in the Amityville house, the man who owns and rents it, Clifford Sanders (John Harkins), offers to sell it to the ever-skeptical Baxter, whose fascination with the hoaxes in the paranormal and parapsychological world has left him with not only friend Elliot West (Robert Joy) to accompany him on "busts," but also, now, with an infamously haunted house. Baxter maintains the house's effective innocence, refusing to believe anything inexplicable has happened there. He takes on the house because he is in the middle of a divorce from his wife Nancy (Tess Harper), leaving their daughter Susan (Lori Loughlin, yes, later on Full House) to gravitate between the two. Sanders dies mysteriously in the house, beginning to frighten Melanie, who also eventually finds herself in unexplained danger, continually failing to impress Baxter and his daughter, despite Nancy's attempt to forbid Susan entry into the house. Her friend Lisa (Meg Ryan--yes, really) is no help to this, though, getting a kick from the house and its legends, as do their male friends. As you might expect, the rest of the film is a fight between skepticism and the supernatural.

Anyone can take a look at my review of Amityville II and see how much I disliked that film, so I was prepared for anything with this film--quality, subtlety, clumsiness, skill, garbage--whatever. I can't say I was "pleasantly surprised" as I often am, but I was not overtly disappointed either. It sets up camp firmly on the line of mediocre. I was originally set to praise the fact that the film did not make its use of 3-D obvious enough for a viewer without that luxury to enjoy it, but then the inevitable bright red frisbee at the screen and straw wrapper occurred and my praise was lost on that front. Roberts is actually pretty good as the skeptical character of Baxter, drawing a rather obvious (though appreciable) line between what is and what isn't, why he does what he does and the level of hypocrisy inherent in it. Melanie is the skeptic with a comparably wide-open mind who begins to see the truth (not without cliché of course), and Nancy is the complete opposite of Baxter--she is absolutely willing to believe in the house's power or evil in it, without setting foot anywhere near it.

Effects are passable (much like Amityville II), neither distracting nor easily blended (an enjoyable kind, when dealing with physical effects, I feel), but are interestingly restrained. Usually by a third film, no restraint is shown and horror series fly off cliffs in attempts to top prior efforts with excessive gore, optical and other effects. This I will say was definitely a pleasant surprise, with a lot of the beginning of the film pretty tautly tied between the mystical and the possibility of legitimate explanation.

Still, the film ends up treading ground that is ultimately completely familiar, and brings little new to the table. It's competently made and decently acted (even the future Full House cast member!), well-enough written and well-paced, but nothing one particularly has actual need to see.

Amityville II: The Possession
½

I've only just seen the first film, and have seen no others--but read a book or two related. I got this in a set with the preceding and following films. It is loosely based on the DeFeo murders that "caused" the Amityville Horror, and started out in a fashion that very much pleased me--the sequel that remembers the original but does not attempt to copy it.

The Montelli family has just bought, oh yes, that damn house in Amityville, New York. Anthony Montelli (Burt Young) is father to the family, abusive for unknown reasons and demanding of a "Yes, sir," in response to anything he says, while his wife Dolores (Rutanya Alda) kowtows to his demands and tries (poorly) to protect their four children: Sonny (Jack Magner), Patricia (Diane Franklin) and the youngest, Jan (Erika Katz) and Mark (Brent Katz). Dysfunction abounds as they attempt to settle into their new home, as do peculiar events, most of which happen to Dolores; when Dolores enters the house, she turns on the faucet and out pours blood, which eventually clears to normal water. While setting up the basement, one of the movers comes in and discovers a false wall, and offers to go inside. In it is mud, sewage, cobwebs and flies, and "a whole lot of everything," as he puts it, leaving. Sonny, meanwhile, is first born and begins to try and find independence from his father, often snapping back when his father threatens him, and eventually threatening his father when his father takes to violence. This violence comes about from self-animated paintbrushes that paint the walls of the youngest children. After this peculiar night (which also involves knocking with no source for the knocks), Dolores calls Father Adamsky (James Olson) in to bless the house after Mass (I assume it's Mass, anyway--I suppose they might be Episcopalian or something), to which he agrees. When he comes in, Jan and Mark are very interested in the items he brings to bless the house, and Anthony is annoyed, taking a belt to the children when the priest's actions begin to cause anger in the evil spirits of the house--leaving a mess in the room only the children otherwise occupy. Adamsky leaves, angry at the abuse and refuses to bless the house, while Sonny becomes further enraged, and eventually possessed. Now Patricia is the only one who sees this and hopes to gain the help of Adamsky before it's too late for Sonny--and perhaps the rest of them.

I said this started out in a fashion that very much pleased me, but as soon as Rutanya opened her mouth, it turned into an enormous pile of crap. I can, of course, only guess at who was responsible for this travesty of a horror film, but my best estimate is that director Damiano Damiani is the culprit, with ample dues to writer Tommy Lee Wallace (though he did well with Halloween III: Season of the Witch, so I'm suspicious of that). The script is hideously awful and stilted, the mover who explores the false wall (nevermind the insanity of why he chooses to do this in the first place) with his incessant address of Dolores as "Lady," for more lines than any human would reasonably consider addressing anyone actually looks good next to Rutanya though, who seems to be the inspiration for the actors that were put together for Troll 2. Yet, I've seen other films with Rutanya and never found her so grating--like Rocky, The Deer Hunter, The Stuff and The Ref. Burt Young, who also appeared in Rocky (as Paulie, no less) is a perfect example of furthering this. Young, Olson, Magner and Franklin are the only ones who stand on even shaky ground (as opposed to none) when performing. They all seem to be aimless and unsure of what to do, but have enough talent ingrown that they can pass enough for the scene to continue. Alda, though, I found painful to watch--that is, I'd never understood what people meant, but I wanted to cover my eyes every time she opened her mouth or appeared onscreen. The four I mentioned as mildly successful at least knew how to move.

I don't know if Sam O'Steen, the editor (who performed a noticeably awful cut early on) can be blamed for bad take choices--but the man edited Chinatown (amongst others) so I find that difficult to believe. Once again, I suspect Damiani is behind the complete failure of this film. It seems that his focus (I'd imagine like many Italians, due to their style of filming--though I don't know if he was first gen, and will give him the credit I can without looking up his history and finding out he's not or something) is on image and visual, which is to the severe detriment of anything else. A number of scenes (such as Sonny's lone wandering of the house) are almost successful in their creepiness, but completely batshit crazy lines spill forth in wooden, unrealistic dialects--ones that, no, are not "dream-like" or anything, just BAD--suddenly and the effect is ruined completely. Sonny runs to the stairs and yells, "Is that you?" after complete silence for some time now. "Is that WHO?" I responded involuntarily. Nothing in the dialogue itself quite reached the heights of Adamsky stumbling upon a crime scene at the Montelli home: "It's okay, I was their priest." What?! This is an acceptable way to enter a CRIME SCENE?

Inexplicably some people refer to this film as having "good acting." I've been known to disagree with many a soul on this front, but I tend to think of it, I think, in different terms than other people, and listen more closely for certain types of nuance than a large group of the public at large does--not a greater skill on my part so much as a greater sensitivity to believable and correct emphasis on lines. Alda fails at this miserably, sounding as if she is a disinterested high school student reading aloud in class instead of acting at all. Others stumble over ridiculous dialogue as noted above and try to do something with it--leading me to believe that either Damiani had an iron grip on the script and avoidance of deviating from it, or no one had the balls to tell someone that the lines coming out of their mouths sounded as if they were extracted from a metered poem unaltered--artificial and unrealistic, but possibly successful in the right context.

This movie is very interesting visual spots married to abysmal, atrocious, abhorrent crap. Avoid it. It's not worth it.

Quiz Show
Quiz Show(1994)

I'm going to wear this out before long, but I think this is actually the last example (hopefully, before I've worn it out): when I was younger, it was rare for a movie that did not include aliens, monsters or anything not-human (or at least some futuristic technology) to interest me. Generally I rejected them outright, refusing to give them a chance, but often becoming bored even when I did. The movies that broke that rule for me hold a special place in my mind (or heart, for you saps). Quiz Show (as you might have guessed from context) is one such film. There was a strange "anachronistic/futuristic" tension with the bizarre booths that Twenty-One used, but clearly nothing that really fits with my tastes as described above really makes sense. It's a fascinating topic though, an otherwise unseen corruption and an easily seen tension growing from it. Injustice was always an easy way to sucker me in, and this was no exception--while the natural drama of a quiz show kept my interest in pacing terms.

Herbie Stempel (John Turturro) is a schmuck, a putz, who is winning endlessly on the television quiz show Twenty-One, but when his fame starts to creep into his brain and leads him to interrupt host Jack Barry (Christopher McDonald) to further push sponsor Geritol, it somewhat ironically offends the sponsor itself--through the company that owns it, Pharmaceuticals, Inc., and head Martin Rittenhome (Martin Scorsese). Rittenhome then uses an intermediary (Griffin Dunne) to suggest that NBC grand poobah Robert Kittner (Allan Rich) should find a replacement for the nerdy Stempel. Meanwhile, Stempel revels in his fame and fortune, feeling he will finally be financially free of the family of his wife Toby (Johann Carlo) and grinning at all of his beaming neighbors. The producers in charge of the show, Dan Enright (David Paymer) and Al Freedman (Hank Azaria), begin to search for a replacement for the show that we see literally everyone is watching. They stumble upon Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), son of writers Dorothy (Elizabeth Wilson) and Mark (Paul Scofield) Van Doren, trying out for Enright's other quiz show Tic-Tac-Dough. Charlie fits the bill easily--he's good-looking, smart and has a strong enough background (a masters in astrophysics and doctorate in literature!) to hold up to the very basic scrutiny of the public. Here Enright and Freedman take the opportunity to suggest feeding questions to him that he has already answered, leading to the enraged, now-booted champion Stempel pursuing legal action that gains the attention of Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow), a Harvard-educated lawyer (first in his class, as he's wont to note), who begins to pursue the show in an attempt to bring fiduciary regulation to the television industry and its sponsors.

