Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Yellow Submarine

Dir: George Dunning (a bunch of French crap nobody's ever heard of)


Richard Lester, why have you forsaken us?

Without putting too fine a point on it, this movie is unwatchable. Trying to keep my eyes focused on the screen both made me nauseous and raised my blood pressure, which I think is biologically impossible in any conditions approximating Earth's gravity. Philip Norman describes this movie as a "masterpiece". This is because Philip Norman has fried his brain with LSD (nb. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarcasm).

Yellow Submarine was made because Brian Epstein owed United Artists a third Beatles film. And so, petulant and resentful, the band went into the studio to make it. But they refused to devote enough time to actually staring in a live action film, and so this celluloid insult to color was created. In cartoon form we see the blue Meanies (deploying missiles, green apples, and some sort of "pointing" disembodied hand that chases characters around) take over Pepperland. The final refugee of Pepperland flees to a flying submarine to get the Beatles from England, and then they go throuhg a bunch of time warps and oceans of paint and other things that make no sense.

I have no idea what is going on in this movie. At one point, one of the Beatles opens up a door in a hallway filled with similar doors and sees a train barreling toward the group. Another immediately comments that "it's all in the mind". Clever, but if I wanted the Beatles to help me trip I'd roll a joint and turn on the White Album. Later there are frozen statues from the cover of the Sgt. Pepper album crying over the devastation caused to Pepperland - I didn't understand how they could cry, but I certainly agreed with the sentiment.

Yellow Submarine caused me physical pain. I totally gave up some time around the scene where the submarine passes a fish, with a strobing, neon tail, doing a breast stroke with the arms coming out of his sides. Back to the back of the shelf where it belongs.

Monday, January 30, 2006


Ok, so technically not a movie...but probably closer to what we traditionally think of as 'film' then a lot of the other schlock on television.

If you haven't tuned in to 24 yet this season, it's worth a look. While this show has taken a terribly brutal turn towards the torture lovin' right in the past few seasons (with visuals that rival Abu Ghraib...shut it, Omri!) , the current season is exploring what happens when a presidential advisor hijacks a presidency. Echoes of Karl Rove abound, though the guy that plays the presidential advisor is a lot better looking.

This theme hearkens back to the show a couple of seasons ago, when the vice-president tried to orchestrate a coup of the presidency at the same time that Cheney and the neocons were doing the same to Bush. Of course, Bush was a little more conciliatory...

Anyways, this show has a strange sense of prescience about current events. Though it is starting to get a little stale, there is still a nice sense of inter-agency bickering and geopolitical machination present in every episode.

It's never too late to tune in, and the official 24 website has an episode guide. Without Monday Night Football, what the hell else are you going to do on Monday?

UPDATE: My main man, Slavoj Z-to-tha-Zizek weighs in on 24.

Left Behind: World at War


Dir: Craig R. Baxley (Action Jackson)

Finally, I get the cheese. This third installment had studio backing from Sony, and the differences are immediate. There is more than one camera, for example. The director has much more experience than the first two clowns (having been second unit director for both Predator and Reds) and is able to employ film conventions much more freely. The score makes sense and adds to dramatic effect. And this time, they could afford more than just Kirk Cameron.

To my viewing rescue comes Lou Gossett, Jr. As the President no less. Charles Martin Smith from American Graffitti and the brilliant Never Cry Wolf also has a cameo as the Veep. Gossett brings just enough acting chops to make this one funny. He is really trying, and that effort in the interests of the silly script was what I wanted. As the White House burns (an actual set this time!), Kirk Cameron converts the guy from Iron Eagle to Christianity. Just ponder that.

The production values of this one are much higher. We get a few gun battles and some sets where effort is evident. Still, things aren't perfect. Projectiles like missles and bazookas are animated onto the scene; the green screen is embarassingly evident. But this is cheesy as opposed in incompetent. Makes for much better viewing.

There is finally some action in the story too. A secular resistance movement has sprouted up to challenge the Anti-Christ's global government. The Christians have collapsed back to conversion only, reconciling my critique of the first two over the fact that the Christians are opposing God's will be attempting to thwart the Apocalypse. There was a very funny bio-terror reference, as our hero (remember, I am pro Anti-Christ here) infects Bibles with an Anthrax-like substance. In the end, communion wine turns out to be the antidote, allowing the Christians to soldier on.

This one was like watching a Rambo movie. Cheesy, silly, some things blow up real good. And it is interesting to watch the chracters approach the stock conflicts in what is now an action movie from a religious angle. "Sorry, my love, but I must fight for my country" becomes "I must fight for my God."

By far the best of the series. Almost a mediocre movie.


My Big Fat Greek Wedding


Dir: Joel Zwick (Fat Albert; Lots of TV work)

The biggest sleeper hit of all time? Spun off into a short lived television series and a Broadway musical? The object of worship for millions of moviegoers? A ubiquitous source of pop culture references? And Marcus won't see it? That, my friends, is an irrational prejudice.

A sweet but lazy bit of safe and stale feminisim, this movie has nothing really wrong with it but nothing right either. A 30 year old ugly duckling spinster (that's how the movie protrays her, not my choice to describe her) decides to break out of the well meaning but suffocating embrace of her old fashioned father. She goes to school, meets a man, and falls in love. But the folks object to the beau's non-Greekness, and hilarity ensues.

I found the romance rather charming. The love story is believable, free from pretence, and involves two eminently likeable characters. It is a romantic comedy narrative above your average Meg Ryan or Kate Hudson movie, and for that was pleasant enough to have on. I smiled a few times.

