Thursday, March 30, 2006

Le Samourai


Dir: Jean-Pierre Melville (Bob le Flambeur)

Out of the saddle for a bit doing my job, and this one has been waiting to get blogged.

Melville surpasses his already very good Bob le Flambuer with this noir about a hitman on the run. It has everything you would want in such a movie; tension, a well crafted mystery, cat and mouse between the cops and the hoods (and the hoods among themselves), hard boiled dialogue and fast characters. What this film adds is a reflection on the "code" of the hitman, the stoic resignation to fate and duty that the legendary fighters of the movie's title famously held. Just that little twist, hardly noticeable on the surface of the movie yet always informing the decisions of the characters, makes this film very unique and quite special.

Alain Delon plays Jeff Costello with such minimalism and reserve that he seems almost emotionless throughout the film. Under the lights of the cops, in the presence of a beautiful woman, double crossed and shot, for Delon the coolness of this worldy hitman overcomes all problems. It would not be at all inappropriate to call it "Zen like," as that sort of reservation is exactly the point for Melville. Costello's nemesis is a Superintendant played by Francois Perier who is the opposite. Highly talkative, expressive, he tells us his fears and joys. Costello lives in the shadows, hardly noticeable, as the film's breathtaking opening shot expresses perfectly. He has to live that way, he is a hitman, like Eastwood's "Stranger" in High Plains Drifter. He does his job and moves on. Delon and Perier together make a powerful tandem.

The cultural clash here is fun to watch. American, French, and Japanese elements and allusions pervade the film, and the result is highly entertaining and surprising genre film. Melville's ability to walk that line between homage and parody is rare, and in this case highly rewarding.


Snakes on a Plane FAQ

Before we get back to the reviews (or, more specifically, you get back to the reviews and I get back to talking about cartoon animals0, more SOAP-based hilarity:
Q: No seriously, what is this movie about?
A: Snakes on a plane. What was Robocop about? A Robotic cop. Same principle. Stay with the group.

Q: I thought this movie was called Flight 121! What’s the deal?
A: It’s true; the movie was in jeopardy of being called Flight 121. Can you fucking believe that? What does Flight 121 have to do with snakes, no-nonsense black guys, or possible reptile dick-bites? Good move on the change-back, Hollywood. I’ve always trusted your taste and vision.


Friday, March 24, 2006

SOAP Fan Suggestions

Many of you have heard that SOAP has reopened filming in order to push the movie into R territory and incorporate some fan feedback. So of course someone set up a social networking site to get people to suggest and vote on quotes that should be incorporated. Motherfucker, I CHECKED the "NO MOTHERFUCKIN' SNAKES" box when I BOUGHT these mothefuckin' TICKETS to be on this MOTHEFUCKIN' PLANE WITH ALL THE MOTHERFUCKIN' SNAKES ON IT!



Director: John Madden

This movie would have been better if the real John Madden had directed it--there at least would have been good color commentary.

Let me make the not-so bold claim that the only genre of movie worse than "submarine" is "math". Darren Aronofsky's Pi and Madden's Proof are about all I need to point for support. Apparently, though, math makes for great television.

The premise of the movie: Robert (played by Anthony Hopkins, reprising his role as the slightly eccentric but brilliant old guy that he has been thoroughly typecast perfecting in vehicles like The World's Fastest Indian, Alexander, The Human Stain, etc.) is a mathematician who has been dealing with mental instability. His daughter, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, takes care of him. He dies. An old student, played by a pre-Brokeback Jake Gyllenhaal, goes through his old notebooks, ends up making the beast with two backs with Gwyneth (who, in a real sign of restraint for her does not bare her breasts for the camera), finds a brilliant mathematical proof in the desk of the dead man, finds out that the daughter he just boned claims to have written it, is skeptical of said claim, pisses the daughter off only to (surprise?) come around to believe that she did write it. The end of the movie has the two of them sitting together, going through each line of the proof. There's a bunch of other garbage involving a totally unconvincing older sister that attempts to address the difficulties of family relations blah blah blah.

Casting decisions here were terrible. Memo: Gwyneth Paltrow no longer has the ability to play mopey 24 year olds. Not that she's an untalented's just it credible for a mid-30's-ish mother to play this kind of role? Perhaps John Madden was so enthralled with her performance in Sylvia that she thought she could really get her mope on in this film. And Jake Gyllenhaal is not smart enough in real-life to play someone smart on screen. Still, I wish I could quit him.

This is a movie that not even math dorks could love (though I imagine all kinds of dork fluids have been spilt by the mere thought of mathematicians that look like Gyllenhaal and Paltrow.)

Two textual references to support this point:

The emotional climax of the film: Robert / Hopkins barks to Catherine / Paltrow, "When are you going to do some mathematics with me?"

The key plot twist point: Hal / Gyllenhaal says to Catherine / Paltrow, "Your father couldn't have written this utilizes concepts developed in the 80's and 90's like communicative geometry...hence, you must have written it." By the way, I think that communicative geometry is the next hot thing in Communication generally. Perhaps we should apply to form an NCA Division for it.

There's also some poetry involving math, which is the one sweet part of the film.

The film's tagline: "The biggest risk in life is not taking one." Amendment: the biggest risk in life is watching the steaming piles of dung that inevitably result when trying to make math dramatic.

I recommend Yor, Hunter from the Future, instead.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

I Am Cuba


Dir: Mikhail Kalatozov (The Cranes are Flying)

Set in post-revolutionary Cuba, this joint Soviet-Cuban production is propaganda at its most beautiful, visionary and poetic. The early utopian sensibilies of the Castro regime are masterfully translated into this film, more ballet than anything else. Dialogue is sparse, the stories archetypal; but the music, and oh that camera, transmit the story so with such an artisitc sense that the viewer is swept along in the grandeur of the thing.