Quiz Show most certainly lived up to the quality of my memories, if not the details of them. I was convinced of some things like the sneaky use of the ubiquitous headphones to pipe answers into the contestants' ears, when in truth they were simply fed to Van Doren in advance. I didn't recall the legal aspect of the scandal forming so much of the film, either, instead envisioning a film that was based purely around the show, with a sort of deafeningly serious tone that emphasized the television drama of the pressure the contestants felt, with the subtle dramatic irony of the piped-in answers over the headphones. I think this would still make an interesting movie, actually--but this one is something else entirely, and a very, very good film for that. It's probably more pleasing to be able to watch now knowing who Ralph is (and how to pronounce his strange "Rafe" name), and Turturro, for that matter. Heck, Dunne, Scorsese, little cameos by Calista Flockhart and Ethan Hawke, even Bill Fichtner and a somewhat meaty role for Barry Levinson, even Christopher McDonald, and definitely Paul Scofield.

Fiennes plays Van Doren as a sort of free-floating intellectual, doing as he pleases comfortably and at his own pace, always with an amiable smile and a quick wit, rarely an unkind word of anyone. When first faced with the moral quandary as proposed by Freedman and Enright, he rejects it out of hand, thinking it sounds dishonest, but when forcibly confronted with it under pressure, he caves and finds himself pleased by the monetary gain and eventually the fame that follows it--in a telling scene, he even manufactures an occasion to "stumble across" students who naturally mob him with questions and adoration. Some have suggested he seems to be trying to escape his father's shadow*, but I think nothing of the case is true. He wants his father's respect, certainly, but he doesn't fail to recognize that he has much of it already--he simply wants to prevent its removal. His father is occasionally a tad bit jealous, it seems, of Charlie's theft of the spotlight, but never enough to act out on it. Scofield's Mark Van Doren is as well-spoken and well-thought as his Sir Thomas More, quoting deftly and parrying flawlessly in all verbal exchanges, primarily with Fiennes and Morrow. A special nod for Fiennes fine (sorry) and slight Dutch accent.

Turturro reels out a very interesting character, volatile and apparently in complete opposition to the real Stempel, managing to careen back and forth between understandably sympathetic to obnoxiously repugnant. At first we glory with him in his victories and his feelings of independence, then feel grated by his vindictive pursuit of others, finally seeing that he isn't a stupid or uncaring man when he sees what results are wrought by his actions. He has a perfect mannerism to portray the character of Stempel that was created for the film: a big nerd with a sponge-like brain and no sense of style, appearance or social acceptability. He constantly refers to his uncapped teeth, asking many a character whether he should get them capped to make himself more presentable, failing to recognize that he has asked this person before, he's asking at an inappropriate time, and that the problem comes not from the cap's absence but his emphasis of the tooth, visually, in its absence.

All of the conspirators are brilliantly cast, with motormouth Marty as the coldly cynical money behind the fix who holds no end result higher than increased revenue, the always either slimy or wussy (or both!) Paymer as the slick producer Enright and the more gruff, plainspoken Freedman in Azaria to act as Enright's foil in discussions with prospective contestants or other sources of income. Rich has the warm eyes and falsely friendly expression of the man in power who recognizes the value of the appearance of warmth but also knows that he has enough power to drop it at will, the most confident of all the characters short of perhaps Marty's Rittenhome.

The most interesting aspect to me was the discussion of the morality of the shows. As always, I think I saw things in a scale of grey shifted slightly away from the direction of most people--or at least director Robert Redford's intentions in adapting the real-life Goodwin's writing. I saw Charles Van Doren as a man who fell into the idea of easy money and simple fame, who failed to think through the possible consequences of his actions, but did not fail in any truly meaningful way, while the repulsively destructive behaviour of Stempel offended me most, short of Goodwin's wife Sandra (Mira Sorvino), who says that Goodwin is "ten times the man" Charles is, insisting he take down Charles and reveal his deception to the world. Stempel is motivated by only his own greed, for the spotlight and for money, but backed by a past that has put him down consistently in the past. Enright and Freedman simply work the game as best they can, as do Rich and Rittenhome. Sandra (likely due to being the least-described by the film because of her small role) is the only one who seems utterly ridiculous--though no less realistic for it. I can appreciate Dick Goodwin's motivation to bring regulation to the financial abuse of television by deceiving the public, and the viewpoints of most others, even Enright and Freedman. But the real paradigm shift between myself and what I believe is intended is that I do not become outraged by the idea of a rigged quiz show. It seems to me that it matters rather little in the end whether they are real or false--the money is not being stolen from charities or routed into terrorism, and thus equates to acting, after a fashion. I do not feel there is an obligation for a program other than the news to portray only absolutely real events, nor that a game show of any kind has an obligation to tell me the truth about the skills of its contestants--it affects me little. But, this may simply fall down to the simple truth that I have little interest left in gameshows, and do watch them purely for the sport--just shy of what Rittenhome describes to Goodwin (claiming audiences watch the money). In the end I was more disgusted by those whose desire was to bring down and discredit Van Doren than anything else. Even if I didn't see a particular need to do it, I could stand behind Goodwin's crusade against television.

In the end, though--it's a film of excellent performances from excellent actors on an interesting topic that many of us have difficulty hiding our interest in--corruption. Marrying it to popcorn interest like gameshows was just a bonus.


*I feel this is as good a time as any to note that I'm just going to completely disregard the contrast between reality and fiction here, because I don't have similar elements to compare. Come back when someone makes a film of someone I know and we'll see what I think then. Purist that I am, I'll no doubt hate it.

There Will Be Blood

I've seen this movie twice now, once in the theatre (where I missed about two minutes at the beginning--which, plot wise, are easy to figure out, I discovered, and have no nuance on the front of situation to be missed) and once on DVD. I saw it each time with companion viewers, once coworkers and this time family (specifically my parents). The first group left seemingly annoyed or disgusted, lost on what they'd just seen, whether it was worth anything, why anyone applauded it and shocked when I made an offhand reference to Boogie Nights and Magnolia--not having realized this, too, was a Paul Thomas Anderson film. My parents both noted that it was not at all what they expected, for good or ill. I have maintained since viewing both that it easily should have beat out No Country for Old Men in the race to Best Picture, but realize I am in a probable minority in this.

Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a determined miner as the film opens, crawling down into a hole by himself to attempt to find silver. When a loose rung leads him crashing down to a broken leg, he hauls himself back out, holding the leg to the side, pulling up tools and bringing the one chunk of silver he found into town for its worth. His next attempt leads to the appearance of oil, beginning to drill upon finding some, leading him to a new obsession for financial gain. He begins to drill with companions, including a single father to an infant kept near the mine. When this man is killed in an accident, Plainview adopts the child, thereafter referring to him has H.W. (Dillon Freasier taking the bulk of the role from infant "actors" Harrison and Stockton Taylor) and beginning, years later, a business of drilling with the money he has gathered, giving long speeches to townsfolk in an area he suspects has oil to assuage any fears they have about his motivations (naturally, his motivations have every reason to engender suspicion in reality). He brings H.W. with him and uses him to note the status of his "family business," teaching H.W. the business along the way, until a boy appears named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) who informs Plainview of a plot he swears has oil in it. Plainview follows the lead and begins drilling near the Sunday ranch, a small group of people gathering around it, and around the Church of the Third Revelation, the congregation which forms around Eli Sunday, brother of Paul, who mistrusts Plainview from his appearance. The two men spend the rest of the film circling each other in motivation, aims, goals, desires and actions, each one-upping the other at every opportunity in their quest to defy the other, building our awareness of both men. Mishaps in drilling and the appearance of Henry (Kevin J. O'Connor), half-brother of Daniel, further round them out.

The first note to make, and the one my parents were understandably unfamiliar with is this: this film is a character study. It is an epic, but an epic about a man, not about generations, or a town, or a country, or really even two men. No role is important except as it broadens the definition of Daniel Plainview as a man, or otherwise enhances it. Day-Lewis is embedded in this role, as he always is, and as he is more and more prone to doing as years go on. Plainview is reminiscent of Gangs of New York's Bill the Butcher in terms of the psychotic gleam of their eyes lurking behind a sharp tongue curdled by softening dialect, but he is a very different man. It is only in private conversation with Henry that Plainview speaks most clearly--he says that his goal is to earn as much money as he can so that he can isolate himself from all humanity, because he hates all men, period. Many have gone on to mistake other motivations as the central one's to Plainview's world view, but nothing is more important than this fact. His capitalistic pursuit of finances, his undying persistence and his slick tongue all serve him in reaching this goal--and nothing else. He is a driven man, indeed, but driven not by wealth but the isolation that wealth can bring him. He lies because he knows everyone else does and loathes them for this especially, but rarely lets it be known.

It's strange the misapprehensions that appear around a performance as clear--and as clearly nuanced--as Day-Lewis' is. Some take him at his word even as they call him a liar, others ignore obvious signs and signals in a blanket reading of his actions, others take treatment of one man by Plainview as symbolic of his treatment of or regard for all men. His one honesty is his hatred for all men--beyond that many things are in doubt. Some believe that when Plainview claims he carried H.W. only as a cute face to bring him land and wealth, he's telling the truth. It is entirely possible that Plainview believes this of himself, and he certainly acts in some instances to show a greater regard for other things, but the truth is still not that hidden. He develops a true affection for H.W., though affection is difficult for a man like this. He most likely did choose to raise him in order to gain pity and sympathy in his quest for land and money, but when tragedy strikes, even his seeming indifference and preference for other matters are merely notes of his basic character, rather than a judgment of his feelings about H.W. He is not a naturally affectionate person, so it is not unusual for him to leave the side of those he cares for to deal with his primary goal. If, indeed, H.W. were nothing more than a token to gain money--why, then, does he continue to keep him around? He knows his way around people well enough that once in a position to do so, he can manipulate them to his needs if he so needs. When anyone makes reference to his abilities or mistakes as a father, however surrogate, he is enraged, clearly deeply beset by feelings he is fully aware of but has no desire to deal with.

