Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Various Stuff About Nonhumans That Talk

Two things. First, dig:

Second, they're going to ruin Marcus's favorite kid's movie:
Sci Fi Channel is planning a miniseries for December 2007 called Tin Man, "a wild SF reimagining of The Wizard of Oz." I assumed this meant a horribly low budget, the special effects of a local car commercial, and adding Cylons from Battlestar Galactica, but Sci Fi promises even more: The miniseries is a sometimes psychedelic, often twisted and always bizarre take on The Wizard of Oz. It centers on DG, a young woman plucked from her humdrum life and thrust into The Outer Zone (the O.Z.), a fantastical realm filled with wonder, but oppressed by dark magic... Remember how you were asking for The Wizard of Oz filtered through the disturbed notebook doodlings of an 8th grader? Well, this is it. Enjoy.

Sorry buddy.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Butterfield 8


Dir: Daniel Mann (Come Back, Little Sheba; The Rose Tatoo; The Teahouse of the August Moon; In Like Flint)

Elizabeth Taylor took down an Oscar for her preformance as a woman avoiding her traumas with drink and men is this movie adapted from the John O'Hara novel. I read his "Appointment in Samarra" over the weekend, and in both works the underbelly of society life is exposed with merciless honesty. The book, brilliant. This film, pretty good. But Hollywood got a hold of it, and neutered what I wager was a more brutal and engaging novel.

If they gave out Oscars for sexy, then Taylor obviously deserved one here. Her performance is great, the femme fatale with serious wounds lying just below the surface, alluring and dangerous at the same time. You actually understand why all of these men fall in love with her, a rarity in a world where good acting and a pretty face rarely go together, and the pretty face usually gets the role. The opening scene is a pantomime where Taylor wakes up in a room and tries to remember what happened the night before, putting together clues through her hangover. It's the best part of the film.

Another standout is Laurence Harvey as her married, ne're-do-well society suitor. Like his performance in The Manchurian Candidate, Harvey just teems with rage, barely in control of himself as he rails against life and the world. He is one of the great heels in acting history. The sour acting note (and what a stinker it is) is made by Eddie Fisher. The man can't even come close to acting; he is blown out of the water by Taylor. It helps if you are sleeping with the lead actress to get roles I guess (personal memo: sleep with more lead actresses to jump start acting career).

The story shows lots of promise, even if it falls into that obvious kind of psychoanalysis, where the traumas are easy to diagnose and the self-destructive behavior evident to all. The ending is pretty silly as well. I am sure that O'Hara made all of this sound much more deep than it comes across on the screen. The twists on the ill-fated romance of Harvey and Taylor are welcome, and I found myself openly rooting for Taylor to make the correct decisions, even if her instincts were pointing her in the wrong directions. A better treatment could have made this a very engaging plotline.

But still, if you can't enjoy watching Taylor act then you can't enjoy the movies. She owns the screen, portrays a complex charatcer, and the storyline is certainly dark and interesting enough to hold your attention. Serious students of film must reckon with her, and so I recommend this film in the "sometime before you die" category.


Sunday, November 12, 2006



Dir: Warren Beatty (Heaven Can Wait; Dick Tracy; Bulworth)

Beatty channels Pasternak in this Zhivago-esque romantic epic about communist agitators in WWI America. Warren has as much to say about politics as the story itself, and at times the film theatens to teeter over into vanity or hero worship. But the ambition of the project and the sincerity of the writing and acting make Reds well worth watching, a movie definitely interested in being important and almost getting there.

Beatty (who also co-wrote the script) is John Reed, the leftist journalist whose chroncile of the Russian Revolution "Ten Days That Shook the World" was an international success. He is a member of a Greenwhich Village Communist clique that included the likes of Emma Goldmann and Eugene O'Neill. Diane Keaton is Lousie Bryant, a young woman who follows Reed to New York and struggles with finding her own voice in the revolution and commanding the attention of her frenetic lover. Much of the script deals with the clash between interpersonal and political passions by Beatty and Keaton, and it is the weaker part of the film. Love stories are hard, and I did not really get the reason that these two loved each other so much.