It takes about five minutes into this movie to recognize that you are in the presence of greatness. The opening shot, without edits and done with one camera, pans throughout decadent Havana, full of casinos and bathing beatuies. When the camera actually goes into the swimming pool, we know something different is afoot. Such long, slow shots are found throughout the film. But even in close quarters the camera is always busy, tilting from side to side and in and out in a steady disorienting motion that adds both freneticism and consistency to the film, like being on a boat bobbing steadily but strongly on the ocean currents. I have read that a long team of stage hands were placed along where the shot is to be, and the bulky camera was handed off one by one, falling slowly down hills and improbably scaling walls. The constant movement, the completely unique perspectives afforded by that movement, and the reliance on pantomime to tell the stories are all brilliant.

The narrative itself is also very interesting as an artifact of the height of communistic influence and optimism. The film highlights the plight of the Cuban people before the revolution through a series of vignettes, such as a sugar cane sharecropper kicked off the land (My God how beautifully that one is shot!), a young woman prostituting herself to American businessmen, and a student resistance movement brutalized by Batista's army. The implication of the film is that Castro will go on to create a worker's paradise; of course, the exact opposite was the truth. But it is difficult to deny the desirability of a change from the previous regime; poverty and exploitation are this film's targets and as such difficult to argue against.

If one can overlook the political consequences of the Castro regime, then there is nothing objectionable in the movie itself. And the execution is so damn good, I would be willing to overlook much in order to recommend this movie. It is truly unique and beautiful. An exquisite example of what the medium of film can accomplish.

I consider it essential.


Thursday, March 16, 2006

On Golden Pond


Dir: Mark Rydell (The Cowboys; The Rose; For The Boys; Intersection)

Here is one that had slipped through the cracks for me. Never having seen it, I knew the film had Hepburn and two Fondas and was hailed as very sensitive. There are lots of things to like about this movie. But I must admit to being disappointed in it. It has not aged all that well.

When it came out, this must have been a big deal. Katherine Hepburn and Henry Fonda both earn Oscars as an aging couple, she seemingly in her prime and he decrepit and infuriating. To have them on the screen together must have been something for those people who did not know they were still alive. Jane playing the daughter to her real life father, a famously rocky relationship, must have added some sensationalism to it as well. Of course, all of those elements no longer have the presentist juice that they did in 1981. This is not water cooler/tabloid fodder anymore, and the movie must stand on its own.

The story is very sappy, and I rarely say that. I have a high tolerance for schmaltz, but On Golden Pond spreads it thick all over the place. The love story is so interesting itself that it does not need the manipulation the script brings to it. Why would Hepburn love this man who is so difficult for the rest of the world to deal with? The film avoids probing the reasons behind the love and instead offers grand proclamations, "You are my night in shining armor." But why? I had to side with daughter Jane (and a really fine and tragically underrated Dabney Coleman as her fiance, best scene in the film) on this one.

The young child who lives with the the elderly couple for the summer is not enough of an actor to pull off that role. Much of the movie revolves around his coming of age and his effect on Fonda. Doug McKeon did play Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini in a TV movie opposire Robert Blake once. That is the sort of talent he brings to On Golden Pond.

But I am being too harsh. The cinematography is just wonderful, the Pond itself is the real star of the show. The premise of the story, as I mentioned before, is rare and important. Hepburn and Fonda have their moments (how could they not, they are both geniuses), especially the final scenes. But the movie suffers in my mind frpm failed aspirations.

What could have been a brilliant film is only a good one. It is sweet and touching, but not much more.


Wednesday, March 15, 2006

A Face in the Crowd

I am a little behind in my blogging. Almost caught up now from my recent trip.

Yes, I did watch this movie twice within 3 days. My father was interested in it, but then he fell asleep five minutes in. So my mother and I finished it.

Like many of my favorite things in life, the more you experience this movie the more you'll like it.



The Muppet Movie


Dir: James Frawley (All kinds of televison shows; Spies, Lies, and Naked Thighs)

How should I comment on a movie that I may have seen 20 times as kid but not since for 15 years? Is it way worse that I remembered it being? Yes. Did it still bring back fond memories? Yes. Was it a fun movie watching experience? Yes.

I know why I liked this movie as a kid. The puppetry is technologically advanced; Kermit rides a bike! And you can see him pedal it! Even then I could recognize a lot of the numerous cameos, and now I can appreciate them even more. Steve Martin is not just that funny guy on SNL anymore, Milton Berle not just some old guy in a cowboy hat. And I always had/have a soft spot for movies with musical numbers.

It is those songs that take the biggest beating from my contemporary judgment. Sorry, but even "The Rainbow Connection" is poorly written; read the lyrics sometimes and tell me they make sense or showcase even a modicum of elegance. The performances, obviously, don't count becuase they are from puppets. Real stinkers include Kermit and Rowlf on "I Hope That Something Better Comes Along," and the finale "The Magic Store." The major exception to this is "Can You Picture That?" the Dr. John inspired surreal funk song by Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. Some college band must be covering that somewhere, and I wouldn't mind hearing it.
The Muppet Movie is an Andy Hardy picture, essentially. And Mickey Rooney in felt is just about as lame as the real Mickey Rooney. No matter how nostalgic I am for this film, it cannot hold a candle to the television series. I rewatched several of those lately as well, and the Muppet's are definitely a 20 minute idea. A few corny jokes, let John Denver sing a song, good night folks! Yeeaaahhhh!


Jerry Maguire


Dir: Cameron Crowe (Say Anything; Almost Famous)

It had been quite a few years since I had seen this one. While the basics of the story were familiar, the nuances of this wonderful movie were new to me. I like watching movies in that state; I can focus on the details (since I have the story down) and in those little moments its like watching the film for the first time.