This isn't to say Plainview is an especially good man--his willingness to betray and mistreat his fellow man puts a pretty clear stamp of denial on that interpretation (at least, one would hope, for most viewers). But when those around him are virtually silent, like H.B. Ailman (Barry Del Sherman), we can only see the man deliberately placed as foil to him--Eli Sunday. Eli Sunday is a self-proclaimed prophet, claiming forever that "the Lord" and "[his] church" are the only things he serves, all the while clearly attempting to muscle in to a sort of power. Greed is contrasted with greed, yet in a very unusual and surprising fashion: the man of "faith" is greedy simply for his own power, for recognition by his congregation (and eventually more), for perhaps the money that comes with it, but generally for everyone's adulation (hinted to be rooted in sibling rivalry, perhaps, or maybe to maintain, instead of reverse, a parental preference he experienced), while the man of "greed" is greedy to achieve a more spiritual goal--however negative it might be in a spiritual sense. Neither has agreeable or positive methods to achieve what they desire, but Plainview is, in some respects, more honest about his. While he's ever-willing to be gracious and grease wheels (or palms), he is not afraid to stand up and speak his mind to many, even if he occasionally delves into violent hyperbole or even threat in the process. Sunday, though, is the epitome of snake oil salesman--self-righteous and always acting, never allowing anyone behind his mask of pure intention, though Plainview sees through it without a second thought. Plainview is easily the smarter of the two for this--Eli seems to see himself and his methods in Plainview, expecting another man of such pure self-interest to be his opponent, missing out on Plainview's comparatively open manner that should just as easily have keyed him in as his own did for Plainview. And even beyond that--only Eli goes a step further: not only does he judge Plainview incorrectly (even if fairly), he makes his judgment known and obvious, while Plainview keeps his awareness of Eli to himself.

My final note must be on Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood, who made himself out to be quite a film composer, with a peculiar and unnerving set of music to accompany the beautiful visuals of the film--he sticks to period orchestral instruments, but plays them in unusual fashions. Pizzicato rears its head quite often, giving that creepy "spiders crawling in on our protagonist" feeling of many archetypal horror soundtracks, a feeling only compounded by a theme that resembles the strange *anti-crescendo"* of a descending pitch married to increasing volume that also harks back to horror film. These sounds most often come in with dialogue-free scenes, usually ones related to encroaching oil industry or the trickling in of greed that comes with it. It's a very nice way to emphasize the mentality of Upton Sinclair (whose Oil! forms an incredibly loose basis for the film) and his socialist abhorrence of the men who stood on the backs of honest workers, as well as simply highlighting the danger of a character like Plainview.

Because at this point it seems like wasted breath (finger movement?) I will just leave this simple note--once again, Roger Ebert proves he's not really paying attention and just didn't quite get it.

*I realize the term is inaccurate, but I only gathered so much in my experience of fancy "music-reading" type terms.

Idle Hands
Idle Hands(1999)

"These idle hands
They do the devil's work and
These idle hands
They do a whole lot worse..."

I've read some pretty lunatic reviews of this movie over time, like, "generic slasher" and "Scream is better" and I'm mystified. Maybe Ebert was actually right and there is a "Level One" viewer so intellectually incompetent they can't recognize comedy in horror when they see it--but, more likely, people just don't pay attention or make huge blanket statements with words whose definitions they don't understand. Certainly we know that many a comparison is made that is utterly illogical, even though the person making it swears it makes perfect sense. I'd seen this movie before, though, and knew it was a comedy because I remembered it as such--and when Fred Willard came into the credits, it was just guaranteed, no question. So, yes, it is a horror comedy, a genre I have a relative amount of familiarity with and tend to enjoy quite a bit.

Anton (Devon Sawa) is a slacker--a pothead who sits on the couch watching tv and smoking up all day. His mother (Connie Ray) still dotes on him, referring to him as "Scooter," while his father (Willard) notes that he would not "scoot his ass off the couch if the house were on fire." His friends Mick (Seth Green) and Pnub (Elden Henson) are not much better, being found by Anton--when he runs dry--hitting a bong and mocking his distant fantasies of Molly (Jessica Alba). Randy (Jack Noseworthy) is the local motorhead (no, not Motörhead) type, blaring Mötley Crüe's "Shout at the Devil" from his raised Ford truck endlessly, whilst being tattooed, in muscle shirts and other accoutrements to support his stereotype. The major non-high school character is Debi LeCure (Vivica A. Fox), who is the nun visiting a prison where a mass-murderer is imprisoned for reasons unknown. A mass-murderer is running through Anton's town though, and he is informed of this by Mick and Pnub, who list the victims--some parts showing up in Anton's home, where it is quickly learned that his right hand has a mind of its own--a murderous one.

Of course, it's a given that about half of the film is an extended form of the centrepiece Evil Dead 2 gag, and when zombified friends appear, it's hard not to think of An American Werewolf in London. It's a good mix of comedy and horror though, giving the deaths the right mix of violent kick for shock and horror and over-the-top insanity for the humour. The jokes actually fire quite well (Seth Green's response to the electric knife, for instance), mostly thanks to a solid cast in Sawa, Green and Henson. Green does the thing that has made him famous, though of course it was Buffy that most thoroughly broke him out, that sort of zany/sarcastic mix alongside self-deprecating confidence. Rodman Flender (no, really) directs quite well, nodding to many horror films without relying on said references and nods. Flender clearly loves the genre and does not rely on hack-y gags without understanding them. This is often ripe opportunity for misfired horror (and comedy), but here it all works perfectly for a very amusing experience. The soundtrack is built from time-specific music, mostly punk and industrial metal, which is very amusingly familiar to me, from 2wo's "I Am a Pig" (Rob Halford's between-Priest band), Rob Zombie's "Dragula" (often effective filmically), on to, at the end of the credits, Static-X's "Push It"--and of course, The Offspring actually appear at the school dance at the end of the film, for that matter, which I'm always a sucker for (see also: Newfits appearing in Romero's Bruiser). Possibly the most amusing note is the movie almost edges toward a message--then Seth Green shoots it in the foot.

Sawa is actually very good at making his possessed hand a different character from himself, and it's nice that as a pothead he's certainly a stereotype, but not a caricature. He doesn't have carefully created "pothead" clothing--thereby making it actually more authentic, as compared to all the ones I've known. Seth and Elden are also strong characters, not carefully created, but I'd imagine simply themselves--and it works very well for that. The only real weakness is (surprise!) Jessica Alba. She's mostly there to be purty and the mystic, adolescent fantasy girl for Anton, and works insofar as that I suppose, not really making much of an impression if you don't think she's absolutely smoking (she doesn't do much for me, which may make some think I lack a pulse, but I simply have unusual taste, and personality tends to play a strong role).

The last thing I've got to note is the outright chunks of horror films: both Dawn of the Dead and Night of the Living Dead make brief television appearances, the first in an amusing scene of the possessed hand attempting to force a viewing of hand-based images on Tv, against the wishes of Anton.

I sort of thought I might be disappointed when I watched this for the second time, but I wasn't--I still enjoyed myself thoroughly, got a few more references, songs and jokes and didn't see any drag or misfire anywhere in it. It's not an astounding lost masterpiece or anything, but it does play with conventions, not outright defying them nor sticking to them, but playing with them as befits the plot and jokes. In summary? Good fun.

Oh, and the lyrics are from "Idle Hands" by the Murder City Devils (RIP).

Peter Pan
Peter Pan(1953)

Like most people for--gosh, I don't know, the last few decades, maybe?--I grew up seeing many a Disney film. I saw an awful lot of them an awful lot of times. A number of those famous, over-sized clamshell VHS cases occupied my parents' home and made VHS shelving difficult. I loved most of them without regard, would watch most with a shrug, though I certainly had some I liked more than others. Some I've never actually seen, even from the early and mid-period decades, that seemingly everyone I knew as a child had seen. Of course I'm only talking about feature films--I've seen a smattering of shorts, but by no means a large percentage of them. I did constantly flip through the monstrous hardcover Disney book my father owns (I do believe it's still on a shelf somewhere there, hopefully the dustjacket not too mangled by my clumsy child's hands!) and watched a strange Halloween compilation (I'm still not sure if it was an early Disney channel broadcast, a VHS compilation or a network syndicated program for holiday special purposes--though I definitely know it was compiled and recognized some of the sources), but I divorced myself from the company in the mid 90s, especially upon the release of Hercules, which was infuriating to someone noted for being a bit of a purist like myself, who had a long history of association with Greco-Roman mythology. Still, that came more than forty years after this film, so I'm going to try not to get into that. Well. Not too far into it, anyway.

If anyone has never read my reviews, or never noticed the pattern to them--I tend to use my second paragraph to summarize in whatever fashion I choose, occasionally riding heavily on open scenes (especially if I value the integrity of the rest of the events as a mystery to viewers) and sometimes summarizing nearly the whole film. I'm not sure what to do here. Who doesn't know the essence of Peter Pan as a story? It might be confused or polluted, more true to Barrie's story or this one ingrained, but generally I think most anyone knows it. Still, I suppose it would be odd to leave it completely out, and rather assumptive because I know how easy it is to find that one person who has never been exposed to that thing you're sure everyone has. Wendy Moira Angela Darling (voiced by Kathryn Beaumont) is the eldest of the Darling children, with the younger being John (Paul Collins) and Michael (Tommy Luske). Their parents, Mary (Heather Angel) and George (Hans Conried) have conflicting viewpoints, our narrator (Tom Conway, who worked in three Val Lewton horror productions for RKO) tells us. Mary feels Peter Pan is the symbol of youth, while George, as he himself says, thinks it's "poppycock." When George becomes aggravated with their imaginations and free-roaming play, he dumps their canine nursemaid Nana outside and sends them to bed, threatening to remove Wendy from the nursery when he and Mary return from a trip out on the town. Peter Pan (voiced by Bobby Driscoll) appears, though, and offers to bring the Darling children to Neverland, much to the annoyance of the jealous Tinkerbell (who is voiced by, well, bells). In Neverland they adventure with the Lost Boys (Johnny McGovern, Robert Ellis, Jeffrey Silver and Tony Butala) in skirmishes with local Indians (the chief voiced by Candy Candido), mermaids and the villainous Captain Hook (also voiced by Hans Conried) and his pirates, especially righthand man Smee (Bill Thompson).

It's always half disappointing to watch old Disney films (oh, I'm going to break that effort I claimed I was going to make now, sorry!), as it's always a reminder of what the company used to produce, as compared to the dreck that oozes out of it these days--even if it does work out some quality pictures from time to time still. What was once a studio built around fantastically beautiful, iconic, engaging and creative animated films has become a soulless corporation so clearly interested in money over experimentation and expansion (despite, ironically, now having the money to do both more readily) that seeing something as beautifully rendered as Peter Pan is just saddening. What Disney pictures were was a way of adapting stories, usually children's stories, into more kid friendly (don't ask me!) forms, set to unknown chorale's angelic voices and carefully rendered cel animation. The grace and fluidity of the Disney animation studio's heyday seems unmatched even by itself--when watching the movement of many of the characters, especially the more relaxed or feminine ones, there's just a stunning flow to each motion that computer-based animation (and I don't just mean CGI, but cel-imitating computer animation) just can't match.