What did come across, really quite gloriously, was the political moment. The film recieved Oscar nominations in all four acting categories, with Jack Nicholson and Maureen Stapleton joining Keaton and Beatty. Jack is O'Neill, who longs for Keaton but is too cynical and romantic for her high minded politics. He, as you would expect, is electric, an actor really coming to understand his talents. Stapleton won for her supporting role as Goldmann. Even though her screen time is somewhat limited, she too has a fire that burns through the screen. Keaton too is quite good, inhabiting her daft blond routine early on but then finding some inner strength and confidence as her character comes into her own. And Beatty too does a fine job. He cares as much as his character does, and he is at his best when giving pasisoned speeches before Russian factory workers.

His direction too is highly capable. Zhivago really is the proper analogy here, with lots of grand snow blanketed images and tightly packed meeting halls. The project is huge, and for only his second movie he does a fine job. The Oscar winning cinematography is really fitting to the subject matter. The highlight of the entire film may be Beatty's device of using interviews with now very elderly contemporaries of Reed to serve as transitions between historical periods in the script. The interviews are suprising in their honesty; some adored the group, some hated them, some couldn't really remember them. It was that memory element that struck me, a subtle reference to the fact that the characters cared so deeply about the moment, and yet hardly anyone remembers them or their sacrifices anymore. Beatty makes his film to preserve their actions and to glamorize their lives, but even he recognizes the fungibility of memory. A really nice touch that rewarded the viewer throughout the film.

Reds is very accessible, a populist version of a really complex historical epic. There are lots and lots of things to like about it. Just a few notches below brilliant, the film is well worth your time, especially for the acting.


Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Hidden Fortress


Dir: Akira Kurosawa (The Lower Depths; The Bad Sleep Well; Kagemusha; Ikiru; Red Beard; High and Low)

AK, the master of exploring universal psychological themes, turns in yet another masterpiece in this bittersweet tale of greed and duty. While everyone knows about Lucas' statement that Hidden Fortress inspired Star Wars, the real comparison is to Treasure of the Sierra Madre, where the lust for gold compels men to betray each other and do the most abhorent things.

Lucas was referring to the perspectival elements of this film, how the story is told from two of lower characters' point of view. A couple of shifty and cowardly con artists, the pair stumble upon some hidden gold and a warrior (ah, Toshiro Mifune) who is keen to keep the treasure for the exiled princess who is in his protection. The four set out to transport the riches to safe territory.

What is so compelling about the film is the blend of comedy and penetrating insight. AK has a way of taking stock characters and turning up the volume on their characteristics so that we recognize the archetypal nature of their actions. And yet, nothing feels forced or contrived. The script is both idiosyncratic and universal, a talent that it is hard to describe but very easy to recognize in this film. It is, for example, far more approachable than Madre, which takes the same theme of greed and puts a much more pessimistic gloss on it. It is a change of mood against the typical, highly dramatic treatment of this subject matter from a director who specializes in inhabiting genuine, recognizable emotional states.

Like his other films, I find that uplifiting element very agreeable. There is something life affirming in Hidden Fortress, even at the point that AK crushes our foibles and ridicules our selfish tendencies. The film is profund, and rests in the grey areas of human motivations.

A stunning and extraordinarily entertaining work of art. In the conversation of the man's best films.


Tuesday, November 07, 2006


Director- Larry Charles (Lots of Sitcoms)

This was a pretty funny movie. I laughed very very hard. The EW cover that said "Is this the funniest movie ever?" was a little off of course. It was not that funny. I would say slightly below Spinal Tap or Bad Santa but a good level above the finest of Adam Sandler dumb comedies. For those of you who live in a cave, Borat is the creation of the Cambridge educated British comedia Sacha Baron Cohen. He is an idiotic Kazakhstani reporter sent to America to explore a foreign nation. Borat's humor works by verbally and physically stumbling into situations where the ignorance of Americans is clearly on display.