But the driving force of the movie are the zany, over-the-top ethnic stereotypes embodied in the extended family of our heroine. Now, I didn't find anything here particularly offensive or unduly neagtive. They are colorful charatcers first and foremost, and their ethnicity is interchangeable with any number of nations. But as foils for the love story, counter points that set up obstacles to the romantic leads coming together, they are frustratingly lazy. Oh, the dad doesn't think that women should go to school. Oh, the women have to scheme to get around the old duffer. Oh, the whole community cares only about getting married. Maybe people like this exist out there, in these broad uncomplicated brushstokes. No doubt they do. But I am not sure that their stories make for good movies. Caricature has stepped in and substituted for a well thought out script.

Even the WASPy parents of the groom are cartoons of stuck up rich people. To have raised kids with so much humanity in them, the surrounding families of both these people are bereft of any worldliness or self reflection.

Like I said, there is nothing wrong with that. I laughed a few times, was charmed a few times. The montage of the wedding preparations was quite pleasant. But this is the cinema equivalent of a beach novel; everyone knows what to expect before picking it up, and doesn't want to be made to think too hard while pulling sand out of their ass crack.

Forgettable bit of fluff. Irrational prejudice? Confirmed.


Saturday, January 28, 2006


Dir: Ridley Scott (Legend, 1492: Conquest of Paradise)

2000 (Oscar Winner-Best Picture)

How do you get the Roman Coliseum? Kill. Kill. Kill. No birthdays or memorials to celebrate this evening, just a very high-end popcorn film. Although this may have not been the absolute best film of 2000, I do not mind the selection given the message it sends: Action-packed blockbusters released in the Summer are worthy of critical merit (There is an interesting parallel between the film's narrative and its ascention to Oscar glory: win the people and you will win Rome; win the people and you win the Academy Award). Plus, I believe Ridley Scott does not get proper love. When you helm two of the most important science fiction films (Alien and Blade Runner), an exceptional post-feminist film (Thelma and Louise), and the woefully underrated Black Hawk Down, you deserve all the accolades that accompany cinematic achievements. If Gladiator is your third or fourth best film, you boast a noteworthy career.

The basic narrative of Gladiator is rather trite; a Rockyesque rise to the top that is more about honor than personal glory plays well for American audiences. But the added texture of political struggle set within an empire's moral decline enhances a simple story into insightful ruminations on honor and commitement to causes beyond the individual. Russell Crowe's (Academy Award winning) performance as the humble and honorable General Maximus is rivaled only by Jaoquin Phoenix's insecure and vengeful portrayal of Commidus, the disenfranchised son of Marcus Aurelius. Crowe is indeed one of our better living actors, but Phoenix is no slouch (I believe he is odds on favorite to win for Walk the Line).

Scott is known as being an actor's director, encouraging improvisation and creative freedom for actors to explore their characters. As a result, Scott gets luminous, three dimensional performances that often go unnoticed amidst enthralling special effects and engaging action sequences. I love Soctt's camera; he captures action in intimate ways that are not too disorienting and actually advance either the narrative or character development.

This is only my sencond time seeing the film in its entirety, and admittedly I enjoyed it more this time (and I liked it when we saw it in the theater). This version is the original cut, so I am curious as to what Scott did in the Director's Cut (apparently, according to IMDB, Scott is the first to have a "director's cut"-I assume with Blade Runner. The Harrison Ford voiceover and the happier ending in Blade Runner were studio demands).

Ok, so I have spoken little about Gladiator. But, it is a film worth revisting. And Rome is worth fighting for.

In Memoriam: A Face in the Crowd


Dir: Elia Kazan (A Tree Grows in Brookyln; Gentleman's Agreement; A Streetcar Names Desire; On the Waterfront; East of Eden)

May I just make a humble observation to the loyal readers of I Just Saw? A Face in the Crowd is the BME. No debating. BME.

Where has this movie been all my life? Why is it not dominating the critical and popular debate about the essential and brilliant works of creativity that this country has ever produced? How can I have even considered the idea that I myself was cinema literate without having seen it?

The film examines the rise of a media mogul, a country bumpkin who rides his charm and homespun wisdom to the heights of fame, only to have it all come crashing down around him. Andy Griffith gives one of the greatest performances I have ever seen as "Lonesome Rhoades," the drifter who is discovered by the heartbreaking Patricia Neal. Griffith's undeniable charm, his unabahsed full-on American resistance to being controlled, is slowly worn away by the trappings of fame. The message is dynamic, subversive, and as contemporary as any movie from this long ago could possible be.

The allegory is a mix between "Network" and "Bob Roberts." The myth making potential of the mass media is explored brilliantly, with Rhoades early on resisting the image makers and later using that power to sinister ends. The impact of demagogeury through television is still cutting. I was absolutely exhilirated while watching the story unfold. Kazan has always explored social issues brilliantly; and this examination is to my mind his most chilling.

This political message is coupled with some genuinely touching interpersonal narratives as well. No one, the audience included, can help but admire and love the early Rhoades. When he hurts those around him, we are hurt as well. The characterization is complex and rewarding, complementing the politics of the movie very well.

This review is in memory of Anthony Franciosa, who passed last week. I had never seen him in a film. After Keith Olberman praised this movie, I queued it up (thank you Netflix, BCE). His sleazy agent is very well played, if a minor part of the film. Griffith steals every scene, but I can see the talent of Franciosa, and look forward to seeing more of him. Walter Mathau is as good as I have ever seen him as the writer who sees through the pretense of celebrity.

Play close attention to a montage scene after Rhoades becomes the spokesperson for a vitamin. It's flashy editing is forty years ahead of its time, the sort of thing done now to appeal to an Indy crowd. I can't remember seeing something like that this early in cinema, and it is wickedly effective.

I mean it; this movie is both brilliant and vital. It has taken a permanent place on my list of the greatest movies ever made. This isn't just afterglow. I loved this movie deeply. I cannot recommend it more enthusiastically.