In the space of short running times, Walt Disney's studio always produced movies that seem both action-packed and full-featured to children, while managing to go no further than their (typically) limited attention spans. The adaptations were rarely completely (if at all) faithful, but usually at least struck closer (with sexual overtones or violence toned down or removed) than ones like Hercules (sorry, I really hated that movie). They were not so intent on laying messages out at the feet of children, but managed to consistently convey the ones intended by the original stories, however subtly.

I've got to say that this film holds up well for me as an adult, never outreaching its grasp, and often exceeding my expectations--even having seen it numerous times as a child, with clever shots and animations (many involving Tinkerbell). It's also fun to hear Hans Conried's voice, distinctive as it is (as is Bill Thompson's actually--and I never before noticed the floating Cockney accent before), as my memory was tickled into a chuckle over realizing Conried was also the voice of that dastardly villain Snidely Whiplash.

I've also got to say I'm proud of myself for not ranting too heavily on Disney as it currently exists. Please do watch these old classics though--they are indeed classics and very entertaining, well-produced films, despite the endless merchandising and recycling they're all beaten through, whether they fit or not, by the modern incarnation of that production company.

The Amityville Horror

I read Jay Anson's book about 12 years or so ago, followed by his similarly themed book 666, and had a stack (all of them given to me) of the other "Amityville" books. I don't think I ever got around to reading any of the rest of them.I also never got around to watching the famous film based on it, not even when it came to a remake in 2005. I almost did, once, then changed my mind just as the film was starting and did something else instead. Later, I purchased it, then realized there was a bonus disc in the box set and returned it, then finally got the box set for a decent price. Now, I've seen it.

George (James Brolin) and Kathy Lutz (Margot Kidder) have moved into 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, NY with Kathy's three children Amy (Natasha Ryan), Matt (Meeno Peluce) and Greg (K.C. Martel). They are aware of the house's history, the sextuple-homicide of the De Feo family by Ronald De Feo, Jr., but decide the price is too good to pass up and move in anyway. Father Delaney (Rod Steiger) comes to bless the house but is confronted by an aggressive voice, an inexplicable swarm of flies and a sudden feeling of illness. Father Bolen (Don Stroud) respects Delaney and supports him, but is not far off from the skeptical condemnation of Fathers Nuncio (John Larch) and Ryan (Murray Hamilton). Delaney suffers burns from attempted phone calls to warn the Lutzes, most of these calls ruined by static, while the unknowing family continues to attempt life in the house. Babysitter Jackie (Amy Wright) finds herself trapped in a closet while the Lutzes attend a wedding, Amy befriends the invisible "Jodie," and George loses sleep and, slowly, his mind.

In my life, it used to be very easy for films to scare me. As a child, I'd have nightmares at the barest hint of horrific events. Later I'd find myself with the irresistible urge to turn off movies when watching them by myself, spooked by the proximity of woods (and the non-proximity of other homes) where I grew up, the endless darkness and long trip up to my bed--as well as a darkened hallway very near the television--fertile ground for an overactive imagination and scalp-prickling nichtophobia. I failed to finish many movies in those days, until I finally learned to steel myself for expected jumps, startles, and creeps. Now it's very, very difficult for a film to get under my skin. I have to relax my now natural reflexes, open my mind a bit and balance it with the recognition that I've never really enjoyed looking out a darkened window in the silence and feeling mortal fear (and thus not open myself up too much). Even so, it's not easy because so many movies operate purely on startles and jumps. A Stir of Echoes prodded my natural concerns about the supernatural some years ago, but after that it was not until I saw The Changeling that that kind of fear ever snuck back into my mind. The Amityville Horror managed to get as much under my skin as any film really can anymore (though not so much as The Changeling, which hit that prickling scalp feeling of mortal, body-freezing terror and shot of adrenaline for just a moment).

What I think works so well about this movie is the way it treats its supernatural. It is not too overt, nor especially obvious about it. It does not make a fuss over any of it, or rub the viewer's face in it. The unreal things are portrayed with the same straight face as the normal ones, and this approach, which really isn't a juxtaposition in some sense (being as they are a natural flow from event to event as far as the film is concerned, the separation between "supernatural" and "natural" being so vague as to not exist) can make them pretty intensely creepy. I thankfully knew of none of them wandering into the movie, and I won't be the source for the opposite being true of anyone else--so if you want to know, see it or go ruin it for yourself, I'm not doing it. But this style overall was fascinating. It was all very static and calm, even when characters screamed or yelled or ranted or raved at each other, when George got progressively more crazy looking, when Father Delaney began to fight back against his perceived enemy. It also allows for a strange set of characters, somewhat out of keeping with the usual cardboard cutout stylings of many lazily written or formed horror films. It's not a deep psychological drama, of course, but it doesn't feel the need to run screaming from that idea either. Kathy is not simply a whimpering victim (though no one is all that strong in the face of this house), and George is not simply a brawny hero or pseudo-villain. George wanders further and further into the realms of a raging abuser, bringing himself closer and closer in resemblance to De Feo than his already similar physical appearance. Amy has a disturbing interest in the unknown Jodie, not being fooled into thinking this being is a benevolent friend, but not being an "evil child" either, just one that doesn't have the judgment to wonder about her new friend, nor the attention or belief from parents to discourage her.

It amuses me to no end when people insist they've noticed monstrous overacting in a movie, as most of the time they mistake volume for overacting. Steiger's performance is certainly intense, and often loud, but he performs with a magnetic sort of intensity, utterly convincing and as a character with strong convictions. Delaney is terrified by the house, but attempts to hold his faith up against it. His shouting match with his superiors from the Church is probably the most emotional event in the film, and it's a very interesting one, that manages to avoid the lazy writing that is so often used in these films. Delaney simply reaffirms his insistent belief that what he saw was not right or good, but without the ham fisted sort of "obviously he's right!" mentality in the film, the performance or the way Stuart Rosenberg filmed the scene. Brolin is the most hilarious example of overacting claims, with an excellent physical performance marred only by an underacted verbal and auditory one. Until he begins to lose his mind, Brolin is certainly audible, but often so drawn into himself and shrunken (in space rather than volume) in voice that he is inscrutable. How anyone could call this overacting is beyond me--though likely these claims intend to relate only to his eventual manic performance as the seemingly possessed George, where he yells and strikes, with haggard, sleepless face and widened eyes. It's a contrast though--from quiet and withdrawn to loud and assertive beyond reason. Kidder, too, does not overact, turning in a good performance of a woman who sees the man she's trying to share a life with begin to twist into a strange form, mentally.

The one qualm I have with the film is the one that so many films like this have--religion comes into it. It's a bit frustrating when one doesn't share the beliefs being espoused as the cause or reason for the events in a film to take them seriously--it becomes a major disconnect to try and relate to ideas one does not have reciprocal belief in, and can throw one completely out of a scene. Of course, as someone with some bits of knowledge, especially as relates to the "devil" and "Satanist" side of things, I'm even more separated, knowing an upside-down cross is not a blasphemy, because it's a sign of Saint Peter. Discussion of witches run out of Salem makes me think not of the horror of real-life witches, but of the real-life horror of that ancient history of Salem, of innocents tortured, murdered and even just assassinated in character over nonsense. This furthers my firm belief that explaining things like this often ruins them. Explanations can work and resolve things (often the case with strict ghost stories) and even then work on repeated viewing--but inevitably the creepiness and fear will be eliminated. Here the film itself trips up, kicking those things around before it has even finished the first time by trying to make silly connections. All I can say, though, is let them roll on and go past--the ride actually is worth it, because Rosenberg's direction makes this film quite serious, treating us to languorous cross fades and fade-ins, a slow or static eye that enhances the creepiness, rather than detracting as the modern fast cuts tend to do.

Casino Royale

I could be sneaky and let you get halfway through the review before revealing this, but let's get it out of the way first thing instead: I've never seen another James Bond movie all the way through paying attention. I was dragged to Tomorrow Never Dies ten years ago, but had no investment in it and just vaguely recall a large "stealth boat" and a shootout on it. Or something. The same people drug me into numerous Goldeneye gameplay sessions, and I once tried to watch Never Say Never Again and got very bored and stopped. So, if this shocks and outrages you...most likely you should stop reading this now. If this surprises you, well, read on for a different viewpoint as I imagine your experience must be different. And for those of you who have not seen even this one--read on for an opinion from a similar position.

James Bond (Daniel Craig, though I think almost no one doesn't know that's the case for this film) is an agent for MI6, the British Intelligence agency also known as SIS (Secret Intelligence Service) who shows up in the office of corrupt section chief Dryden, who sneers, knowing Bond cannot have the "double-0" status required for assassination until he has two kills. A quick flashback for the viewer and a sudden realization (though subtly played by Malcolm Sinclair) by Dryden establishes the death of his assistant Fisher (Daud Shah) as the first and the obvious one upcoming as the second. Thus, Bond's 00 status (and so codename 007) are established, and he then takes a mission pursuing a bomb-maker named Mollaka (Sébastein Foucan) in Madagascar. When the agent assisting Bond makes their presence too obvious, Mollaka bolts and Bond chases him down (mostly using the sport/activity/thing called parkour, a sort of stepchild of which is free running, which Foucan founded) to an embassy, where a lose-lose situation leads him to shooting far more people than is necessary. He does gain Mollaka's cellphone and finds an SMS from Alex Dmitrios (Simon Abkarian), but M (Dame Judi Dench) is highly critical of Bond's lethal methodology--or at least its visibility on camera. Still, Bond's lead from the phone takes them to Dmitrios, who enjoys poker a bit too much for his own good. Bond takes advantage of this, winning his Aston Martin and seducing his wife (he claims his type is "married"). Dmitrios, though, is an associate of Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) who orchestrates terrorist attacks to vary the value of stocks. When he attempts to take out the prototype Skyfleet plane to render their stock worthless, Bond catches on and defuses the situation. From here, Bond is set up with Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) from the treasury as "the money" and René Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini, who seems to have a habit of playing law enforcement officials) as contact and ally in Montenegro, where Le Chiffre is holding a poker game with very high stakes. Soon double crosses, the appearance of a CIA agent with similar aims (Felix Leiter, played by Jeffrey Wright), a poisoning, and a surprise declaration of love and subsequent resignation all follow.