The movie is a little bit dumber than the show on HBO was. Borat was one of three characters on Cohen's Da Ali G Show. Some of the scenes in this movie are played more for gross out than sharp political humor. Those toilet humor scenes are less effective because the rest of the movie demonstrates just how smart Borat can be.

Borat is sexist, racist, and pretty much any -ist that is bad that you can think of. His behaviors are more telling about the nature of America than the nature of Kazakhstan of course. Whenever his sexism or racism is greated with encouragement or tacit support it hits you a little bit in the gut. Many say that you could not make Blazing Saddles today because the content seems so racist. I think perhaps its true that getting a studio to greenlight it would be difficult. But if this movie does well, I think there is hope that transgressive comedy that is really offensive can continue to reign.

Saturday, November 04, 2006


Director- Oliver Stone (Alexander)

One of my old favorites I revisited recently. This is a complex film. Charlie Sheen is Chris Taylor, a green enlisted man thrown into Vietnam. He has abandoned an elite college and lifestyle in the United States to learn what it means to be at war. His two commanding officers are Tom Berenger's Barnes and Willem Dafoe's haunting Elias. Barnes and Elias represent two forces battling for Taylor's soul. Barnes is the brutal, animalistic and savage win at all costs warriors. Elias is the inherently peaceful and good soul, who is nonetheless skilled at warfare.

The supporting actors are great as well. Kevin Dillon as a bloodthirsty grunt named Bunny and John C. McGinley as O'Neill, Barnes' sycophantic Lieutenant, are both phenomenal. But while the performances are stellar what sets this film apart is its treatment of the material. It deviates from the scope of many Vietnam films, and many war films before it in general.

Apocalypse Now has always struck me as more Conrad and less Saigon City than other war movies. Vietnam is an appropriate setting for the journey into the darkness of Man, but much about the war itself is lost in Coppola's literary treatment of the war. Larger than life figures like Duvall's Kilgore and Brando's Kurtz cover over existing and relevant critiques of class and race inherent to the US's involvement in Vietnam.

The Deer Hunter is also limited in the scope of how it treats characters. It's examination has a definite bent towards class, to be certain, but its study is more about the effect war in general has on people and less about the uniqueness of Vietnam as a political event for shaping a generation. The film reflects less on the question of "Should we have been in Vietnam?" and more on "What is the result for those who fought there?".

The second half of Full Metal Jacket (released a year later than Platoon) is still less a movie about Vietnam and more about war in general. Its end with the gun wielding female character is interesting in terms of the inversion of traditional notions of masculinity and warfighting, but speaks more and more to universal conceptions about war than what specifically Vietnam meant. And the first half of that movie, a stinging indictment of militarism, haunts far more viewers than the tepid second half.

Platoon says a lot of the things that these movies say, and says it better. While on a grand scale I prefer the literary artistry of Apocalypse Now, Platoon punches me right in the gut everytime I see Elias fall as the Viet Cong chase him while the helicopters circle above his bloody body. The tagline for the movie was "This is the first real movie about Vietnam". We can interpret this several ways. One is that its "real" in the sense that its depiction of the battles is realistic. Indeed, military advisers on the film praised its realism over and above that of battle scenes in Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter. It also opened up a space for more brutal representations of war like those found in Hamburger Hill. Showing lots of bodies on stretchers goes a long way to counter the objection from visual rhetoricians that war movies valorize violence and combat. In this movie, combat does not seem glorious. It seems horrible and scary. It could also be "the first real movie about Vietnam" because it is a real movie in the sense that it is a truly great film- that it is high art and is really specifically about Vietnam as an Event.

The film is also a meditation on what the idea of "enemy" means. The Viet Cong are depicted and shadowy and faceless. They are efficient fighters. They are not above brutality. But for Stone the enemy is within- within the platoon and within the soul. Stone certainly seems to support both Elias and Barnes as leaders over the indecisive nominal Lieutenant of the platoon whose incompetence results in friendly fire deaths. Elias, for all his goodness, is cut down by Barnes. Is this saying that to survive in war you have to be an overwhelmingly brutal character? Perhaps. But then again the idea of Elias is what motivates Taylor to get through the violence and eventually kill Barnes. After all, it is Barnes who cares not for the slaughter and rape that occurs in a village when the platoon is mad with bloodlust after some of their number are tortured by the VC.