Like his other tremendous romantic comedies, Crowe here has cast all of his characters in exceedingly believable shades of emotional gray. Cruise's Maguire is idealistic yet tremendously arrogant. Zellweger's Dorothy Boyd is vulnerable yet suprisingly capable for a "girl cannot resist bad boy" narrative. And Cuba Gooding Jr., of course, pulls off one of the greatest one-hit wonder acting performances of all time (unless you dug "Boat Trip" that is) as the cocky football player, whose public persona hides the truly beautiful love he feels for his family from the rest of the world.

Jerry Maguire is a movie where none of the characters are perfect and where all learn from each other. Such care went into crafting this story and the journey of each character that it is a marvel to see how natural all of decisions they make are. It is impossible not to root for each of the three, and the film has a compassion for them that is so refreshing among so many sappy or cynical love movies.

The decision to use sport as the metaphor for the relationships examined in the film is a masterstroke by Crowe. He immediately makes his point accessible to even the most rugged meathead. They may not know it, but the people who obsess about TO or Barry Bonds are just watching a different version of celebrity gossip, Nick and Jessica in jock straps. It's "As the World Turns" in real life. And while many movies will depict traditional soap operas or the lives of the rich and famous to discuss love, Crowe takes sports to do the same thing. It works tremendously.

It was my pick for the best movie of the year at the time, edging "Fargo." I stand by that sentiment some ten years later.


A Face in the Crowd

Second time through on my new favorite movie of all time. Once the mesmerization at Griffith's performance was no longer overwhelming, I was able to really concentrate on the subtlty, yet tremendous power, of the film's message.

The film is "Network" meets "All the King's Men." Kazan gets a permanent free pass for his HUAC testimony by making this essential critique of demagoguery and unthinking consumption of the media and politics.

I simply must insist that every single human being see it as soon as they possibly can.


Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Lady in the Lake


Dir: Robert Montgomery (As Actor: Mr. and Mrs. Smith; Here Comes Mr. Jordan; They Were Expendable)

Very flawed but nonetheless fascinating murder mystery with a twist. Montgomery, in his directorial debut, plays Philip Marlowe investigating the disappearance of a woman. The story is slight, typical noir stuff, lots of hard dialogue and fast women. It would be one among thousands of movies like this except for one thing.

Montgomery shoots the entire movie in first person. He figured that since the original Dashiell Hammett novels were written in first person, he could recreate that experience on the screen. And I am not just talking about a few scenes. For two hours, we do not see Montogmery except for (1) a few scenes of him as narrator behind a desk and (2) if Marlowe walks in front of a mirror. If Marlowe is talking to somone, they look directly into the camera and make eye contact with the audience. If someone walks into the room behind Marlowe, we cannot see it until he swings his head around. When he gets into a car, he sits in the passenger seat and the camera literally bounces as she shifts over behind the wheel. When Marlowe smokes, grey clouds billow up from below the camera. At times, Montgomery's commitment to the technique goes to extremes. When Marlowe talks on the phone, the mouthpiece is placed in the lower left hand corner of the screen. A girl kisses our hero by pressing her face up against the camera.

I have seen first person in lots of movies. But it is usually used briefly and to accomplish a specific purpose. I may see the world through the eyes of a child for comic relief. Someone drunk or just waking allows the director to go from blurry to clear, maybe even blinking the camera a couple of times with a shutter effect. In "Being John Malkovich" and "Memento," there are extended first person scenes to impress upon us the oddness of those movie's signature narrative devices.

But "Lady in the Lake" seeks a total immersion in the lead character's world. We are to experience the entire story just as he would. And that extended phenomenal approach is why the movie fails so totally. The complete abandonment of film conventions continually reinforces just how artificial cinema is. When I talk to someone, I do not make eye contacy with them for minutes on end. My eyes dart around the room, looking out the window, at my hands, at the clock, at other parts of my interlocutor's body, taking in all kinds of information. When there is a noise behind me, my head jerks around, not the slow, deliberate sway that this movie employs. And I certainly don't see the telephone when I talk into it. No film medium could recreate a first person experience. The camera would get blurry at those speeds, and cannot recreate peripheral vision.

The technique also puts incredible strain on the supporting cast. It's not like these are brief conversations Marlowe is having. He is the main character, and speaks for minutes to many people. They are forced to stare silently into the camera, making facial expressions to show anger, shock, fear, sexual attraction, and the like to the voice-over narrative. Without the help of editing (they are straight takes) or camera angles, all of the emotional load in on the shoulders of actors themselves. Their facial controtions are very bizarre and over the top, as they struggle to not remain dormant when they listen.

I would be very fascinated to see this idea taken up with a virtual camera. There, the actual experience of talking to someone (eye darts and all) could be recreated. I wonder what it would look like. Maybe a five minute short, I can't possibly believe it could be sustained for a whole film.

The movie is poor. But its poverty highlights the reason we make films the way we do, why complete and total realism is never, ever, the thing that makes a film good. Any serious student of film should see "Lady in the Lake" and then remember why it does not work.


Sunday, March 12, 2006

Dave Chappelle's Block Party

Dir: Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)


This movie is rich, bitch. It is neither a comedic narrative, concert video nor documentary, but an incredibly pleasant amalgam that chronicles Dave Chappelle's effort to host a "Block Party" in Brooklyn featuring some of his favorite musicians (Dead Prez, Kanye West, Erykah Badu, The Fugees, Jill Scott, Mos Def, among many others). The movie starts three days prior to the actual event, and Dave Chappelle is actively recruiting locals in his native Ohio to be guests at the Brooklyn bash. His invitations extend to all ages and races (the best comedy occurs when Chappelle coaxes elderly white women from Ohio to enjoy a night of hip-hop...almost all say yes). Spliced among these "interviews" is footage from the concert.