So, I guess the thing everyone's wondering is--did I like it? Yes, actually. I did. Quite a bit, in fact. I felt like this Bond was an actual secret agent--slicked by presence in film, but not to that cartoon strip level. When this Bond kills someone, you are very aware that it was a death, and not that sort of, "Yeah, he got a bad guy!" feeling older films have (and I get the impression the old Bond films did, though I don't know). It's tougher, it's more violent and Bond himself gets scratches and bruises. Craig's body is muscled but not heavily toned, showing a greater emphasis on the utility of exercise than the asthetics. His pride and arrogance is a sharp twinkle in his eyes, not the easy, smiling charm of a Sean Connery. It's not, admittedly, "suave," but it's effective all the same, and perhaps a more believable draw. I find these things, at least in this context, very engaging. The plot rockets along from lead to lead as Bond follows them, visibly using resources and mental processing to track them, always aware of what's going on to a reasonable degree--never a feeling that he should have known better, unless it's the kind of feeling we all get in retrospect.

Martin Campbell put together a very good film here, one that I think many have noted is a far cry from old Bonds, but many who actually have seen the others called the best, or one of the best. I certainly can't make any accurate statements to this effect, but I was more interested in a character that doesn't often wander around in suits and tuxedos with slicked back hair, and in one who has a clear history of SAS experience and the like, one I can accept has had the kind of training and experience that would make him good as a secret agent. I'm by no means claiming I have the "right" stance on this (certainly, the earlier films didn't aim to portray this kind of character and fail, they tried to portray a different kind of character), but rather that this is the kinda that's interesting to me. I'm often a little saddened or annoyed by the glossing of modern film, but this one managed a nice balance of its grit with the cleanness of it. The relationship between Vesper and Bond is acceptable, though it plays on that endless trope of immediate conflict that turns into romance, because there's chemistry between them and because you can see where the mutual respect comes from between them. Le Chiffre is a solid villain as he is arrogant and self-interested, but also lethal enough to back up his threats and his reputation.

I don't know whether my divergence will remain with the films upcoming (though I've already seen Quantum of Solace and quite liked it, and will see it again soon then actually review it, gasp, despite it still being a new release), but I think I'll have even greater difficulty watching the older films now--I never could see Connery as a slick secret agent for some reason, or at least never found it interesting, and never really saw Moore, Brosnan, Lazenby or Dalton as interesting either. It's sort of the stereotype that sets me away from action films rather than pulling me into them--though I actually have no immediate aversion to them. I'm just more interested in that steely glare mixed with a stylish taste and walled off emotions than the cartoonish omni-suited gadget-man. It's, in my mind, sort of the difference between the sort of "loose" feeling of movies like Dirty Harry (as exemplified in my mind by the blood on Scorpio), that sort of feel of trying new things and not always having enough control over them, but at the same time throwing off boundaries left and right (hollow volcanoes? really?) and the contrasting feel of more modern action films like Collateral, a feeling I tend to be more interested in, though I usually find the former entertaining anyway.

Oh, and an excellent title sequence does not let down a great history of them (I do know that much!), and the theme was inspiringly, heart-poundingly brilliant, despite only appearing at the end, and when he said his name, finally, in that immortal line, Craig made it more Bond's words than a ubiquitous catchphrase, quite an achievement, in my mind, when dealing with a line that ingrained in the public conscious. I like Craig's Bond, and, from my admittedly strange viewpoint, I feel that it's the best Bond, but more in the sense of treating the character in a realistic way than in a comparative one. It engages me and makes me want to see more--which clearly the other films never did for me.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II - The Secret of the Ooze
½

I'm not sure if there's really a point to reviewing this, but I reviewed both Care Bears movies, so I have no business using that as a determinant for whether I review something. Still, this film is pretty mired in its time, considering the appearance of Rob Van Winkle. But, here I go anyway.

After the infiltration of their sewer home in the prior film, Raphael (now played by Kenn Troum, newly voiced by Laurie Faso), Leonardo (now played by Mark Caso, but still voiced by Brian Tochi), Donatello (still Leif Tilden, but now voiced by Adam Carl instead of Corey Feldman--dammit!), and Michaelangelo [sic] (the only turtle to maintain actor and voice--Michelan Sisti and Robbie Rist respectively) are hiding out in the apartment of newsreporter April O'Neil (now played by Paige Turco) with Master Splinter (still voiced by Kevin Clash--who also voices, yes, Elmo), while the Foot attempts to re-assemble itself under the still-uncontrolled rage of Tatsu (the returning Toshishiro Obata), using the young Freddy (Mark Doerr) to spy on April. The first fight, though, is between pizza delivery boy Keno (Ernie Reyes, Jr.) and some thugs robbing a mall, only to be assisted by our four green heroes when he shruggingly looks for help, finding himself outnumbered. A recollection of past foe the Shredder's fate in un-ninja-like manner receives an admonishment from Splinter and a cut from the editor--we see a struggling hand moving up from a garbage dump--clearly that of the Shredder (now played by François Chau, so his face is never seen, but David McCharen still voices him), who re-appears at the Foot's new headquarters (a neater dump?), where Freddy's espionage leads him to the mutagen that created the turtles in the first place. Seeing this, he abducts professor Jordan Perry (the great David Warner) to create Tokka (Kurt Bryant) and Rahzar (Mark Ginther)*, a snapping turtle and wolf, mutated in a similar fashion to combat the turtles.

Oh, my. Really, I have no idea how to review this. It's one I can see doesn't have the best of defenses to anyone who is not already interested (most of whom would have seen it). There's often a child-like over-emphasis (even for suit acting) when the turtles move (excessive hand motions in particular), Vanilla Ice (oh right, I called him by his real name of Rob Van Winkle earlier, didn't I?) performing, gulp, "Ninja Rap," and cast changes galore from the first film--and I hate cast changes. I definitely remember when I was younger being miffed that April looked wrong (Judith Hoag played her in the first film) and that some of the voices changed (though I was less distracted than I was by the change that occurred in Donatello's voice in the original cartoon). I also was disappointed that Archie Comics character Slash, also a snapping turtle, was replaced with this Tokka character who was not nearly so cool to a seven-year-old (for those keeping score, yes, you can now figure out my exact age if you didn't know it). Some of the dialogue is clearly written in such a way as to make sense to children and some of the plotting is a little bit ridiculous for anyone with a sense of continuity (say, for those who remember EXACTLY what happened to the Shredder at the end of the first film) and the sense of humour, too, might be a little insulting.

It's at this point that I come to the crux of the matter. Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird started the characters as a sort of joke in the early 80s, and they've gone through many contradictory incarnations. It's one thing to try and assemble a correct continuity of most DC or Marvel character continuities (trying to nail down whether Wolverine is a clumsy but powerful berserker or a lithe, trained ninja, for instance, and then whether he's got a lethal sense of honour or is simply a raging killer...), which has led DC, at least, to attempt massive crossovers for retcons (how many now?) but it's literally impossible to reconcile the different versions of the turtles out there. From the original comic alone, after Eastman and Laird started farming out the writing, multiple incarnations appeared. The 1987 cartoons differ from the series that followed them just slightly in tone and attitude, the Archie Comics that were based on those eventually found their own tone (more serious and adventurous, artistically, than the cartoon, which gradually got dumber and dumber and more and more like the turtles were made of shiny balloons in design), the ridiculous Image series (example: Donatello is hideously injured and becomes a cyborg. Really.), the return of Laird to writing the original series in Volume 4, the first film, the second film, the fourth film, the new cartoon (which I think probably strikes the best balance, at least in proportion to longevity), the live action series and so on. The 1987 cartoon series is what most of us are familiar with (I know I watched them endlessly, owning many on VHS), and it's the most kid-friendly of all versions. In it, much is simplified. The first film brought us a lot closer to the comic origins, albeit without mention of Oroku Nagi (no, that isn't ignorance or a typo on my part--look it up, or, better yet, read Eastman and Laird's first issue), and I remember even as a child it made more sense to me.

Secret of the Ooze, though, leaves behind some chunk of the dark tone (in contrast to many film trilogies, some increasingly inaccurately titled like Adams' Hitchhiker books) the first film brought to many of us who were younger fans, in favour of a group of four goof-off members of the group. Raphael's hotheadedness (straight from the comics, used in the first film, revived in the new cartoon) is toned down to something more like simple rebellion, sort of suggesting the film's writer (Todd W. Langen) wanted to emphasize their age without being overly familiar with any teenagers anymore. Leonardo no longer had the serious sense of honour and instead was mocked as the "teacher's pet" by the film itself (usually a role for Raphael).** It's a little disappointing in retrospect--especially because it laid the ground for the third film, which was beyond ridiculous (though I admit I never saw it as a kid, but even then was not terribly interested in it). It's one thing to have one element of comedy relief (Michelangelo, whose name was corrected when Eastman and Laird found out they spelled it wrong), but to make all four into comedians and then to choreograph fights as something that tends more toward joke use of props than anything resembling martial arts is a sort of blow to the credibility of the heroes (much like the Saturday morning restrictions placed on the original cartoon which eventually left them with weapons that served no purpose but decoration--I'd say they were to tell them apart, but the animators could never get a handle on that themselves) and turned it more into a "family movie" comedy fest than a well-made comic adaptation--something we're continually reminded, even in the modern glut, is in relatively short supply.

For all this, though, this film is a part of my childhood (though I never saw it in the theaters, I distinctly recall picking up the adaptation while grocery shopping and drooling over the images of it, reading the plot over and over) and I can't speak too ill of it--even with the presence of Vanilla Ice and the totally nonsensical mutation of Shredder's costume. I love the movie anyway, and think it was the last good one (two out of three ain't bad, as Meat Loaf might sing) to come from the live action run. But that may be a lot of nostalgia--even if it is though, the movie is not one I revisit and feel uncomfortable with. It's still very entertaining and well-directed and shot, it just starts to falter when set up next to the prior film and other incarnations of the turtles--but as I say, trying to reconcile all of those is impossible. They are an institution, not a specific group of characters (like trying to fit Electric Company Spider-Man into regular 616 continuity!)***


*Oh and both are voiced by some guy called Frank Welker. You juuuust might know his name if you're into animation, considering the list of his credits reaches the number 575 for acting alone.
**This furthered my long-running distaste for Leonardo, who I associated with the stoic, hard-ass version of Scott "Cyclops" Summers. I hated them both. The new cartoon has changed my opinion of Leonardo, at least--haven't read anything with Cyclops in a while.
***Whoops, my geekery just went supernova.