Dir: Richard Lester (A Hard Day's Night, How I Won The War)


If A Hard Day's Night captured Beatlemania on the upswing, Help! represents the last gasps of the Beatles' naive and joyful innocence. The band is a little older and a little more serious - the next time we hear them, their drug use and bitterness towards fame had produced Rubber Soul, marking the end of the early Beatles. Watching Help! is a bittersweet experience. John, Paul, George, and Ringo get to be the Boys for one last time, but they didn't know what we do - that it really would be the last time.

The plot revolves around an incompetent Eastern (or as the movie calls them, Oriental) religious cult dedicated to getting back a sacrificial ring that has been mailed to Ringo by any means necessary. After several more modest attempts, they resolve to kill the drummer. When the Beatles figures out what's going on with the help of the beautiful Eleanor Bron, playing a dissident from the cult, they go to a scientist to have the ring removed. The scientist, played by Victor Spinetti, turns out to be slightly on the mad side and also starts trying to capture Ringo and get the ring. The resulting antics have the Beatles fleeing to all kinds of exotic locations.

The writing and the plot are both significantly weaker than in A Hard Day's Night. Where there are one-liners, they sometimes work and sometimes don't. Even when they do, there's a kind of formulaic "this worked before so let's try it again" feeling to them. The reckless and blustering non-sequiturs don't work as well as they did before. Not to say that the movie isn't funny or that the Beatles don't look like they're having a good time - there is still joking and laughter and a "buddy" feel to them. But carelessness is not what this movie does best, and so even when it works it seems a little out of place.

Where Help! shines - where it's even better than A Hard Day's Night - is in the series of what can only be called music videos. In A Hard Day's Night, the music cuts in and out, while in Help! Lester lets the Beatles play straight through most of their songs. His camera is less frantic and a touch more deferential, either taking wide shots when the Beatles play in an open field or panning in to capture the setting sun shining through a guitar on a sandy beach. The music is not really part of the movie like it is in A Hard Day's Night. It's more like a series of relaxing and tight music videos in between the plot. Where in A Hard Day's Night the music is played by the Beatles within the context of the movie itself, in Help! it's almost like the movie is at best an excuse to treat the viewer to the beautifully crafted music videos.

I'm probably being a little too hard on Help!. The jokes are easy to laugh with, the Boys are fun to watch, and the dames are easy on the eyes. If watching it was just like watching any old movie, it would be an entertaining distraction. Unlike Magical Mystery Tour or Yellow Submarine it never becomes painful to watch, while Lester's talent ensures that the music videos often rise to nothing short of breath-taking. But, unlike a Hard Day's Night, it's not a good enough film to make us shake the premonition that we're watching something that would very soon end - and that makes the entire thing a little sad.

Fight Club & A Clockwork Orange

I watched these movies back to back some weeks ago. I had intended to use that juxtaposition to have something eloquent to say about how they related.

But those insights have eluded me. And now too much time has passed. Since every movie I see gets blogged, I note that I watched them and have nothing to say.

I like the first and really like the second. Still don't like the ending of Fight Club.


A Hard Day's Night

Dir: Richard Lester (Help, How I Won the War)


In the future, an interdisciplinary team of scholars - physicists, biologists, psychologists, and not a few philosophers - will attempt to discover why the human animal is physiologically incapable of remaining unhappy while watching A Hard Day's Night. The answer will almost certainly involve a convergence between the harmony of She Loves You, the shape of writer Alun Owen's frontal lobe, and the frequencies at which the fundamental superstrings that make up the fabric of space-time vibrate.

The budget for a Hard Day's Night was less than $500,000 - a sparse figure for a Hollywood production even in the early 60s. even then was sparse for a Hollywood production. The sum was a result of widespread feeling that rock musicals were not serious film - even the ones staring musical greats like Elvis had never succeeded in raising the genre up to any level of repute. But Lester took his limited budget and made it into a virtue - the camera is primitive and frantic - it has as much trouble keeping up with John, Paul, George, and Ringo as the wild throngs of screaming girls.

The movie is a day in the life flick. What little plot there is revolves around trying to keep the Boys together long enough to appear on live on a BBC program in the evening. Standing in between that manager Norman Rossington and that goal is Paul's grandfather - a "real mixer" who lives to create chaos and weave strife wherever he goes. The rest of the movie is just non-stop one-liners, jokes, and obscure near-non sequiturs.

No scene in the movie disappoints, but that are some that are shiver-inducing good. Toward the beginning of the movie, the Boys sneak away from their "homework" of answering letters to go dancing at a club. Film scholars will tell you that the subsequent few minutes bear attention because of Lester's innovative use of jump-cuts, cutting from Norm's resigned exasperation at the Boys' mischief to the Beatles themselves laughing, dancing, and flirting to their own music. Contemporary films that punctuate pace by cutting in and out of frantic music and suppressed dialogue - or that weave music into documentaries - are both the descendents of Lester's modern style and his pale imitators. Meanwhile, everyone else will tell you that the technique is irrelevent to the ultimate point - that it's impossible not to be happy during the joyful sequence.

In terms of raw comedic horsepower, there's the press conference - a masterpiece of writing driven, again, by Lester's jump-cuts ("are you a mod or a rocker"... "I'm a mocker"). And of course there's the canonical scene in the field, shot from the air, where the Boys run around to Can't Buy Me Love until evicted from the field by yet another dour old man who hates fun. It doesn't matter whether the scene is all words or all music - the editing is near perfect, and the sense of reckless happiness is palpable.

But all of these scenes - brilliant as they are - pale in comparison to the concert scene at the end of the movie. Norm has finally managed to herd the Boys on stage. Having already had fun doing everything else, they joyfully pick up their instruments and launch into a medley. This is pure Beatlemania - Lester cuts from joyful Ringo to content George to laughing John and Paul, and in between he splices shots of the screaming and hysterical girls in the audience. The Boys can barely hear themselves play, the audience certainly can't hear the music, but still girls are sobbing and tearing at their hair and fainting. The camera gives just a glimpse of a bunch of girls jumping up and down, cuts away, and then comes back to focus on just one sobbing girl screaming in ecstasy. In between we see the Beatles, grinning and singing and being the greatest band of all time.