Two things about this film I do not like. The voiceovers to me say things that the director could show. In fact, I think the movie shows all of these things. The voiceovers that talk about how Taylor misses home or how the war is a different world are unnecessary. Any viewer can get this from his mannerisms, his discomfort on the trail, his suffering during the silence of a night ambush. His narration at the end of the film is unnecessary for sure.

The second thing I do not like is the climax. As Barnes is poised to kill Chris, a napalm blast brushes him off of Sheen. Burned near to death by the blast, he is an easy target for Taylor to kill. While Talyor now shows himself capable of really killing, the message is hollow. In order to defeat Barnes, Taylor needed the help of a higher power. One reading is that this indicates that the violence of war is so powerful that to fight it is near hopeless. I hold out hope that the meaning of the scene is that there is a higher power behind all that is good and right even when it shows up in wartime, on a violent palette that at all times tries to cut off and annihilate goodness. The napalm from the heavens is a sign that there is some greater ethics that rewards the followers of Elias and punishes Barnes. The problem, however, is that war is indiscriminate. It spares none. Convenient that in the final pitched battle Barnes and more of his followers fall than adherent of Elias. So while I support the ending message, it contravenes the stark and powerful realism of the rest of Stone's film. I do love this movie, despite the end.



Dir: Estela Bravo (The Cuban Excludables)

Hero worshiping propaganda piece about the long time dictator of Cuba. Not that I am opposed to propaganda; there are plenty of half truths and overgeneralizations on all sides of this particular issue that one more hardly should rankle us. Taken dispassionately, as an argument, this documentary does what most of its kind do; presents the best positive case it can and then conveniently ignores or outright lies about the negatives.

As far as dictators go, Castro is on the more tolerable end. He isn't motivated by race, hasn't slaughtered millions, is not developing chemical weapons or trying to destroy the infidels. In Fidel, we have run of the mill power hunger and political repression. And yet, it is undeniable that he has been on the right side of many international issues. It is his foreign policy that is mostly covered by this documentary. His defense of Angola, his early allegiance with the anti-aparthied cause, and his resitance to right wing regimes in Latin America that were supported by the United States are all the actions of someone who has no political price to pay for standing up to powerful countries. Having the US as an enemy helped him domesticly (what a blessing the embargo was to his stability!), and his patronage by the USSR was guaranteed so long as they were able. Castro had the freedom to become the darling of the international left wing.

This documentary conducts interviews with the usual suspects for Castro praise, Harry Belafonte and Alice Walker and Angela Davies and the like. There are no original Catro interviews here, just snippets of other broadcasts. Essentially, the documentary is a piece of editing, not original film work. The story is coherent, at least, and the pre-revolutionary parts of Castro's life are covered well. But the film is hardly a spellbinding production.

Easily, though, the most interesting part of the film is what is not said. Human rights within Cuba are given about three minutes, perhaps. The film maker acknowledges criticisms of the lack of dissent, the jailing of political prisoners, and the odd fact that a man of the people has rejected democracy for forty years. The responses are two-fold: one, "how can you expect him to be a democrat when the big bad USA is always against him" and two (I kid you not, this is run by Harry Belofonte in the film) "political dissent shouldn't be tolerated in Cuba becuase almost everyone supports Castro." This delicious bit of ironic apologetics is worth watching the documentary for itself. No one hates Castro, and those that do should be locked up because no one hates Casrto.

That segment is a microcosm of the problem with this sort of issue. In a polarized rhetorical setting, you either accept Castro wholeheartedly or completely reject him. You either forgive his intolerable domestic repression or support an embargo on the country. There is no room in this film, or in the world apparently, to both admire his foreign policy and abhor his tactics, to acknowledge his ability to pick a fight but reject his methods of waging it. Fidel is a bad, bad documentary becuase it is unsophisticated. That it reflects our civic discourse is a sad affair.