Hellraiser
Hellraiser(1987)

It's dangerous for me to review this film. Not dangerous in the sense that the world will end, or that the internet might collapse, or even that I will catch a cold. It's dangerous in terms of bias. Hellraiser is very important to me as films go, and that's not a surprise--Clive Barker is my favourite author, bar none. I've had a puzzlebox (now out of production, but originally made by the same company that produced many of the horror icon vinyl models sadly no longer advertised on the rear covers of Fangoria) for at least 11 years. I've seen this movie and a number of its sequels many times. I think, though I'm not sure, that I actually saw Hellraiser: Bloodline in theatres. I got into Clive's writing by way of hearing (or, more likely, reading, in one of the many books on horror I used to read constantly) that the film with that creepy guy with pins in his head was based on a story by Barker. A perusal of the local library using only my own internal resources and the computer and print ones I found there, I got myself to The Books of Blood, which I was convinced would include Hellraiser. It didn't. It didn't even include "The Forbidden," the short story that inspired Candyman (unless you're from the UK--over there, that story appeared in one of the latter volumes of Books of Blood, one which was re-titled In the Flesh for US publication). That didn't stop me though.* I leapt from story to story, shorter stories to longer ones, taking in images I'd not seen in the works of Stephen King, who was the author I read most constantly prior. I devoured the entire book (though I was later convinced I had missed some stories, I realized I was mistaken) and moved on to novels, eventually onto his art and even the first computer game he made (I've been put off an instant acquisition of the second by virtue of middling-to-dismal reviews). I have a set of NECA's cenobites, complete with 'lair' in my bedroom right now (the original four, of course). So, bear all this in mind in my review.

A man sits alone in a room with a golden-filigreed black-lacquered box, puzzling its surface for openings. When he finds them, hooked black chains shoot from the opening to find purchase in his flesh. A cut away and return brings us back to the room, now filled with spinning columns of hooks and chains, dangling links and unidentifiable scraps of red. A strange figure in black leather with pins at the intersections of a grid carved across his head assembles some of them into a shape--finally placing an eye to complete the man's face. Larry Cotton (Andrew Robinson) and his wife Julia (Clare Higgins) have just moved back into an old home of Larry's after an alluded unpleasant time in Brooklyn. The building is filled with decay, rot, filth and trash--a discarded piece of meat crawls with cockroaches and maggots, a soiled, dirty mattress is covered in rancid sheets and pillows, all left by Larry's brother Frank (Sean Chapman), Larry suggests, when a sexually explicit figurine is found in the bedding. As Larry helps movers bring their possessions into the home, especially an unwieldy mattress, Julia sneaks up to the room with the less clean mattress, digging through the chest of items next to it to find a stack of erotic pictures, all of Frank and an unnamed woman. Julia reminisces about the sexually violent and passionate affair she had with Frank--the man we saw first in the film--on top of her wedding dress as Larry finds himself injured. His own deathly fear of blood leads him to try to find Julia, dripping blood as he goes, which pools to the floor then is seemingly sucked away, as we find that under the floor a heart is beginning to beat without chest or body to hold it, until liquids begin to give just such things shape. When Julia again wanders into this room, this unfinished man identifies himself--it is Frank, again. Julia's lust for him draws her in to eventual acquiescence to his request for more blood to finish his body, unbeknownst to Larry, who is busy with his daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), who is visiting and attempting to reconcile her distaste for stepmother Julia--a reconciliation she abandons when she realizes the danger Julia is creating, and what forces are at work in their lives now.

I've seen this movie a fair number of times--I owned it on VHS, and am reviewing it now after my second purchase of it on DVD**--and I've developed strong enough opinions about it that I pretend there was no Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (I've only seen Bloodline and Hellseeker following that), I have the aforementioned collector's errata and once brought my puzzle box to school for a sort of "show and tell" (which did not involve opening a gateway for the Cenobites, if you're wondering--though I do know the motions required to do so, after seeing the movie enough). I once wrote a letter admonishing the suggestion that the lead Cenobite (or Pinhead, as we all know him) was--well, here it is (still wandering the internet):

"How dare you lump Pinhead in with Freddy, Jason and Michael Myers! It?s acceptable insofar as he has become more recognizable, like those three, than the movies.He has never ?stalked? anyone, and no teenagers have been involved. Frank and Julia were quite adults (30+ surely) and Kirsty was at least 22, surely. In the first four movies, (I?d like to skip 3, a stain on the series, that should be burned) there is one teenager, who is neither stalked nor killed by Pinhead (aka ?Lead Cenobite?). For shame! Hellraiser gets a horrid reputation for being another ?slasher? series, when it involves neither promiscuous teenagers nor machetes, axes, chainsaws, nailguns, pitchforks, etc. The original was a much more complex work about the nature of pain and pleasure, and the relativity of these concepts, as well as just very like a Grimm fairy tale."

Not the most articulate or respectful thing I've ever written, but indicative of my interest in the series (and the long-running way of discussing them I have, in some regards) and my feelings about it. The facts of what I said remain true, as does the sense behind the admonishment. It is not a slasher, despite the fact that Pinhead (who I must mention is played by longtime friend of Barker, Doug Bradley--long enough, that is, that he often refers to him as "Dougie") is, indeed, an icon on the level of Freddy, Jason or Michael. The names alone should clarify things a bit--though, of course, the fact that that nickname stuck has not helped, as it isn't exactly intimidating (though thankfully the history behind it has at least given it some gravitas to those "in the know"). What Pinhead, and the other Cenobites (all simply named, from "Female" played by Grace Kirby to the rotund "Butterball" played by Simon Bamford and on to the constantly moving jaw of "Chatterer" played by Nicholas Vince) are has nothing to do with killing, or with subtexts about penetration. This is not subtle or a fine line if one actually compares any of these films, even without a single knock against those slashers (being as I own bits of each of those series as well, though I'm usually even more selective with them), because it's obvious that there are only a handful of characters in this film and that they are a family, albeit a dysfunctional one. The conflict comes not from randy teens ignoring danger to get it on, but from a marriage that shows its cracks to everyone but the people in it, both of whom recognize a problem, yet clearly cannot see how massive that problem is as Larry tries to do everything right and be a nice guy and Julia tries to maintain her semblance of stability, neither really recognizing the needs of the other but being aware they aren't being met.

This time around I watched the film with someone who had been exposed to very little horror (my girlfriend, if you're wondering, and yes I'm putting a stop to that inexperience) and tried to relax my usually uptight nerves (a lifetime of startle moments tends to leave one so tensed it winds up back at loose, because the shock itself is expected even when nothing indicates it) and found myself fully realizing the tonality of the film, especially as fulfilled by Christopher Young's absolutely masterful score. It is an unusual film, in the same sense that I feel Alien is. There's a general sort of familiarity to the ideas of demons and murder and mutilation, of danger and death, but portrayed in a way that is not seen in any other films--not even sequels. Of course, it's very likely that if they had renewed this feeling in sequels, it would become just as normal as anything else. Instead, we have these first films, in this case one that has strangely sidelined forces, with the antagonist a supernaturally revived but otherwise human character (Frank), and the Cenobites simply a force, making them more fully mysterious and unsettling, their single-minded intensity and strange sets of rules all the more frightening for their existence and, yes, so much more fully alien.

What Clive created in this film was one that eschewed genre conventions of plotting--just as he does in his writing--to simply create a story from his imagination, potent images and ideas and sounds that build the world he wants to show, without any major concessions made to expectation or tradition. What's interesting about his use of gore or sex (both plentiful, though the latter primarily in suggestion) is that it is intended to shock, certainly, but it's not written by a gleeful splatterhound (though I would not be surprised to find Clive does derive that kind of enjoyment), but rather by a mind that simply ignores boundaries such as this in an attempt to explore all possibilities in plotting and imagery. If violence is called for, he lets it fall into place, he does not jump beyond it to focus on it, creating threadbare plots to support the gore, or explicit descriptions and images woven into a clichéd plot. Everything acts at the same intensity, be it drama or grue, and it then becomes a world that is so fantastically unreal, yet accepts the reality of things like sex and violence, never acting to play down these things, but never reaching for them either. It's fascinating, especially when coupled with otherwise unseen ideas and concepts like that of the force that is the Cenobites, mutilated people acting utterly inhuman for an unknown reason, simply a new thing at work on the world without the emotionality of human motivation. Clive always brings these things together--a sense of the Grand Guignol coupled with a disinterest in forcing its hand as such tied to ideas that are not easily sourced, all intensely creative but melded perfectly into an acceptably believable environment.

This is the horror flagship of the 80s, even if it is not necessarily the best horror film of that decade. Clive is too humble to ever pretend he is completely without inspiration, but the inspirations are not so obvious as in many other films, and for this I love this film--and, I suppose, all the work of Mr. Barker.

Oh, right. This is also yet another in the running list of films Ebert proves his idiocy in reviewing. He gave the film an abysmal score and suggested it was effectively "torture porn" before such a term existed, suggesting those of us interested in it are sick. Please, learn to do something else with your writing talent, Ebert. Your opinions so often reek of your own pretentious ignorance and inattention that it's embarrassing to read.

To end on a positive note: I'd really like to find out how Coil's soundtrack would have been used (I imagine it was never synced, but with technology now...!) Just to see, of course, because Young's is so excellent, but it remains an interesting idea. I've heard the stuff and it would be a pretty big change, so I'm just curious.

*Just for those who don't yet know, though it's far easier to research now, The Hellbound Heart is the novella behind this film.
**The only negative thing I simply have to say is the "Still Raising Hell" tagline at the bottom of the cover of this new Anchor Bay DVD is tasteless, stupid and inappropriate.