Needless to say, the music is excellent. It is no accident that these are the performers invited to the Block party, some of the most talented and socially and politically conscious artists around. This may be a rather inelegant way of analyzing a film, but Gondry does an exceptional job of capturing fun; there are no scenes of hiccups in the planning or actual production of the concert or diva performers demanding triple-shot extra-hot foam hazelnut lattes in designer ceramic mugs. Even in rain, everyone, from the charming artists to the somewhat diverse audience, is having a good time. But Gondry does not lose sight of the larger social politics that inform the event and the music. In fact, I found the film to be a perfect reflection of Chappelle's comedic ethos: inviting, witty, insightful, and occasionally low-brow--but, Chappelle's breezy humor often howls for winds of change (I know he now carries the Richard Pryor banner, even if somewhat reluctantly).

I know that films will often provide a flattering portrayal of its lead, but Chappelle comes off as extremely affable individual who displays a sincere appreciation for his good fortune and the people who embrace his humor. I, for one, found his escape to South Africa and turning his back on millions from Comedy Central completely understandable (provided you are already financially secure and have a genuine passion for your craft...personally, I fail both criteria).

Fun and Funny. If for nothing else, enjoy the music.


(Director: Takashi Miike)

My first foray into Japanese foreign live action movies in a long time was a fascinating experience. Going into the movie, I knew that I should expect something radical and devastating as the film progressed. The plot is relatively straightforward, and seems almost sweet- a man forced raise his son alone after his wife's death eventually decides he should remarry. He is a relatively shy fellow, so decides to meet prospects he will ask his friend whose into movie production to stage an audition, ostensibly for a film.

He sits in on the audition, looks at resumes and head shots, and eventually settles on a young woman. She is quiet and lightly skinned. His friend the producer warns that the story on her resume did not check out- her place of employment had been closed for a long time, an ex-boyfriend vanished mysteriously. This compels our protagonist to hold off on calling her for a while. She waits obediently by the telephone. They begin a courtship, having dinner together, eventually taking a weekend away. When they finally consummate their relationship, he wakes up to find his love vanished.

This begins the movie's second act- the first act has a sweet, tender, and light tone. The second act plays in parts a bit like a Japanese film noir- the protagonist goes to old haunts of his lover, trying to figure out where she has gone. The films creepiness factor elevates slowly as aspects of her past become illuminated. When he returns from his search to his house one night she is there. It is at this point that apparentally numerous moviegoers stumbled out of movie theaters apparentally vomiting during this movie's theatrical run. I did not find it that hard to watch- but suffice to say the movie loses an echoes of sweetness that remained.

This movie's pacing is what stood out to me. It built so slowly, the first half moving almost at a crawl on occasion. But the last half hour or so just flies by, like a bloody bullet train. I was certainly riveted. The film's message appears to be a thoroughgoing critique of the objectification of women in Japanese society. I felt this was the strength and weakness of the movie- it plays like a polemic against this objectification because our protagonist only minimally engages in this objectification. We do not see him consuming offensive pornography. He is a loving, caring father, who has raised a charming intelligent and polite young boy. He is obviously pained by the death of his wife, and we are given no clues that their life was violent or even unsettled in the least. His shyness manifests itself in the method of mate selection- but during the audition when the producer forces some women to disrobe the protagonist appears uncomfortable, even disconcerted. We should of course be deeply troubled by even "benign" (if such a thing exists?) objectification of women- and the movie's message is that we can tolerate none of it. We like the protagonist- the second half of this movie punishes us for this decision. I heartily reccomend.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

sex, lies, and videotape

Dir. Steven Soderbergh (Full Frontal)

I was dissapointed when this movie came on at about 2 AM on Showtime the other night- I was expecting more nudity. But seriously, Soderbergh's maiden voyage as a filmmaker has a lot of really interesting things to say in terms of how his predictions have played out. To wit: Michel Foucault has become a dominant figure in the academy because of how effective his theories of power and normalization have predicted the development of the ideas of medicine and sexuality in modern society. I conjure this thought because of a Slate article I read the other day- there was an article entitled "Feminism Makes You Unhappy", and linked at the bottom was a fascinating discussion of pornography and its function in society. One major argument made related to antecdotal stories about how many individuals in today's society find themselves unable to achieve climax unless they are consuming pornographic materials instead of actually experiencing sex with a real life partner.

I think Soderbergh has powerfully predicted this development. While its true that pornography and its resultant saturation of society with concepts of objectification were present in 1989, the Internet really has changed these dynamics because of how it bombards us with these images and how it makes them accessible anytime anywhere (the recent spate of pornographic images on video iPods seems evident in regards to this point). The has four central characters- John, Ann, Cynthia, and Graham. The names are intentionally vanilla- I believe the point is that what we are witnessing are four normal modes of sexuality that the viewer will intially encode as deviant or foolish, but will eventually come to understand. John is married to Ann, but is sleeping with Cynthia, who is Ann's sister. Ann does not care about sex, telling her therapist early in the film that it is overrated. Graham, a quiet, creepy soul is an old friend of John's who moves in for a bit, and is impotent- he can only be aroused by videotapes he makes of women talking about sex.

None of the characters can just come home from a long day at the office and screw. Graham is into video voyeurism. John must sneak around behind his wife's back. Cynthia must overplay her sexuality at every turn, seeking encounters with any men available. Ann just isn't interested. I think we can read a thoroughgoing critique of several aspects of modern society into the film. John is the hypercapitalist yuppie (but instead of like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho a book written around when this movie was made, he gets his jollies with silent emotional violence instead of knives- but its still consumption that drives his desire). Cynthia is the figure who has naively embraced the liberative strains of the 1960's only to use them as tools to enact petty vengeance against her more popular, more beautiful sister. Ann is seen at a therapist several times in the movie, and this is the criticism of cold rationality- she has overthought environmental concerns like recycling instead of contemplating her own personal desires, and her need to find salvation in a therapist is just another faith in an external actor to provide her deliverance. Graham is the only character in touch with his real desires- but he still comes off as creepy. He is willing to admit he has a serious problem however- unlike the other three characters. "I have many problems...but they belong to me" he says.