Higher Learning

Dir: John Singleton (Boyz in the Hood, Rosewood)


Higher Learning is a scathing film which pushes hard at the perception of Universities as places of diversity. Like other college movies, Singleton makes characters into the most extreme version of themselves and offers up his own versions of popular stereotypes. I think this movie is a must see because this film doesn’t degrade into a sappy multicultural story. As one character puts it: “you’ve got to get that We are the World shit out of your head”.

Omar Epps stars as Malik, a first year student athlete whose racial awareness is heightened by his constant harassment by the campus cops and his friendship with Fudge, played by Ice Cube a blunt rolling sixth year black power student.

Of course I think that Ice Cube steals the show with his quick delivery and deadpan stares. He gives extended lectures with a central debate on how black folk should respond to racism. Laurence Fishburne’s character – a bootstraps hardnosed professor encourages Malik to take responsibility for his actions and get serious in his work, while Fudge helps to explain why racism makes it impossible to be moderate about consciousness.

The central thinker discussed by the black characters on the screen is Fredrick Douglass, the abolitionist leader and famous orator. Singleton is making a movie designed to entertain, so the learning doesn’t get too preachy, but the ideas are interesting. What would have been neat would have been to include Harriet Tubman as another political philosophy. Butch Lee’s book on Harriet Tubman: a Jailbreak out of history does an incredible job contrasting Tubman’s guerilla army strategy with Douglass’ above ground work.

There are other storylines in Higher learning, a rape and developing feminist consciousness in a young woman (Kristy Swanson) and the development of a young nazi. But neither of these stories gets the development of the central question posed by Malik.

They do offer great moments of cinema, for example, when Michael Rappaport’s character, a budding white supremacist, realizes that engineering might not be the right major for him as the camera pans over an extremely diverse class – as he chooses that moment to unveil his new skinhead haircut.

Everywhere in Higher Learning Singleton is layering complex messages using the camera. He uses several shots of the American flag to mark moments of hypocrisy and courage, bad guys are marked with skull t-shirts and nazi flags, and several shots have main characters coming to poignant realizations while behind them anonymous white college life continues unchallenged.

The dialogue is sharp, the ideas are difficult and the movie doesn’t have a happy ending. Sounds like the right movie about discrimination on campus.

Friday, January 27, 2006


Dir: Milos Foreman (Loves of a Blond, People vs. Larry Flynt)

The themes from the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid review continue. Herr Mozart, Happy 250th birthday. And Amadeus easily makes my list of favorite movies. Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, this is a great film, and will likely make a few top 100 lists (it did for the AFI)., but will rarely make the lists of learned and snobby film critics and scholars. A solid costume drama with talent on both sides of the camera, Amadeus was made for the Oscars (and it won the most in Oscar history until Titantic steamed into existence). Poignant performances, exceptional directing, and an unparalleled score (it is Mozart, of course) eclispse any need for complete historical fidelity.

Despite the film's namesake, the movie is Salieri's story, the rival of Mozart and famous Italian composer who knowningly thrives in mediocrity. Salieri, a steely man of faith, only wishes to play beautiful music in celebration of God. However, the crude and silly Mozart functions as God's instrument, and Salieri is cursed with only the ability to recognize Mozart's genius. This rumination on faith, art, beauty and envy, from my view, boast one of the exceptional (and most erotic and moving) scenes in film history. The prideful Mozart, despite difficulties finding wealthy patrons, refuses to submit his work for approval to be hired as a teacher for the royals. Mrs. Mozart, without Wolfie's knowledge, turns to Salieri for help. As he pours over Mozart's original compositions, Salieri sees "the voice of God," a sublime beauty that is both tangible and unattainable; and as Salieri looks at each individual sheet of music, the score changes to match the composition (pure genius). The most complex expressions of love, beauty, passion, torture, faith, perfection, envy and desire all captured in a two minute scence (although, this scene is rivaled by the final scene where Salieri and Mozart work on the Requiem).

F. Murray Abraham's (a Pittsburgh native) Salieri, for my money, is one of the most complex, maniacal, and sympathetic characters in film history. There is no greater torture than the love of absolute beauty and the desire to create it, but cursed with only the ability to recognize it. If the quality of a film is determined by its ability to move its audience on a fundamental level, for me, few rival Amadeus. But when your source material is one of the most transcendent artists in history, inspiration comes easily. What is it about musical geniuses? Mozart dies at 36, Beethoven loses his hearing before he writes the Ninth (the MOST perfect piece of music ever written and he never got to hear it). See this film, you will be a better person. Happy Birthday, Wolfie.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Dir: George Roy Hill (The Sting)


In honor of Paul Newman's 81st birthday, it only seems fitting to celebrate by viewing one of his many great films (and coincidentally, Sundance film festival is currently in full swing). For me, I have lists of what I consider the best films in history and my list of personal favorites; there is some overlap between the two, but Butch Cassidy falls cleanly into the latter. Quite simply, this film is just fun. It does not boast a complex narrative or stirring intellectual insights (the anachronism of our beloved bank robbers notwithstanding), but the spirited performances and the inspired banter are well worth the price of admission. The screen is not big enough to contain Newman's charisma as the affable bandit. Likewise the chemistry he shares with the stoic Sundance (Robert Redford) is the model for all "buddy films." (I hesitate to call them anti-heroes, for they are too charming for such a invidious term).

The plot is simple. As infamous (which means more than famous) bank robbers, Butch and Sundance lead the Hole in the Wall gang on playfully, yet fortuitously successful, trainrobbing excersions ("is that you Woocock!?"). That is until they become too hot to work in the States, fleeing from "Who are those guys?". Therefore, the two (along with Sundance's signifcant other and apple of Butch's eye, Katherine Ross), head to Bolivia to exploit their talents and met their match.