The Day the Earth Stood Still
½

I spent a lot of my youth in the library exploring books about old science fiction (and later, horror) films, and so many titles resonate with me that are attached to films I may or may not have ever gotten around to seeing. Some I pursued relentlessly (like the George Pal-produced, 1953 The War of the Worlds) and others I let wander past me completely for years (like Forbidden Planet, which I have since seen). Plenty I used to catch on television, especially when the Sci-Fi Channel used to play older material instead of incessant modern syndication, only occasionally good--though usually excellent when it is--original programming and lots of lame original movies. A lot of these titles are ingrained, but over the years they've faded a bit--except the ones I intently pursued, or happened to catch and really notice. I eventually saw The Day the Earth Stood Still in a small theatre, long after I originally saw it on television.

In 1951, a large rotating, glowing saucer-shaped spaceship lands in Washington, D.C. to the amazement--and often fear--of many citizens of both the area and the world as a whole. When it finally opens, out walks a man-shape with an unusual head encased in a helmet (Michael Rennie), leading tensed military forces stationed outside the ship to cling tighter to their firearms. When the being raises a handheld object and flicks open a frill of spikes on it, one soldier moves to stop the obvious violence to follow with a pre-emptive bullet to the device and then the alien. In response, out wanders an eight foot robot of smooth, shiny silver, causing a stampede of exiting on-lookers, no longer curious enough to hang around for slaughter and death. A shield raises from the eyes of the robot and it emits a beam which destroys rifles and tanks ahead of them. The alien quickly tells the robot, Gort (played by Lock Martin), to stop, leading the soldiers to more willingly approach him, where he informs them the destroyed device was for the President, intended to allow the study of extraterrestrial life. Cut to a hospital and the alien, now clearly no different, physically, from humans is able to inform those around him of his name--Klaatu. An ambassadorial visit prevents Klaatu from informing anyone of his reasons for being there--he has no interest in the petty squabblings of man, and wishes to speak only to the heads of every single nation of the Earth. When this is refused, he easily escapes from the hospital the military wishes to keep him locked up in and attempts to discover why man is like he is, taking refuge in the communal home that Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son Bobby (Billy Gray). It is the young Bobby who leads Klaatu around the city, the two alternately educating each other, with Bobby revealing the idea of the smartest man around at Klaatu's request--Dr. Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe). Now the spread of fear races against Klaatu's as yet only hinted true mission, with the military intent on stopping him, eventually at all costs, and Klaatu continuing to pursue a world-wide audience.

Many science fiction writers felt free, especially in the earliest decades of the genre's upfront existence, to express opinions that it would be otherwise difficult to openly express when they wrote stories of aliens, robots, or simply the future. Analogy, symbolism and outright allegory were, and often still are, incredibly common tools of the science fiction trade. The Day the Earth Stood Still aims for one absolutely obvious message--an endorsement of worldwide peace and abandonment of international conflict. It also draws clear lines between Klaatu and Jesus, apparently made clearer by the upstairs meddling of a censor who was offended and instead of subtleness made it a clobbering punch of the obvious. This is always an amusing background to hear of--Isaac Asimov's disinclination to write aliens in his work came from the meddling of John W. Campbell, Jr., who insisted that humans always be victorious, in a sort of strange, misguided racism manifested as "species-ism." At least here, screenwriter Edmund H. North's original intentions were, however unintentionally, honoured--though, as I say, made more transparent than he intended. Robert Wise aims for a very realistic approach to the film, removing much of the operatic drama that science fiction tended toward in its early big-studio film life, with few low-and-twisted angle shots of women screaming (though, admittedly, there is still a "lone woman screaming" scene). It points toward paranoia and itchy trigger fingers, as well as pre-emptive attacks (ahem) instead of evil humans or, as was often expected, evil aliens.

The idea of the unexpected twist on the motivations of extraterrestrials has been beaten pretty far into the ground, but it seems every ad-man or producer thinks he has come up with the brilliant idea of inverting expectations in either direction. Generally, there is some credence to this in that there's usually a spate of one or the other and they do at least fly in the face of the current trend (I vaguely recall movies pointing out that they were certainly not E.T. for instance), but The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the best examples. The exiting form of Klaatu, and especially Gort, is definitely one of menace, though Wise wisely (sorry) avoids imbuing it with extra menace to let it stand on its own terms, and the reaction of the soldiers then does not seem completely out of line--especially considering the clear technological superiority of the alien he's facing. However it's just this mentality that Wise and North then push our faces into--showing that Klaatu has pure motives for his appearance, and loathes conflict or violence. Of course this whole idea was most amusingly poked at in Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! (the original Topps trading card series it was based on not looking to have the back and forth of theorized "mistaken gestures"), but this film does it in the most serious way, and is one of those brilliant films about the Cold War that is a plain entertaining science fiction film, a solid story as science fiction goes with authors of it (Clarke rated it higher than 2001, which he himself scripted!), and a very good and not too overt discussion of the Cold War mentality.

Do yourself a favour and see this one before the Keanu Reeves remake--that one may yet turn out all right (though I have doubts as always), but this one stands proudly on its own as a classic.

Big
Big(1988)

As a child, there was a handful of films that were consistently played and replayed by friends, television and any sort of daycare, some predating our lives, some current, some only a few years behind, but always with the same sort of feel to them--generally speaking, the same feel that has stuck with me to this day as my preferred one, at least in its barest form. Big was definitely one of those films, becoming rather iconic in the minds of most people around my age, especially for scenes like the now famous (enough to be one of the central images on the rear cover of the DVD) floor-keyboard one.

Josh Baskin (David Moscow) is a 12 year old American kid, nothing above or beyond the average (especially as films of the era go), beginning the film with a slow puzzling over a floppy game (and I mean 5.25" not 3.5"--the floppy disk that was actually floppy) that bears a strong resemblance to text adventures of the time (though with a lovely 8-bit rendering of the "ice wizard" and his cave). As one would almost be guaranteed by any movie aimed at what would later be termed "tweens," there is the rapid introduction of a girl who holds the as yet unfocused eyes of Mr. Baskin (as in, he's not 100% sure what to do with a girlfriend yet, were he to have one), one Cynthia Benson (Kimberlee M. Davis), whose availability is explored by Josh's best friend Billy (Jared Rushton--who was later in another film that I've seen a billion times simply because it was there: Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, though we always referred to it without the pause of a comma) in a scene that bears some familiarity to those who've gone through such things. When the inevitable crush of the guy who can drive (alas! curse these restrictive laws!) and beats Josh to the punch occurs, the extra slap is a carnival ride he's too short to get on. In a frustrated funk, he wanders to the rather evil looking Zoltar machine which "grants wishes," and after using the "violence method" to get it running, wishes he were "big." As those of us who watched this and many others learned, you've got to be a little more specific than that--and so Josh wakes up the next morning and staring out of the mirror is no longer a 12 year old but the man whose face was about to become world famous--Tom Hanks. Now Josh is left to discover much of what the adult world is actually like, from solitude to jobs to love, crossing paths with toy mogul "Big Mac" MacMillan (Robert Loggia), the benevolent head of MacMillan toys, his 80s-business-weasel executive Paul (John Heard), inevitable love interest Susan (Elizabeth Perkins), all the while still working with the help of Billy to find out how to return to his 12 year old form, so that his mother (Mercedes Ruehl) will hug him instead of screaming and calling the police when he walks in his front door.

I've spent the last few years discussing film more in the company of those who like films that require subtitles and directors like Kurosawa, Fuller, Truffaut, Bertolucci, even Scorsese to approach a middle ground, and so I've listened to a lot of verbal assault on directors like Steven Spielberg as well as, yes, Penny Marshall. However, because I grew up on such schmaltz, I have absolutely no problem with it. I don't relegate it to "it's okay for me to watch because I'm nostalgic"--though I do recognize that that's certainly a factor in my appreciation--and instead take it for what it is and what it aims to be. Thankfully, I feel it has given me a somewhat more well-rounded approach to film that I deny things out of hand neither for subtitles nor their absence, taking a film that does not emphasize or even embrace reality for its intentions rather than its failure to do something it never wanted to do. This doesn't make a film automatically acceptable, of course, but it does mean it has more options to appeal to me. Big has only lost the magic of being a perfectly appropriate fantasy for me as a viewer--a fantasy in the sense of wished-for alternate reality, that is. A movie like Blank Check that followed later managed to entertain me pretty well at the time of its release, but would probably not hold the same interest now (though I imagine I would still be entertained enough). But beyond that fact, being that I'm simply not an 8-12 year old anymore, nothing has been lost. Anne Spielberg (oh, right, Steven is sort of relevant since his sister wrote this!) put together a script that worked on a gimmick but managed to go beyond the gimmick and pull a little truth from it, but without clobbering us over the head (think hit over the head with a "Nerf" bat, perhaps), and Penny Marshall does her thing to create a film that is simply cohesive from end to end, with all the leaks pretty effectively stopped up and all that cohesion easily maintaining audience interest.

Hanks' performance, coupled with Marshall's direction and Spielberg's script managed to be readily accessible to my younger mind, with a job, apartment and taste that felt utterly familiar. When people who are now my age look at it now, they often say things like Hanks acts younger than 12 or 13, or that this or that idea (such as the proposal he and Susan come up with for MacMillan Toys) does not "work," or is not "real." This is pretty absurd, and the kind of nitpicking that simply doesn't matter. If it doesn't gel for you, that's a different issue, of course, but trying to examine how faithfully it represents the 12 year old experience to someone long past it is missing the point entirely, missing the point of being a kid, at that. By and large, most kids are analyzing things like this to see if they wish that was them on the screen doing those things--by most accounts of the young, it succeeds pretty thoroughly at that, and retroactive analysis of specific details simply doesn't matter. If it connects for someone of the age it's referring to, then it has succeeded at drawing that connection. The elaborated youth of Hanks' performance is not over-the-top, but it's exaggerated enough to prove to the viewer that he is younger than he looks. Overlaying the modern sensibility of full-fledged "realism" to that kind of performance would require him to stay young for a lot longer before anything interesting enough to show would actually happen. This exaggeration is especially important to younger people who are trying to identify with a character who is supposed to be their age but doesn't look it. I may be stretching my credibility with that claim, but since it seems to make perfect sense to kids and less to adults, I think it works--and so does the film, very well in fact, as it manages to both bring kids into a fantasy many of them have and many can easily accept in a film and then subverts it just slightly with a plot that can ring somewhat with adults and poke the necessary holes in that fantasy for the kids who are in for it.