The movie is constructed to make us sympathize with Ann and Graham- Ann because she seems like a good person, and Graham because he knows what he does is bad but at least is so much more cognizant of his failings than John or Cynthia. Late in the movie Graham has a dramatic break with his destructive consumption, and Ann is able to see that her obsession with status and perfection has been the cause of her unhappiness. Its the human connection made through conversation between Graham and Ann that makes it possible for both of them to throw off their shackles.

Here at Wake every student has a laptop and they are always on them. We have a big debate team and the squad room is frequently full of 15-2o people. And is often silent, except for the sound of typing. Everyone is communicating with each other via instant messaging technology, or looking at article, or listening to music. Everyone is in their own little enclave and only communicates via computer. Its really pretty weird. I think Soderbergh is getting at how we need to really communicate. For Graham, the biggest turn on is getting to hear a woman's secret. But at the end of the day, he and Ann are both willing to be turned on by their own shared humanity. Perhaps I am reading too much into this, for it is late.

I found much to recommend in this movie. The acting is excellent, particularly from James Spader in a very early role.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Thin Man


Dir: W.S. Van Dyke (Tarzan the Ape Man; Several other "Thin Man" movies)

The first in a six part series of comedy mysteries starring William Holden and Myrna Loy as husband and wife socialites who solve murders in their spare time. I had never seen any of the entries in this series before. It is easy to see why they were so popular then, and Nick and Nora Charles are already among the best on screen couples I have seen.

The mystery side of the story is pulpy and not much else. Dashiel Hammet wrote the book, and it has the traditional cast of suspects and the twist at the end that are required by the genre. It occured to me that a movie like this is the CSI of its time; once a week or so folks would go down to the moviehouse to see a formulaic murder mystery, just as they now sit in front of the television for the same experience. It is hard to hate a crime drama like that as the pace is quick and the audience can actively participate in the development of the story.

The plot is forgettable, though, compared to the brilliance of Holden and Loy in these roles. The Charles' are exactly the sorts of people that would be your best friends. Outgoing, witty, drunken, fun loving, devilishly smart, calling them the life of the party is an understatement. Their wealth allows them unlimited freedom, and they spend it throwing parties for the entire cross section of society, including petty criminals and other characters that the sleuthing Nick has come to befriend. The two actors are ideally suited; Holden always with a martini and slurring his words, yet so charming and in control at the same time, Loy beautiful and wise, navigating through Holden's crazy lifestyle with magnanimity and enthusiasm. They completely dominate the film and were a true joy to watch.

I wished I was Nick Charles. I fell in love with Nora Charles. I can pay no higher compliments to film characters. I believe that later installments of the franchise feature more of this couple and less of the plot. I welcome that change. This is one of the only classic comedies that I have really enjoyed watching.

Recommended, but forgive the plot.


The Uninvited


Dir: Lewis Allen (Appointment with Danger; Suddenly)

I do have a soft spot for movies like this. The Uninvited is a horror movie from the 40's, and as as such has no recourse to expensive special effects. Like The Haunting (reviewed earlier on I Just Saw), tension grows through the simple use of sound effects and brilliant editing. A woman crying in the dead of night, a door slamming shut, the use of shadow in a cold room, all are satisfying techniques that utilize almost no technology whatsoever. That approach to horror, speaking personally, makes it much easier to suspend my disbelief and accept the world of the characters.

The story surrounds a brother and sister who buy a house where, gasp, some terrible deaths occured. The daughter of the previous owner is drawn to the house, and we learn that she is at the center of a ghostly tug-of-war between the house's two other wordly inhabitants. Along the way, the film makes an interesting detour into psychiatry, reflecting the often gruesome and neglectful ways that the institutionalized were treated at the time.

I was very pleased to see the film avoid a personal pet peeve. While the stock skepticism is found earlier in the story, once it is clear to everyone that there are indeed ghosts about, all of the characters reorient their worldviews to account for paranormal activity. Often, films keep the token skeptic around way too long, making speeches about how gusts of wind threw that entire cabinet of dishes out the window and how "there must be a rational explanation for all this" or some other sillyness. The Uninvited is able to focus more on the back story of the ghosts than on proving their existence to the audience.

Much of The Uninvited is merely OK. The story is passable, the acting relaxed if uninspiring, even the scary scenes pale in comparison to The Haunting. But as I said, I rather like these kinds of movies. I have spent less interesting hours in my life.

Slightly recommended.


Tuesday, March 07, 2006


Dir: Bennett Miller (Capote)


This is the type of "biopic" I like; it does not have the pretense that so many biopics suffer-the conceit that you can capture the essence of an individual in three acts. While "Capote" examines the man, its primary focus is on the relationship of artist and subject. In particular, "Capote" traces the author's struggle in writing In Cold Blood (Marcus, I am reminded of your comment after the Girl with the Pearl Earring that you dig films that give a/the backstory to artistic creations. Then this is your film).

