Saturday, October 14, 2006

AVP: Alien vs. Predator


Dir: Paul W. S. Anderson (Mortal Kombat; Resident Evil)

I was left out of the great AVP fest in its initial release. And I want to be one of the cool kids. So, On Demand to the rescue. Like the Predator, I have marked my flesh after having won the battle with a most fiendish foe, Paul W. S. Anderson and his deadly weapon of lameness.

It makes sense that the man specializes in video game movies, because this film is a video game narrative. Equip your character, have some training time, and then descend into some sort of dungeon or haunted house or abandoned space station and encounter a series of increasingly powerful monsters, solve puzzles, collect treasure, and then gang up on the big mother monster at the end.

My favorite part of the film? How this ancient pyramid, miles underneath a polar ice cap, is not cold enough that you need a heavy jacket or that we can see your breath. I mean, the most basic scenic element, the freaking cold in the ice palace, is not even done properly. I guess the Predators have a space heater or something. And the purpose behind having the pyramid change configuration every ten minutes escapes me. It seems like a lot of work to build that thing (out of stone, no less, I guess the space age metals they use to build their weapons weren't available, so they made humans cut several thousand tons of rocks and drag them to the pole, dig a giant hole, and build the intricate interlocking pieces to make thousands of configurations there). But if the Predator's know it is going to shift, then what is the advantage?

I know the real reason that Anderson employed that device. Becuase he thought Krull was the best fantasy movie ever, and couldn't wait to employ references to it in AVP. He even has the ornate throwing star/boomerang thing. I kept waiting for a Cyclops and a gay guy in a Robin Hood outfit to swoop in on some fire stallions to save the day. What, Willow was not good enough to rip off, Paul W. S. (meaning, not the good one) Anderson?

What saves this movie from just being boring is the fascinating attempt at anthropology in the script. The Predators had the pyrmaids built. Under an ice cap. As a warrior training camp. Oh, and they are Gods. And the entire history of archaeology couldn't crack that nut. You know what, I love that narrative. It shows the writers were thinking through the plausibility of Alien vs. Predator on Earth. The script meeting must have been: "Hey guys, how is the audience going to buy that the two monsters just happened to show up on the Earth to duke it out? We need to explain how that happened. It'll blow their minds!"

Even the end battle fails to deliver. The Predator essentially becomes Al Harris, all shoulder pads and dreadlocks, unable to beat the Alien without a human's help. This is the guy that took down the Body? The Predators, like the Packers, have really gone down hill.

Thanks, guys. Thanks for making me jealous so that I had to watch this thing. Next time, when you see some piece of crap, just keep it to yourself.


Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Departed

Director- Martin Scorcese (The Color of Money)

When Martin Scorcese is at the top of his form, few directors can match him. I consider Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Taxi Driver to be three of my favorite movies of all time. I like these three movies for different yet similar reasons. The first is excellent for its willingness to be overwhelmingly brutally honest about its flawed protagonist. The second is as well done a mob movie as you will find this side of Coppola. And the third is a stirring and frightening tale of urban decay and societal alienation. The Departed is most similar to Goodfellas given the obvious mob link, but I feel there is a little bit of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver in this movie.

This movie was very, very good. The last two Scorcese movies had points to recommend. Daniel Day-Lewis' performance in Gangs of New York was absolutely fabulous, and The Aviator was compelling if somewhat marred by Leonardo DiCaprio's boyish looks. But I can only encourage you strongly to go see this movie. The cast is first rate. Jack Nicholson as mob boss Frank Costello. Ray Winstone as his righthand man. Dicaprio and Matt Damon as moles in the other's respective organizations (the police and mob). The performances are amazing, particularly Nicholson's raucous gangster and Winston'e vicious killer.

But what makes me so adore this movie is how Scorcese respects the audience. He gives us a ton of information in the movie without blatantly pointing it out or noting it. Scorcese makes it clear with a few hints that one character had alcoholic parents, for example, but never comes right out and says it with a big freaking neon sign like so many directors would.

Scorcese also puts together masterful soundtracks. His classic rock music laid throughout Goodfellas was so right, and on this soundtrack he really outdoes himself. There was a moment in this movie late that was so tense, I could not remember feeling so anxious in a movie theater, and this is in no small measure due to the director's skill at picking the right music at the right time.

If there is any bone I had to pick with this movie, I would say there were a few too many climaxes. The third act is relatively long (but does not extend so far as to cause a popular revolt a la Gangs of New York). There is no one scene that has the punch of the series of dead bodies found to Layla in Goodfellas. But this is a quibble. Go see this movie.

In Memoriam: The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course


Dir: John Stainton (Crocodile Hunter TV Series; first film)

Every once in a while, I watch a film where the context of viewing overtakes the story itself. For obvious reasons, I sought out Collision Course to have just that sort of experience. Yes, it's a kid's film, an extended version of the TV show, the work of those who are looking to make a quick buck on a franchise. But in this narrow window of history, it is a fantastic time.