In a time where cynicism dominates my view of Hollywood celebrities, Paul Newman is an icon of sincerity and goodwill. Being married for nearly fifty years to the same woman and donating more than $100 million to various charities (not to mention being a superb actor) will always get my respect. I'll admit, I have little brand loyalty. But more often than not, I purchase Newman's Own products. I'll always support child welfare and a good salad dressing. Newman is one of the last vestiages of classical Hollywood. The man is all about good looks, charm, humility, and grace. Mr. Newman, Happy Birthday. The world is a much better place with you in it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Not Film Related

Two things

A) Can I get everyone on here's current email addresses?

B) What's everyone involved with/thinking about NCA?

trying not to set a precedent for non-film related stuff on this blog.


Monday, January 23, 2006

His Girl Friday

Dir: Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, few others)


This film has an undeniable claim to being one of the best movies ever made, and a credible claim to being the best comedy. It stars Cary Grant as Walter Burns, the owner and director of a Chicago newspaper that divides its column inches between muckraking, human interest stories, and outright fiction. He plays opposite the devestatingly beautiful Rosalind Russell, playing his ex-wife and best reporter Hildy Johnson. Hildy has just shown up to quit his paper and to tell him that she's getting remarried. The husband to be is Ralph Bellamy playing Bruce Baldwin (one of the many in-jokes in the movie occurs when Burns, trying to describe Baldwin to an underling, says he "looks like that film actor, Ralph Bellamy"). When Burns commits himself to making sure that Hildy and Bruce never leave the city to go and get married, Bruce doesn't stand a chance.

When the movie was translated from the play The Front Page, the reporter who's quitting is changed from a man intending to go into advertising to Hildy Johnson, who wants to live 'like a real woman' - as a housewife caring for kids. The change introduced a significant subtext into the film, as Hildy negotiates masculinity (she smokes and drinks at lunch) and femininity (she continually insists that doing so makes her not a real woman) ultimately without resolution.

The beauty of this movie is the pace and the script. The movie for a long time was the undisputed fastest paced talking comedy ever created. There is not a missed second in the entire film, and barely a line that isn't hysterical. Burns and Hildy are hard-boiled, cynical city-slickers who look natural together - during shots they lean into each other as they trade the most vicious barbs. To keep Bruce in the city, Walters engineers various stunts that have Bruce persistently landing in jail. To keep Hildy in the city, he convinces her to take one last story about an insane man who is to be hung by corrupt city officials. Hildy takes the story, and much of the rest of the movie is spent in the press room of the courthouse. Here, a not very flattering picture of journalists develops, as the film depicts them variously making up stories and cold heartedly demonizing innocents. As the day runs out, Hildy begins to fall back in love with journalism (and with Burns), and grows increasing frustrated with Bruce's inability to survive city life.

The camera work sets a sharp contrast to the pace of the rest of the movie, but only to accentuate Hildy and Burns's hectic pace. Most of the film takes place inside a single room in the courthouse (and virtually the rest of it in Burns's office, filmed from a single angle that opens into the entire room). The set, on the other hand, does reflect the pace - phone lines are everywhere, people trip over doors, etc. And no minute passes without a wisecrack or a deadpan insult. There is no part of the movie that is not laugh out loud funny.

This is one of the movies that I would quite simply never see but for living in Los Angeles and having the Aero theater within driving distance for a slow Sunday night. What an incredible movie.

House of the Dead

Directed by Uwe Boll (Alone in the Dark)

Wow. I thought this had to be a joke- like a movie someone made while they were in college or something. But no! It was actually bankrolled by a studio. "Doctor" Boll (he insists on his credentials being mentioned) has become "the guy" for converting video games into movies- House of the Dead was an arcade game in which you shot zombies with guns, Alone in the Dark was an old Atari movie based on some Lovecraft, and Bloodrayne was about vampires who fought Nazis (or something ridiculous).
Boll is pretty much like Ed Wood without the talent. In interviews he says he "likes to cast the movies right before they start shooting- this way you get good actors who have holes in their schedules. I guess this is how he ended up with such high demand talent as Tara Reid and "that dude who was in Final Destination 2). Apparentally both Michael Madsen and Ben Kingsley appear in Bloodrayne, but refuse to speak given some incident that occurred during the filming of Species (another winner!!).
Now here comes the best part- and I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP. We are all familiar with The Producers of course being cultured folk. In that film it was discovered that you could find a way to make money with a movie that was a flop. What a hilarious premise!! But wait- the good people who brought us zeppelins and Nazism have outdone themselves again- there is a German law that says ONE HUNDRED PERCENT of all cash invested in in a movie can be written off via taxes? Isn't this unbelievable?!?! For more on this check out http://www.cinemablend.com/feature.php?id=209
So Mr. (err Professor) Boll is able to just purchase rights to videogames and churn out some total schlock, reaping nothing but profits in the process. It shows. This movie was bad. Terrible bad. Awful bad. Dare I say- worse than Alien vs. Predator. If anyone asks if you want free Showtime, make sure that this movie is not coming on anytime in the calendar year you will receive the services of that premium channel. The plot is ludicrous. There is a massive summer party on a random island (ominously named Bone Island- thats original!) that some kids decide to go to. At this party is a generic band and lots of fun loving youths who love to take off their tops and rock out to electric guitar. But when our progtagonists arrive, the party is a wreck and no people can be seen. Heavens could it be- ZOMBIES?!?!
The zombies in this movie make zero sense. First, they have no consistent qualities of movement. Sometimes thay move fast enough to eat a nubile teen. Sometimes they move so slowly that an aging Jurgen Prochnow can escape their wrath. Maybe the speed they move is related to the number of extras Professor Boll was able to nail in his trailer during that day at the shoot- if the hot asian dance team was interested then the zombies move slowly, but if Boll has lots of pent up sexual energy the zombies run like Carl Lewis to attack poor Clint Howard.
One final point I need to ruminate on- Boll finds it necessary to splice in clips from the actual video game during the movie- so in a scene transition we will see screen shots of zombies getting their heads blasted off (in the game, the zombies moved slowly by the way). This is an interesting "tactic". Of course other interesting moves might have included a giant talking bologna- this does not mean it should be done.
In conclusion this film is terrible- I think one day in heaven all of us will have an Uwe Boll film festival to have something to laugh about together- but for now i say screw this movie, it was awful. Oh and it was called House of the Dead but there isn't really a HOUSE in it- more like a rickety cabin. But no one would go see Makeshift Shack of the Dead. Oh well.