At the time he elects to write about the horrific murder of a Kansas family, Capote is already a celebrated American playwright and author. Fascinated with the sheer brutality of the murders, Capote interviews all the affected townsfolk as well as the killers, Richard Hickcock and Perry Smith. Capote is perfectly affable, using his charm and fame to seduce others into sharing their stories. Few are wise to Capote's mechanations, unsettled by his self-absorbed efforts to write the groundbreaking book at the expense of real people's emotions. The movie turns on his relationship with Perry Smith, the more thoughtful of the two killers. Despite a close relationship, Smith refuses to speak about the night of the actual murders, the only piece of information Capote needs to finish his book. Capote hires the best attorneys to ensure stays of executions, in hopes that Smith might recount the events. While he seeks closure to his book, Capote denies the small Kansas town its own resolution. The self-absorbed Capote is tortured by the book; he tells his editor that the book is killing him and he needs it to end--and the logical consequence is the execution of the two murderers.

Capote has no compunction in manipulating Smith, who believes Capote to be a true friend (may be he is). Smith asks little of Capote, except for the title of the book. Capote denies settling on the title when in fact the giddy Capote already selected In Cold Blood, a title that carries the weight of judgment. In the most telling line of the movie, Capote shares his title with the local sheriff who in turn asks whether the title refers to the killers or Capote (a Nietzschean read of this film can provide a wealth of insight).

The film's moral conscience is Harper Lee, Capote's close friend who accompanies him to Kansas. During the course of the film, Lee enjoys her own success with the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird (perhaps the most morally righteous book in the 20th century), but Capote can not (will not?) share in Lee's accomplishment, for he does not understand what all the fuss is about.

That Philip Seymour Hoffmann could very well win an Oscar for his performance. Oh wait. I know little of Capote the man, but Hoffman's performance is quite striking. He embodies a determined artist that relishes his own greatness while teetering on the precipice of disabling insecurity. The film romanticizes the life of an author just enough that you want to like Capote and be part of his jet-setting, New York intellectual life style, but every time we get close enough, Capote pulls away.

Miller is a first time director, but he shows incredible maturity with the camera. The performances are spot-on and he possesses a real sense of vision. Novice directors are often enamoured with the camera's abilities and rely on cinematographic gimmicks to add a directorial signature (Clooney in Confessions and Zack Braff in Garden State fall victim to that, with that said, both show amazing potential behind the camera-i.e., GNGL). But Miller recognizes the heart of the story and uses the camera to service the plot and not the other way around. Keep an eye on him.

At first, I thought this was the odd film out in the list of best pictures, but it is perhaps the film that has stuck with me the most. Evident by the size of this post, I have a lot to say about.

Highly recommended.

Monday, March 06, 2006

McCabe and Mrs. Miller

Dir: Robert Altman (Popeye, 3 Women)


I really want to like Robert Altman. He has so many films that have been nominated for Oscars (but of course the Academy is always wrong). His films are often in the conversation of best American films and he is considered one of the greatest living American directors. Actors love him because he gives them the freedom to explore characters in complicated but unstructured ways. Film scholars and critics salivate over his incisive social critiques, turning various film conventions into vehicles for commentary on American myths. So, why can't I enjoy his films the others do? (a rhetorical question, Omri, so please do not answer) Yes, he makes some excellent films (Short Cuts, Nashville), but in the same company as Scorsese, Hitchcock, Kubrick? (now you can answer)

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is Altman's take on the American western. He goes to great pains to demythologize the frontier as the site for the maturation of masculine individualism (take that Frederick Jackson Turner). McCabe eschews a life of gambling to found a mining town in Washington. McCabe's hard guy persona is challenged when a mining company offers to buy him out; he arrogantly refuses, seeing this as part of the proper negotiating tactics. Mrs. Miller, his bankrolled lover that runs, along with McCabe, the local house of vice, warns him that the corporate giant will exploit all avenues of lawlessness to acquire the town (you know, it's hard out there for a pimp). These first two acts are bit slow, developing characters we ultimately do not care about (one of my problems with some Altman films). However, the film is redeemed in the third act, where tension mounts as the company hitmen seek to gun down McCabe.

The cinematography is the reason to see the film. Although this particular transfer we saw tonight was in poor condition, the sense of grit and depression, from inside the unfinished saloon to the harsh external conditions, came through the scratches and dirt that damaged the film stock. Altman's trademark zoom-ins, close-ups and overlapping dialogue scenes can be found in spades throughout the film. While these are often signatures of Altman auteurism, so often they come off as erudite gimmicks. But, then again, I am probably wrong.

Altman uses the Western genre ironically as a vehicle to indict corporate American and the myopic social dynamics that inform the traditional generic fare. While his critiques, in this film and many others, are often insightful, I always find Altman films to possess an air of condescension--the arrogance that accompanies one who has lifted the veil of ignorance and feels obliged to let everyone know about it. Like MASH, I find that this film does not age well (the critique is still relevant, sure). The Leonard Cohen songs, which function as the Greek chorus, are quite anachronistic, echoing film score conventions that haunt too many films of the 70s (still the best decade in American cinema).

All told, see it.

Walk the Line


Dir: James Mangold (Girl, Interrupted; Kate and Leopold)

Disappoitning biopic about one the biggest bad asseses ever to strap a guitar around his neck. Both Paul and Ron (see that "search this blog" window up at the top) make the parallels to Ray. But they are far too kind; this moive is Ray, just with fishing poles instead of bottles tied to a tree branch. In almost every element the movies are mirror images of a poor set of conventions. The genre is so constricting that these two wildly different men have the exact same movies made about them. That is inexcusable.

Ray was a bad movie with a brilliant performance that made it worth watching. But I must say that Walk the Line had no Foxx-esque morphing into the title characters. This type of acting is essentially mimickery; impressions that are matters of discipline, not inner talent. Foxx had the luxury of studying with Charles for years, the project having been long in the works. He could hang out with the man, observe the minor quirks that take a workamlike performance and make it transcendent. Foxx was inside Charles.