It is a fact that Steve Irwin was a tremendous personality, a force that filled the small screen and does a pretty good job commanding the big screen as well. Thankfully, his greatest feature was his combination of enthusiasm with self deprecation. He knows he is a clown, an entertainer that we are laughing even as we admire his courage. So, Irwin thrusts his fingers into crocodile poo and smears it on his shirt, a big grin on his face. But he also holds a snake by its tale and flings it around. Irwin was a showman, a daredevil with an act full of one-liners. I often find myself flipping by his show and watching ten minutes or so. And I pass by lots more stuff than I linger on, so that is worth something.

The parts of the movie that are not directly related to Irwin teasing deadly animals are what you would expect. There are some bad actors playing some bad roles. Some silly humor and some stuff blows up. There is some sort of plot about government secrets that matters very little. One odd note is that inter-agency in-fighting in the American government has become so routine that it even shows up in a kid's movie about Australian crocodile wranglers. If that is not reason for intelligence reform, I don't know what is.

None of that, though, mattered much while I was watching the film. This is well worth tracking down in the near furutre so that you can truly appreciate the irony of Irwin's death. It is at one level obvious; the man who provokes animals for a living died at the hand(tail) of an animal. But in this film, the constant allusions to danger, the admonishments to the audience not to do the very dangerous things he is doing, are so common that the irony of the whole thing overwhelms. It's morbid, it's fascinating, it's creepy.

And I had a great time experiencing it. I guess if entertainment value is why we watch films in the end, then Collision Course delivers. Here is hoping that Steve Irwin is poking dangerous animals with short sticks somwhere in TV heaven. He tempted fate so that we might be moderately entertained. He seemed to enjoy doing it, which is the only way to judge a life.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Passion of Joan of Arc


Dir: Carl Theodor Dreyer (Vampyr; Day of Wrath)

I was a fool to wander and astray
Straight is the gate and narrow the way
Now I have traded the wrong for the right
Praise the Lord, I saw the light.
-Hank Williams (the good one)

My long dark days of prejudice against the silent film are now over. I have seen the light. And no, I have absolutely know problem comparing this film to Biblical revelation; it is that good.

99% of the sound films that I have seen are boring and lifeless compared to this peerless work. More is told in one forlorn look into the camera, one sweep across a set of fat and fatuous judges, one hand woven crown here than in hundreds of pages of script across countless lesser works. The singularity theme is appropriate, for this film is singular in its brilliance.

Maria Falconetti is spellbinding as Joan, the pious and probably insane French girl whose faith and hartred of the occupying English drives her to martyrdom. The film is a courtroom drama of the most famous trial in the history of the Western world that did not involve Jesus, a trumped up charge of witchcraft to justify relieving the church of this bothersome claimant to divine grace. Even for a silent film, the focus on the nuance of the trial, the hypocricy of the questions, and the undetermined faith of the accused pays off in a fascinating examination of the way philsophical categories can be twisted into accusations against the unorthodox.

Dreyer wrings all of the proper lessons out of this historical moment. The conduct of the clergy is familiar and inexcusable, but we see it as only one moment in an enternity of wagon circling and self protection from those who supposedly represent truth and compassion. Politics, business, religion, the family, you name it, you can recognize what these particular priests are doing; protecting their own authority from the bold and popular challenger.

Mind you, all of the lessons are told visually. The text is minimal, after all. The film is shot almost entirely in close-up. The faces, especially the mercurial Falconetti, convey so much information. The restoration on the print (found in a Norwegian insance asylum after it was thought to be lost) is impeccable, the best looking silent film I have ever seen. Dreyer controls his camera so well, making sweeping shots and movements that seem decades ahead of his time. This is what silent film acting and directing should be; a supreme focus on conveying information with facial expression, gesture, and blocking. No one I have ever seen has understood this like Dreyer does in this film.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is a perfect storm of powerful material, deep and insightful writing, brilliant acting and visionary directing. It stands up to any film made today both technically and as entertainment. I really was thrilled by watching it. It was not silent films that I did not like, it was obsolete and dated filmmaking. Dreyer was ahead of his time, a virtuoso who has made an essential film. BME.


The Woodsman


Dir: Nicole Kassell (First film)

Gutsy film dancing around the edges of a sympathetic view of a child molester. Kevin Bacon, after his release from prison, gets a job and tries to assimilate back into the normal world. He takes up with Kyra Sedgwick, an outcast who herself wrestles with the effects of past abuse. Over the film, Bacon must try to resist the temptation to repeat his crimes and maneuver an outraged and impatient set of peers.