The Descent
The Descent(2006)

I've seen Dog Soldiers and, oddly enough, Doomsday, but only just saw The Descent (wait, what's with all the D's, Neil?--and your upcoming one is a D too? Weird...). I shrugged it off originally (surrounded as it was by things like The Cave, plus the fact that it received wide release in American theatres as a horror film--these days usually not a sign of definitive worthlessness, but usually not a sign of something overly creative) until someone I trusted recommended it, then built up steam as it was pointed out to me that it was the work of Neil Marshall, who created Dog Soldiers, one of that scarce handful of good werewolf movies around, with werewolves the source for my own screenname in various places (including here). I bought it last Halloween but only recently got around to it, wandering from disc to disc, each failing to play until I gave up and traded out the DVD player itself. Then, finally, I saw it.

Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) and her friends Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Beth (Alex Reid), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) and Sam (MyAnna Buring) are thrill-seekers, who we first meet whitewater rafting, traversing a short set of falls before leaving at what is clearly the end of the trip, helped out of the water by Sarah's husband Paul (Oliver Milburn) and daughter Jessica (Molly Kayll), as the group then begins to the drive home. A moment's distraction ends in tragedy, leaving Sarah alone, naturally distressing her and her friends. A year later Juno has been tasked with doing something for Sarah to bring her out of the inevitable depression of her loss, their friends and Juno's "protegé" Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) going along for the ride--this time a spelunking expedition in the Appalachians, with Juno abandoning the "tourist trap" caving system for one she has found herself. When an unexpected cave in leaves them trapped, they find themselves struggling to find a way out of a previously unexplored caving system--one they soon learn is already occupied.

The strongest association I drew with this film was actually to a similarly "throwback" plotted horror film from two years prior--Wrong Turn. What fascinated me about that film built some of my fascination with this one. Both are playing with essential plots (being picked off by less-than-human things), but manage to twist them in somewhat subtle and unusual ways, taking the modern sensibility of film-making and placing it in the horror context. Artifice used to be built into most films, coming from a stage mentality that had a similar approach--"heightened reality." More recent films have pushed against this, with independent and arthouse films more interested in portraying people realistically have led to a disinterest in that artificial form of acting and a greater emphasis on the "real"--or at least the acceptably "realistic." The Descent works on this same approach, abandoning the 80s mentality (and often 90s and even 00s) of characterization in horror in favour of characters who are strong and work not exactly on the "If I were there..." fan comments, but on a line somewhere between that and the often incomprehensible (to an audience aware there's a psychotic killer or flesh-eating monster) stupidity that previously existed in horror. They are not infallible (thus ruining the connection to the endless self-aggrandizing of the jackasses who proclaim that, "If I were there, I'd be using my knowledge of physics to bank the machete off the wall and decapitate two or three..."), but they are not endlessly fallible either. If this film had been made 20 years earlier, the characters would likely know nothing about caving, with a single expert along who did (and would, in all probability, die so as to leave them in a more desperate situation because of their combined ignorance of the necessary survival skills for their current predicament) and all be infighting constantly in such a way as to walk out of the sense of claustrophobic danger and into a sideplot that seems to hijack a scene so two characters can fight about their soap opera issues. Here the "soap opera issues" (which have been criticized, usually by the same souls who imagine themselves as perfect, focused, killing machine badasses) are intermittent, never distracting from the plot and natural extensions of existing character frustration.

One of the handier elements of this new mentality is a greater interest in having characters in the "actual people" sense populating a film over the empathy based so purely in manipulative, unrealistic events (which often failed anyway--causing the preference for, as Rob Zombie put it, Leatherface over, say, Franklin--though Hooper's work was not so focused on manipulation and is an exception). Sarah does not constantly talk about her loss, though clearly it is always on her mind (as such a thing would be), and it is not discussed endlessly between everyone else. What boils up is only Juno's disappearance after the accident, the arrogance and gloryhounding she clearly exhibits and the fact that these things are relevant to their predicament--it is because of the former they are on the trip, and because of the latter that they are in such danger, with the former being brought into stronger by relief by the re-purposing of an event to help Sarah into a "fortune and glory" hunt for Juno. But the interesting thing is that Juno herself is not clearly drawn--not in the sense of a failure on Neil Marshall's writing or direction, nor on Mendoza's performance. She's drawn grey intentionally, her motivation not so clear as "what her friends accuse her of is expositional revelation"--it's simply their accusation, and it's just as definitive as any accusation is. Only evidence can prove it true or false, and there is certainly negative evidence against Juno, but there is an element of overly accusatory behaviour around her. Some of the negative things she does are simply interpreted as worse than they are, or less acceptable than they are, considering the situation at hand.

I cannot sit by and review this film, though, without noting the bizarre and stupid edit made to the American version (which, thankfully, I did not see). The original ending was seen as, allegedly, "too dark" for American audiences (the original ending, which I saw, occurring in the UK cut without hesitation). This is a load of bollocks (if you'll pardon my bemused and pseudo-ironic slang-switch) and is exactly the kind of mentality that I think spawns nonsensical acts like the dumbing down of Ringu into a club-you-over-the-head-obvious "metaphor" in The Ring. This idea that American audiences can't "handle" things is ridiculous. If it were anything but a horror film, yes, there would definitely be a percentage of the population that felt that way, but this is a horror film. Horror fans are used to darkness (American horror has not shied away from it, why should an imported film have to?), even in endings. This change was unnecessary and stupid. The original ending is perfect and brings Neil full circle to what makes his films so interesting. He played with werewolves, then inhuman beasts and finally with Mad Max. He brings a much more horrifying reality to all of these existing concepts--the gore in all three films is a lot more shocking than gore has any right to be in horror films at this point in time, and is usually carried off like it is an actual injury to a character rather than a way to showcase brilliant effects work. The reality of many of his characters is what helps in this, and what helps to shape his films into something like a subtle re-working of existing tropes--but not one that pretentiously aims to do so. Instead, to continue with my own feeling--it's like Wrong Turn, realistic characters with stronger-than-usual senses of self-preservation and awareness in stressful situations deal as best they can with a monstrous and inhuman threat, and it creates more visceral, more thrilling and more disturbing experiences, something that, for now at least, continues to be fresh for me, and quite entertaining and interesting as a result.

My final note for this review has to be the interesting way Neil assembled the idea of the film--there's a sort of shrugging quality to the landscape and nature shots. Whenever the characters are walking or driving through it, or when the woods are shown without anyone visible in them--it's strangely alien, cold and dark, with an emphasis on the brutal disinterest in nature, the callous disregard for human life, yet the recognition that there's no reason to specially value it, contrasted with the sobbing, ecstatic joy of a threatened life escaping from that callousness that shows in the broad, emotional responses of humans. It was another good sized chunk of what I really like about Neil's work so far--it perfectly enhances that disturbing inevitability of death, the inevitability of violent death, especially, in the situations his characters find themselves in that pushes the viewing experience so firmly into territory that is so rarely explored in horror--or at least modern horror, and especially wide-theatrical releases.

Terror Firmer
½

I grew up on some Troma films, notably the original "classics" in the eyes of Troma fans (The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke 'Em High), as well as the sequels to both. I loved them all (even the maligned sequels) but did not see any other Troma films in the years following (not even Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. or Tromeo and Juliet). A year or two or three after Terror Firmer as originally released, my best friend and I began going through Troma films as yet unseen by us, which included Troma's War (I believe--I think we didn't see most of it), Tromeo and Terror Firmer. I now knew that a sensibility that formerly lacked any sense of the politically correct or socially acceptable, that previously saw no reason to shy away from T&A or gore now had even less taste and an even greater hunger to amuse through offense.

Jennifer (Alyce LaTourelle, who apparently originally loathed the film but has come around in retrospect) is a new PA on the set of Troma's latest movie about Toxie, caught between the earnest geeky desires of Jerry (Trent Haaga, in his first film role) and the stereotypical "Cool Guy Who's Too Much a Snake and a Jerk for Us to Like" Casey (Will Keenan, most known by then as Tromeo). Of course a love triangle is nothing to Lloyd Kaufman (joined this time in writing by Patrick Cassidy and Douglas Buck), so the natural addition, as seen in the opening scene (which involves an amputation that leads to a limb employed in a beatdown--the two events naturally connected--and a scene that most anyone with aspirations to taste would find offensive), is a psychotic killer woman of mysterious origins. As Jennifer bounces between Jerry and Casey, Larry Benjamin (Kaufman himself) directs the film blind (which is to say, the character of Benjamin is blind) with the help of a truly bizarre cast and crew, including scream queen Debbie Rochon as Christine, the busty star of the film-within-a-film, and her crazed boyfriend DJ (Mario Diaz, who bears a kind of resemblance to Crazy Harry the muppet) who flies into a jealous rage whenever he finds Christine sleeping with someone else (which happens a lot). Jerry does effects for the film, while The Toddster (Gary Hrbek) does sound (including his own "theme"), and loads more fill the sets occasionally in revolving positions, often directed around by Andy (Mo Fischer) when Larry is not ranting or threatening to blow his brains out over the crew's disobedience.

This film involves penises, vulvas, abuse, rape, abortion, feces, murder, drugs and...quality independent film? Regardless of that little nugget of peculiarity, if the first set of concepts offends you, you probably shouldn't bother watching Troma movies. They carry these things out with a gleeful madness every time, never worrying about who will be offended because they are simply aiming for lack of restraint (and almost definitely offense). Even if you have a mentality that the above things are not laughing matters (and at least a couple of them are not), Lloyd always uses that aforementioned glee to make it clear that this is not actually about those things and it's just a nudge at the people who refuse to allow for such possibilities in film. It's the kind of thing that you can walk in and love or not. This doesn't make it a clear line of "love it or hate it" (I think no such thing exists), but there's certainly a clear line to start with of those who can watch it and those who cannot. It's easy to look at Tromeo and Juliet and Terror Firmer to see that the mentality of Troma's film-making had changed yet again after the twist it took with the sequels to their original classic films. Originally they were wild exploitation flicks with a strange sense of humour, then made a move that worked much like the changes wrought in the Evil Dead series--though in a sort of reverse order. The late 80s and early 90s Troma sequels bore more resemblance to the comedy-centric stylings of Army of Darkness than the comedy-horror mix of Evil Dead 2. A lot of the darkness disappeared, but then in the mid and late 90s with films like Terror Firmer, a semblance of darkness was returned without losing the madcap sense of humour, creating an even more unique stew than