Reese Withserspoon had the easier job in this movie, as June Carter was a bit of a caricature to begin with in her stage performance. The growls and exaggerated twang of her singing is very strongly done, but then I can do that too (ask me to sometime). As for her off-stage persona, you know as well as I do what Carter was like. Foxx transferred his Charles performance not just on the stage, but in the movie's quitest moments as well; I found that Witherspoon was just doing a southern girl, not June Carter per se. OK, but not great.

Phoenix had a herculean task, becoming an American icon. I find him short of the task. His physical appearance alone is wanting, unable to be the hulking mountain of a man that Cash was. When your Johnny Cash is physically dominated by the guy playing Jerry Lee Lewis, you have miscast that role. The voice too is poorly performed. Phoenix has always been scratchy, breathy, and never sonorous enough to fill a room. It was that voice that made his role in Gladiator so good, becuase it communicated uncertainty and inexperience. To play Cash, you not only have to film a room, you have to fill the whole world. Phoenix acts well enough, but his goal is mimickry; physical traits beyond his control prevent him from becoming Cash.

Were the movie itself better, I would forgive these things. But, like Ray, the performances are the only thing going for Walk the Line. It fails to deliver.

I cannot recommend the film.


Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room


Dir: Alex Gibney

Unlike everyone else on this blog, I was able to employ the easy-to-use search function for I Just Saw and review Ron's earlier review of this film. He notes the difficulties in rendering a complicated securities fraud story into a film. I agree, that was a hard thing to make come across (and is prone to some unfortunate overgeneralizations). But when the film transitioned to the less complicated, but no less greedy manipulation of markets within the law law, the film was highly engrossing.

The Enron scandal has at least two independent parts. First is the manipluation of accounting practices to mask Enron's losses and artificially inflate the stock price. This is what Lay, Skilling, and the others are currently under trial for. They used an accounting technique known as "mark to market" to post the future earnings from the sale of assets as present profits. They also set up a series of shadow companies that were manipulated by Enron executives.

The latter scandal is clear and indefensible. But I had the luxury of watching this film with the only person I know with an expert's knowledge of accounting, my father. While he cautions he has no particular expertise in this kind of accounting, I learned from him that mark to market is relatively common; indeed, if a company deals heavily in options or futures and does not use mark to market, that can easily be more unethical than not using it. Enron abused the system, but the film made the accounting technique itself out to be the culprit, some horrible lack of oversight. There were lots of oversight gaps here, but the technique itself is not one of them. That essential point could use a much more rigorous examination.

The film, though, is much more accurate and compelling when discussing Enron's perfectly legal manipulation of California's deregulated energy markets. You may remember the "rolling blackouts" of recent past. Enron and other companies were artificially creating energy shortages by literally turning off power plants and then selling energy at enormously inflated prices. It was these profits, not the shadow companies, that kept Enron running.

Audio tapes of the energy traders who were discussing these perfectly legal yet sinister schemes were fascinating. Sure, companies lie and cheat. But here was a devasting impact from corporate actions that we have little recourse to prevent under current law. The single minded attention to profit, and loose laws, tell a compelling story.

However, the film makes the unfortunate choice to make poorly argued political points about this controversy. Ron sees little politics in the documentary, but I found politics more up front, if so slightly evidenced that it was laughable. Gray Davis, interviewed on camera, is a saint, whereas George W. Bush is inferred to have somehow personally aided Enron. I have no doubt that the latter is indeed the case, but I need a shred of corroboration to accept the argument in this film. Bush once made a happy retirement tape for an Enron executive while he was Governor. That's about it for the evidence. Davis, as well, had ample opportunity to resolve the California law, but did nothing. He was just as in bed with the energy companies as Wilson. I could not help but think the filmmaker was just throwing in some anti-Republican stuff to sell DVDs.

I don't mind a political movie. But this is a poorly argued one, for which there is no excuse. Too bad, becuase some parts of the film are so compelling that the anti-deregulation message deserves a single minded focus. But given how much I have just written, I recommend the film on thought provoking grounds alone.


Sunday, March 05, 2006

Academy Awards Discussion

If people are around... running comments?


2006, forthcoming

Dir: David R. Ellis

With credit to PJ for bringing telling us about this future BME, I hereby post I Just Saw's first ever external link:
So I'm reading the internet the other day as we webmasters are wont to do and I come across the news that I've been praying about for months: the film formerly known as SNAKES ON A PLANE and then recently known as PACIFIC AIR ONE-TWENTY WHO GIVES A FLYING FUCK has been returned to its glory and is being renamed SNAKES ON A PLANE!

I think.

You can read the article yourself. Now nowhere does the studio actually say they're changing the title. But Sam Jackson's pretty sure he's doing a movie called SNAKES ON A PLANE. And if Sam Jackson thinks he's doing a movie called SNAKES ON A're doing a movie called SNAKES ON A PLANE...

Now out of both loyalty to the sacred bond between studio and screenwriter and also a serious desire to keep getting hired in this town, I will not give away any of the plot details of SNAKES ON A PLANE. But know this. As the great Sam Jackson would say: There are motherfucking snakes on the motherfucking plane.

What else do you need to know? How the snakes get on the plane, what the snakes do once they're on the plane, who puts the snakes on the plane, who is trying to get the snakes off the plane...This is not for you to ponder. There are snakes on the plane. End of fucking story.