This is the sort of film I am predisposed to like, because it tells a story that I haven't seen before. In order to avoid the facile qualities of an after school special, the script finds places for us to identify with and care about the deeply flawed protagonist. Indeed, the entire cast seems to share the scars that he has inflicted, on one end or the other. The ubiquity of tragedy throughout the film makes everything feel dirty and dark. The whole world is screwed up, and people like Bacon are on one end and we are on the other. But everyone is a part of it.

Bacon's performance is very good for its understatement, the sort of thing Philip Seymour Hoffman is perfect at. Bacon's character is the ultimate introvert, hiding his shame and his demons from the rest of us. He blissfully resists the temptation to overact. The supporting cast is even stronger, though. Sedgwick is tough as nails, and Benjamin Bratt is rather good too as Bacon's sympathetic yet skeptical brother-in-law. But the supporting show is stolen by Mos Def as the philosophical detective who has his eye on Bacon. His lines are nice, but he gives them a tremendously mysterious quality, a real depth beneath his reflections on temptation and evil that were quite thrilling to watch. He has some real talent.

The film, while full of good points, fails to really pay off in the way that would make it essential. And I am not sure how it could. The subject matter is so inexplicable, so raw and real in the lives of so many, that the film cannot really offer any solution. The film's answer lies in an identification between the two ends of the crime, a recognition of the other that causes a hesitation of one's own compulsion. But I didn't need this film to tell me that. The movie does showcase the too often ignored and yet rampant phenomenon of sibling/sibling molestation, an important twist of focus from grubby uncles in dirty overcoats that should be applauded.

We will not punish a film because its story is ambitious. The writing, directing, and especially the acting are solid all around. And the theme of the project is a very important one, as society continues to elevate the protection of children above all other goals. The Woodsman makes this issue more complex, a welcome nuance to the Nancy Grace/Mark Foley approach to the problem that currently dominates out national discourse.


Monday, October 09, 2006

Days of Heaven


Dir: Terrence Malick (Badlands; The Thin Red Line; The New World)

There are some films that one is too young to understand. When I first saw this film, who knows how many years ago, it left no real impression. I was learning film, and Malick was a name to explore, move on to the next one. But now, with the moderate amount of life experience that I can now claim, Days of Heaven opens like a flower, brilliant and filling all the senses, a near perfect spectacle and perhaps the most beautifully shot film I have ever seen. This time, there was a mark.

The minimalism of the dialogue and plot mask fathoms of wisdom and insight in the story. Richard Gere and Brooke Adams are migrant farm workers, who show up at Sam Shepard's farm with young Linda, Gere's sister, in tow. They hatch a scheme, where Adams will marry Shepard in order that the secret couple might live off of his money. But the heart is fickle, Adams is torn between the two, and the whole plot unravels, taking the characters with them. Highly allegorical, the plot would make a fine novel, dwelling on the interior psychology of the characters.

But Malick has no lofty chapters to expose those feelings. He has his camera. And to what ends does he use it. I have never, hands down, in my life seen a film with more beautiful shots of the sky. Every scene seems to be filmed at that exact three minute window near the dusk when the colors of the sunset are most vibrant. The Texas panhandle's infintie horizon features giant panorama's of color, cloud, and light. The characters live their lives under the umbrella of the atmosphere, a bid to the insignificance of any one story and yet the universality of it at the same time. Nature abound in the film, animals and vegetation forever the backdrop for the actions of the characters, themselves not as impervious as they think from the instinctual and predetermined motivations of the beasts and the plants.

Of particular interest is Malick's narrator, the young Linda Manz who exudes complete authenticity as the world wise young girl. Her dialogue is uncannily right, both for her character and for the contemplative tone of the film. Simple yet profound, plain yet poetic, she tells us all we need to know about the characters. As their actions unfold, Malick supplements her narration with plenty of symbolism, so that the meaning of the film richly unfolds in suprising and compelling ways.

Malick's work here was quite simply awesome. It was like going to an art mueseum. Truly beautiful and moving. A tremendous experience, to be approached with appropriate sensitivity, pantience, and enough taste to meet the skills of the filmmaker.



Love and Death


Dir: Woody Allen (Husbands and Wives; Annie Hall; Crimes and Misdemeanors; Manhattan; Deconstructing Harry; Hannah and Her Sisters)

Odd little Allen film, a comedy set in Russia during the Napoleonic wars. While the setting is period, the humor is classic Allen, transporting his brand of philosophical and psychoanalytic verbal humor and physical comedy without too much translation for the setting. While the film is funny, the redundancy of the writing puts Love and Death back among the pack of Allen's early comedies.