Sunday, January 22, 2006


Dir: Robert Bresson (Au Hasard Balthusar, Diary of a Country Priest)

1959 (One of the best years for foreign films)

The deeply religious and contemplative French director continues his ruminations on morality and spirituality in perhaps his most important work, Pickpocket. This 75 minute film goes to great lengths to unsettle audience expectations of generic filmmaking. The opening crawl announces that Pickpocket is not a film about a criminal or is a typical caper flick, instead the film centers on the moral ambivalence of the petty thief, Michel.

Michel falls into a more experienced crowd and successfully pulls off numerous pickpocketing scams (the filming of these pickpocketing schemes are quite amazing, Bresson had a professional magician/pickpocket on-set to ensure realism). Pickpocketing serves as a substitute for any real effort for self-understanding. His emotional and moral distance isolates him from any genuine human emotion, either for his mother or his mother's lovely neighbor, depsite their numerous attempts to reach out to Michel.

Plot and narrative are only circumstantial to this contemplative piece. It runs a little better than an hour, but it feels remarkably slow. But that is not a bad thing given Bresson's broader artistic vision. The score is sparse and the editing disrupts any pretense of continuity. It moves slowly, but every shot captures the isolation and indifference that plagues Michel's life. Learned film scholars suggest that Bresson was inspired by Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, telling the tale of a disaffected and morally ambiguous man. However, I thought of Meursault, from Camus's the Stranger when watching the film (but since I have not read C & P, my resources for analogy are limited).

The film is considered one of the most important in cinema history, according to erudite film scholars. So, I will concede the film is much smarter than me. I look forward to listening to the commentary for much greater insight. If you wish to see all the exemplars of cinema history, according to those in the know, see it. In my dual lists of "most important films" and "my favorites," Pickpocket will mostly likely only make the former.

2005, one of the best ever?

In a departure from our standard reviews, I would like to posit the following proposition: 2005 should be, or will be, considered one of the best years in film history. There are a few years that boast numerous cinematic achievement and are widely recognized as exceptional years for film: 1939 (Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Wuthering Heights, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Rules of the Game), 1959 (North by Northwest, The World of Apu, Pickpocket, Ben Hur, lost of other notable foreign films), 1976 (Rocky, Network, Taxi Driver, All the President's Men), to name a few. You can even make strong cases for 46, 63, 77, and 99.

Indeed, it is hard to recognize a contemporaneous historical moment, but as I was watching the Golden Globes, I was struck by the movies and performances that were NOT nominated. More so, I was shocked by the number of films and performances, that in any other year, would be clear favorites. So many of last year's films are not just artistic achievements, but engaging important political and social issues. For Your Consideration: Brokeback Mountain, Good Night and Good Luck, Crash, A History of Violence, Transamerica, Syriana, the Constant Gardner and Munich (and Omri, I think you really sell short this film) are all stirring stories that entertain lofty ambitions. Cinderella Man, Capote, and King Kong (yes King Kong) are all great character sketches. 2005 also witnessed, in my humble opinion two of the best comic book movies: Sin City and Batman Begins. And let us not forget we saw the Star Wars saga conclude this past summer.

Maybe it is too early to tell (I am waiting for Marcus' retort grounded on the assumption that the celluloid must decay a bit before such proclamations...but this fish wants to acknowledge the waters he is swimming in).

My encomium to 2005.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Dances with Wolves

Dir: Kevin Costner (The Postman, or How One Tries to End a Career)


I have not seen this film since its theaterical release sixteen years ago. Vagues memories of the film suggested that I enjoyed it. But that was years ago; prior to my journey through academic literature that informed me that the fetishization of the Other is wrought intellecual and social liabilities. Admittedly, I am no fan of characters, let alone real people, who practice cultural self-hatred by myopically romanticizing the differences of foreign peoples (spend anytime backpacking in Europe, you are bound to find "educated", self-hating American college students who relentlessly attempt to adopt the social practices of the French, because they are so much better; but in the end, they are the most "American" people in Europe). Digression aside, I found Dances with Wolves to be more balanced and less fetishistic that expected.

The narrative centers on the journey of Lt. John Dunbar (Costner) as he takes up residence in a frontier outpost. Lonely but content, Dunbar finds solitude in experiencing the frontier before it disapprears at the hands of white colonization. While waiting for the Army to relieve him of his post, Dunbar slowly develops a relationship with the neighboring Lakota Sioux Native Americans (and the local wolf, Two Socks). The good hearted Dundar holds no disrespect, or really any type of prejudice, against the Native Americans. His efforts to make contact are initially rebuffed by the jaded and distrusting tribe (can't say I blame them). However, one elder, Kicking Bird (Graham Greene, not the author) recognizes the good in Dunbar, and reaches out through a series of clumbsy conversations and gift exchanges. Unlike lesser films that show bridging communication gaps through a montage or a series of trite exchanges, Dances recognizes the frustration and trust that accompanies cross-culture communication. Conversations become smoother when the local white woman adopted by the Native Americans recalls her English and translates for Dunbar and Kicking Bird; possibly a lazy narrative device, but she figures prominently in the story as the love interest (he falls in love with the white woman, hmmmm...).