(Dir.- James Cameron- The Terminator)

On the morn of the Oscars, I revisited the movie which won more of those little gold bastards than any ever. In true Marcusian fashion (our boy, not the Marxist) Titanic is one of my irrational prejudice movies, and I had no seen it in a very long time. But HBO decided to remedy this problem for me- and apologies to whoseever already posted about this movie, I could not find it.
I started watching it at like 1 AM, and thought, I will never finish this beast. It was long to begin with, and I do not remember much liking this movie. Well when I went to bed at 4 AM or whatever I had to admit- this was a pretty good movie. I maintain the profanity should have been harsher throughout(the SHIP IS SINKING!!) but in today's era on PG-13 for the big bucks .
I think it drags a bit at the beginning and the end, but this really is the most serious criticism I can level- this reluctant watcher became more compelled by the minute. Two scenes in particular really stand out to me- I like when the Captain has the sinking realization (punnery abounds!) that his ship is done for, and I also liked the scene where the ship was attacked by the giant man eating squid. Ok, that didn't happen, but it would've been totally sweet.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Oscar Picks

In a year in review post, I'd like to offer some Oscar predictions (Kind of a follow-up on Max's post).

Best film: Crash (in an "upset" pick over BBM)
Best actress: Huffman-Transamerica
Best actor: Hoffman-Capote (review forthcoming)
Supporting Actor: Clooney-Syriana (in a thanks for a year's worth of good work award)
Supporting Actress: Weisz-Constant Gardener
Director: Ang Lee-BBM
Adapted Screenplay: BBM
Original SP: Crash
Cinematography: BBM

I think that's all the big ones.

Max, I do think you sell Dillon a bit short. You are right, Howard is a deserving pick. Have yet to see Hustle and Flow, but he was awesome in Crash.

don't give Matt Dillon an oscar

I know it isn't a *review* -- it's a plea.

Please, please, please don't give matt dillon an oscar for crash.

That movie was amazing, simply incredible and a bunch of people did some SERIOUS acting work to get the results. Matt dillon wasn't one of them.

Playing the role of the "angry white guy" is the easiest job in the world. He has a clear justification -- and all he has to do it get loud. Heck a baldwin could have played that role.

But what about Terrence Howard (who should win for Hustle & Flow but won't). His job as the TV producer caught between injustice and rage? Look at his eyes during the cop confrontation scene and see some ACTING. Shaun Toub who plays the aged Persian shopkeeper? What about Cheadle? The stuff with his mom? Heck Ludachris even out-acts Dillon.

I wonder what made the academy pick Dillon out of this fantastic cast . . . oh yeah, he's white.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Rules of the Game


Dir: Jean Renoir

Oft cited as one of the greatest films ever made, Renoir's careful critique of the French aristocracy is indeed a wonder to behold purely at the technical level. The Citizen Kane parallels are obvious and frequent, with the choreography between camera and every element in every frame minutely timed. Think of the opening shot of Touch of Evil, but within one room and for an hour. Way down the hallway, in the corner of the screen, characters will be interacting in ways that will be important two minutes later. That must have taken forever to get right.

What Kane adds, though, is a emotional connection that I found lacking in this film. The characters are largely aloof rich folks, for whom love and compassion have become oh so boring, and who now dally in affairs for the sport of it and never seem to find happiness. That casual, European stereotype of cynical love is of course fine fodder for a movie, and it is handled masterfully in The Rules of the Game. But the subject matter requires distance between characters, and the technique of the film creates distance from the audience. The few characters (including one played by renoir himself) who do have true depth of emotion are frustrated by the system, the game that dictates all interactions.

It is not fair to critique a film for that distance. And I am not doing so. Those stories should be told as well. But it is impossible to escape the fact that this particular film will never be as enjoyable, in terms of raw pleasure, a movie watching experience as an equally good but more passionate story. In the Kane v. Casablanca debate, I say Casablanca. Rules of the Game is Kane.

Behold the prowess of the filmaker. Study his every shot. Ponder over the reason one character is turned at 30 degress as opposed to 45. But I would probably not take this film on the desert island with me.

I must be searching for negative things to say. Look, this movie has tons going for it, and is historically essential. Obvisouly you should see it.


The Abyss

Dir: James Cameron (Piranha II: the Spawning)


James Cameron has made a ton of money based on the simple mantra that size matters, be it the ship, budget, or shooting schedule. The Abyss is Cameron's third legitimate film, and no his inspired Piranha II does not count. Following the success of the Terminator and Aliens, Cameron had enough clout to secure a massive shooting budget and weather extensive studio editing pressures and notorious cost overruns. From my understanding, it was a miserable film set--a controlling director filming underwater on a leaky set would have that kind of effect.

The Abyss is a very derivative film, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. From the opening sequence where puzzled sonar operators aboard a US nuclear submarine detect a fast moving, unidentified swimming object, the film screams Close Encounters of the Oceanic Kind. Thrown off course by the encounter, the sub crashes and sinking its nuclear payload-a problematic turn of events given the crash site is so close to Cuba. The US military calls upon an underwater oil rigging team to help assist in the rescue (ok, so Michael Bay ripped off Cameron here). Brushes with the new species are mistaken as Russian interference by the Bends-suffering SEAL commander Lt. Coffey (Michael Biehn, who seems to only be employed by Cameron), and near tragedy ensues.

The rig team is full of flat, cliched characters that could easily be named, Sonny or Hippy or Bud (oh wait, they are). I imagine Cameron recycled some characters that did not make it into the final cut of Aliens. Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantino do their best to cultivate an intimate center to the film, but ultimately the divorced-couple-who-still-love-each other-but-don't-realize-it-until-tragedy-strikes lacks any real depth. But, this is not to suggest the film is not a pleasurable viewing experience. Cameron specializes at spectacle, and the Abyss is fun to look at. You need to admire the dedication necessary to film in millions of gallons of cold water.

When it comes to special editions and "director's cuts," I often default to the director's vision as the definitive version. But I have mixed emotions on the alternative ending (but then again, I had similar misgivings regarding the conclusion to the theatrical version). A bit too preachy (and derivative...The Day the Earth Stood Still). I shall refrain from further commentary, lest I spoil the ending.

A fine film. Not Cameron's best.