Allen is a waifish pacifict who is forced into fighting for Russia after Napoleon invades. He is in love with Diane Keaton, who in turn pines for his older, more brutish brother. Through the standard comedy set of plot points, Allen and Keaton make a bid to assasinate Napoleon. The signature of the film are a series of philosophical discussions about good and evil, the nature of love, ethics, and metaphysics. They are humorous, but I do think Allen goes to the well a few times too often to ensure the premise is kept fresh. There are allusions to Russian literature that lend a satisfying sense of recognition to those who have read their Dostoevsky, and the philosophical jokes are learned enough that it is safe to call the film intellectual.

However, the humor drops off quite a bit in the second half as the novelty wears off. In many ways, the film feels experimental. Allen is playing around with the genre that he did more than anyone else to resurrect, the screwball comedy. While Bananas was less intellectual, and Sleeper broader and more physical, both were also funnier than Love and Death. It is easy to see Allen's decision to leave screwball behind and write more sophisticated, character driven comedies in the 80's. He is looking for something deeper here, but does not really deliver it.

The film is fair. For Allen completists (like myself) only.




Dir: Stephen Gaghan (Abandon)

Paul makes a Godfather II comparison to this film in his previous review. I cannot be sure that his suggestion did not bury itself in my mind when I read that in December, but it was nice to find that I was thinking the same thing when watching Syriana.

I probably think that Syriana does not get as close to that work of genius than either Paul or Ron do, however. The subject matter is essential, the acting (especially Clooney, Damon less so) is solid, and the script is both complicated yet understandable. But in the end, I think the thematic approach of the script is a little too easy. Corporations are corrupt is such a trite message that it wears thin on me; children's movies routinely feature the meme! Yes, it is true, and yes, there are lots of people who do not quite get it. But in terms of my personal aesthetic and persuasive experience with a political movie, I want a little more analysis than just "oil men will do whatever it takes to get money."

Much more interesting than that was the examination of the Arab side of the equation. The internal power stuggles between the reform minded, forward looking brother and the cautious, conservative, and religiously minded heir apparent did much to add nuance to what is so often seen as a monolithic culture. The public relations angles, the brief scenes of the regular citizens of the country, the tension between traditional values like the unquestioned authority of the father and the needs to adapt (economically and politically and socially) to wealth and Westernization were well thought out and engaging.

Less engaging by far were the limp attempts to bring all of these machinations home to the families of the American pawns. The crying wife and the disaffected children are mechanical, formulaic, and in this case poorly done (I never liked Amanda Peet anyway). Add to that what I found to be the gratuitous child death scene, mere shock in a bid for emotional impact, and I just was not moved. Here is a screenwriting tip: if you kill a child and I don't even know their name, let alone anything about them, that is gratuitous. It's a bid to generate sympathy for Matt Damon through the instrumentality of a kid's drowning. It is both lazy and manipulative.

And that is why Syriana has good parts but gets nowhere near Godfather II. In that piece of genius, the family struggles are just as compelling, just as lovingly crafted and intricate as the almost impossibly complicated political themes. Almost impossibly, because there is a difference between smarter-than-me and confused. There is also a difference between moving and shocking. Godfather II is the former on both counts; Syriana has too much simplicity and not enough heart to rise that far.


Monday, October 02, 2006

The Science of Sleep

Director- Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)

What a great movie. Really, really fabulous. An interrogation of the subconscious, sleep, and the way that relationships create in all of us a double consciousness and anxiety about what we are doing and thinking. This movie is pushed as a sort of escapism but in ways I think it is very, very real. It lays bare the neuroses, anxieities, and fears of anyone who is figuring out that they are in love and are deeply afraid of what that may cause.

Gael Garcia Bernal plays Stephane, and Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Stephanie (note the subtle paralellism). Stephane has just moved back to Paris from Mexico to take a job laying glue and type in a boring office. The work is incredibly lame to Stephane, who spends his down time drawing colorful pictures of disasters to represent every month of the year for a calendar called "Disasterology". At night Stephane dreams colorful, blazing, and amazing dreams of telling off his boss, flying through the air, and a host of other imagery that could come only from the subsconsious.

Stephane means Stephanie when he moves into his new place in Paris. Stephanie is renting from his mother. The two have a connection- besides the names, they can come together in flashes of artisitic creativity where they both strongly enjoy each other's company. But Stephane's detatchment from reality proves a barrier to his relationship with Stephanie. He also has a dysfunctional relationship with his mother and colorful relations with his workmates (the best of whom is played by Alain Chabat in a delightfully dirty turn).

The film is very sweet, and moving in a way. I urge everyone to go see it. The paralells between Stephane and Stephanie helped to remind me of the constant dual anxiety that goes along with dating and relationships- the paranoia that your date will not meet you for coffee, the fear that they will hold a single gaffe against you so much that it wil destroy the relationship, and the emotional difficulty of opening yourself up to loss. The stunning visuals were an accoutrement, not a distraction, to this great movie.