Costner is very clear about the underlying message of the film (and it is a message I endorse). Dances, I believe, does an passable job of circumventing my fetish harague by demonstrating both Dunbar and the Lakota Sioux as virtuous but flawed. Both parties are equally interested in the other, including any faults the other may possess. Yes, Costner does teeter on the naive romanticization of the Native Americans by having Dunbar fully integrate into the tribe within a year (believability is not longer sitting shot-gun), but I am willing to accept that in favor of the broader critique.

The Oscars were very kind to Costner. For the second straight time, Martin Scorsese lost to an actor-turned-first-time-director (Redford and Oridinary People (1980) beat Raging Bull; Dances beat out Goddfellas). Clearly, Dances was one of the two best films of the year (Awakenings, Ghost and Godfather III were the other three nominated films), but was it the best? It was definitely the most beautiful.

If you have four hours, it is a film worth revisiting.



Dir: Akira Kurosawa

AK channels Frank Capra in this story of a bureaucrat who, upon learning of his impending death, decides to live life to the fullest. The praise for this film is effusive, with some claiming it among the director's masterpieces. I was not quite that moved by it; this is no "Red Beard" in my mind. But still, it's Kurosawa.*

*This is one of the few times where I have stopped a review half-way through in order to sleep on it. This film is better than I thought right after viewing it.

The first half of the film tackles Watanabe's realization that he has wasted his life in the crippling and heartless bureaucracy of modern Japan. He surrounds himself with youth and revelry, trying to recapture joy in life. But throughout this first act, the failure of such proxy living is apparent. Takashi Shimura's Watanabe is perpetually hunched over and wears of look of abject shock, unable to fathom how we got to this state and what to do now in order to reclaim his life. It was this first act that failed to click with me, coming off as a really depressing verison of "Lost in Translation." I have to admit I found it rather boring, as we take a long time to come to the conclusion that we have been barking up the wrong tree.

*But after reflection, I think AK is actually strongly committing to his point. I have seen, countless times, the Scrooge-esque elements of the first half. I thought it was nothing special. But all along, AK was refusing to redeem his character this way; among the parties and the revelry, still that skeletal hollow look, the hunched shoulders, the barely audible speech from our protagonist. I was not ready for the movie to critique this type of redemption so strongly, so it failed to resonate with me. AK has another solution, and must eliminate the competition before laying it out.

Then, Watanabe dies. And from here on out, the movie is quite strong. The rest of the film is in flashback (real, real nice touch). At his wake, his family and co-workers gather together and remember him. As the sake flows, it becomes apparent that Watanabe's strange dedication to the construcion of a park on a filthy patch of land, a park that the neighborhood had been unable to get built due to the indifference of the bureaucracy, was his real life mission. The increasingly drunken civil servants lament their own intransigence. The hero worship of the ordinary people, inspired by Watanabe's dedication to their needs, prompts a series of revelations in the men who know now that they too have wasted their lives. It is really interesting to watch, epiphanies soaked in booze and slurred proclamations for change. One does not have to know much about bureaucracy to guess what happens to these promises once the civil servants sober up.

This movie was too smart for me, at first. The powerful and compelling second act illuminates the work in the first. This film is political and allegorical, a stinging indict of self perpetuating red tape and the dehumanization that such a system causes both individually and collectively.

Sure, among Kurowsawa's best. Maybe tomorrow, I will call it BME.


Thursday, January 19, 2006

Left Behind II: Tribulation Force


Dir: Bill Corcoran (A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes: The Annette Funicello Story)

Um, yeah. Not much tribulating here. Except for the audience. Yeesh.

Armageddon continues to unfold, slowly, in this second installment in the Left Behind series. Kirk Cameron is back as the interepid reporter bent on exposing the plot of the anitchrist to use the UN as a global government that marks the end of the world. After all the character development (loose term, believe me) of the first, I looked forward to some good old fashioned face melting and judgment of the infidels and horsemen and cool stuff in this one.

Well, the Horsemen show up--on a slide projector. And that's about it, really. Instead of complex Biblical prophecy, I get lame love stories and lots of conversions. It seems that the popularity of the books is not nearly so much in the chilling indict of a Godless world, but in the drama of cyncial individuals who come to Christ through witnessing the faith of another. That might be very compelling for the born again, who went through such an experience. But for us heathens, it is boring. At least the love story has gotten laughably silly. The image of Cameron flirting with a girl in a phone booth (you know, silly faces and faces pressed cheeck to cheeck) while he is waiting for a plane to GO CONFRONT THE ANTICHRIST gave me a pleasant chortle. At least Armageddon won't ruin the puppy love of these cute kids.

And may I just say that the devil is pretty stupid. He lets all of the Christians come in and foil his plans to be proclaimed the Messiah by bringing them into his inner circle. This is the Hell Beast, after all; is his power so limited that screwing around with his cell phone is going to thwart him?

Some promising things, though, near the end. The world's leading Rabbinical scholar is convinced by Cameron to travel to the Wailing Wall (under UN guard, now, global government you know, and represented by one of the dumbest set designs I have seen in a while). There, the Rabbi meets the Witnesses, two preachers just milling around in this super secure area who proclaim the Gospel and breathe Biblical fire on people. Now we're talking! After about 45 seconds of preaching, the Rabbi is convinced and, in a welcome bit of offensivess, proclaims to the world that Jesus is the true Messiah. That the actor is wearing a yamulka while delivering these lines is exactly what I was hoping for from these movies.

Grander themes are beginning to emerge. The antichrist wants to unite everyone under one religion, and cloaks all his deception in talk of peace, unity, and disarmament. It is the cyncial, urban liberals who are most attracted to this new despot. I guess the lesson is only listen to people preaching war and division. But then, I thought the Armageddon was suppoed to be a good thing, that the coming end of the world was when you all (believers) get off this rock and party on in heaven. Why are the Christians trying to stop the antichrist? It HAS to unfold that way, the Bible says so.

Me, I am rooting for the antichrist. At least something cool might happen when he starts to work his magic.


Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Smiles of a Summer Night


Dir: Ingmar Bergman

I am tempted to say that this is one of the greatest romantic comedies I have ever seen. But I cannot say that; that statement does no justice to this movie. This is one of the best films I have ever seen.

Bergman has taken familiar material about the courtly indiscretions of lovers and eleveated it into fascinating drama. The characters are so fresh and complex, and the story so cleverly woven together, that I was continually thinking of a delicately balanced painting, where each look tells a story and the placement of each figure complements the others perfectly. Amidst the flirtatiousness and sexual energy of the actors, darker truths about jealousy and loneliness linger. This roller coaster from joy to sorrow, from freedom to slavery to one's emotions, generates a layered study of love that is both brilliant as a statement of the human condition and completely entertaining to boot.

The plot invloves a series of intermingled relationships. I won't get into the details of the couplings, both because of their complexity and my own aversion to revealing too many aspects of the narrative of any movie in these posts. Part of the magic of the film is watching how the tangled web is woven, of who should be with whom and how they are going to get there. But each pair as we first encouter them constitutes an incommensurable clash of personalities, as each character is him or herself an archetype for an approach to love. Resolving that dissonance, each according to its own nature, was an accomplishment to rival the best plays I have ever seen.

The acting is across the board tremendous. Each of the female characters rises above her male counterpart in some important way, through intelligence or spirit or cunning or fortitude. Unlike the simpering, man-hunting caricatures that can all too often populate this sort of story, the women here are all nuanced and poweful characters, at least by the end of the film. The male actors step out of the way often, allowing the women to shine while they themselves stick to the intraverted nature of their characters.

The writing as well is truly remarkable. Characters will, like gunshots interrupting a scene, suddenly break out of the conversation and reveal their inner feelings behind the banter. Not as some clownish aside or preachy soliloquy, but a natural consequence of an inner reaction to the pretense of the lives they lead throughout the film. For example, in discussing her openly philanderous husband, Charlotte Magnus (played by Margit Carlqvist) turns to the camera and opines on her disgust with men. They are deceitful and selfish and cruel and "have hair all over their bodies." Carlqvist's revulsion, and the tremendous depth it gives to Charlotte as a character, stays with the viewer for the rest of the film, coloring our understanding of the woman's actions. Each character gets similar moments, where Bergman's universally recognized talent for exploring anguish comes into the service even of this erstwhile comedy.

In Sweden, the summer nights are long. They appear in this film to work like a full moon might, compelling actions that would seem unthinkable in normal days. The complicated minuet of these contrasting characters never seems forced or artificial, but is just an extention of the context and the chess game that is love and conquest. I was astounded by the writing, acting, and narrative development throughout.

My highest recommendation. Best of genre.


Saturday, January 14, 2006

40 Year-Old Virgin

Dir: Judd Apatow


Yes, I sometimes enjoy the silly comedies that often garnish the inelegant and untimely humorous exchanges of fraternity boys (I say this with the self-aware conceit that quoting Blazing Saddles is a sign of erudition and not mindless chatter). When the AFI and the Golden Globes started doling out praise for a self-lableled silly film, my curiosity soon followed.

I was reluctant to watch the film, fearing it would a one-trick pony, a dehumanizing joke that continually mocks a "sexless loser" for two hours. Surprisingly, this film has an incredible amount of heart. The film's namesake, Andy (Steve Carrell), is a stock room worker at the local electronics store. After an evening of poker with his co-workers, Andy reluctantly reveals his history of abstinence. Naturally, there is some ribbing from his co-workers, but they make it their mission to get Andy laid. Andy accepts such efforts with expectant reserve. His search for base fulfillment is put on hold when he falls for Trisha (Catherine Keener), a young grandmother who is reluctant to taint their relationship--at least for now-- with the good stuff.

Carrell could very well follow the path of Jim Carrey and Bill Murray--solids actors that imbue their performances with a latent sadness that adds a compelling complexity to their characters. The reasons Andy is still a virgin are quite plausible; they are not artificial narrative constructions that are based on Andy's "geekiness" or teenage traumas. As a result, Carrell's Andy maintains a reasonable self-respect that prevents his co-workers from relentlessly mocking him or forcing him into uncomfortable situations. Yet, underneath this quiet dignity is the sad realization of his lack of fulfillment (and no, it is not the lack of sex). The movie, despite any raunchy humor, presents a rather conservative message.

Overall, an enjoyable movie experience.



Dir: Fritz Lang (Metropolis; The Big Heat)

Landmark German film with Peter Lorre as a child murder whom society has no idea how to deal with. The film is sparse, contemplative, suspenseful and brilliant. While early parts of the movie have dated themselves, the last half hour will stand against any crime movie ever made.

When a serial killer is on the loose, an entire city is gripped with fear. The police blanket the city, townsfolk accuse each other on the slightest suspicion, mothers blame themselves for the deaths. Mass hysteria has been let loose by one psychopath. The underworld, who are unable to carry out their normal nefarious duties with the increased police activity, vow to catch the killer themselves.

After early scenes that explore the impact on society of the hightened tension a bit too in depth, the chase is on for Lorre. From here on in the film crackles. It becomes clear that the murder is insane and not responsible for his actions, no matter how heinous they might be. The mob, however, demand vengance even if their own hands are stained with the same blood. It is the brilliance of this movie that we are actually made to sympathize with the monster, a move no doubt incendiary at the time for a film maker to attempt. This tension between morality and vigilantism is forced on the audience even after we have come to vilify the antagonist and root for his demise.

The story, as one would expect for Lang, is told indirectly, in the shadows. Lorre looks at himself in the mirror and we know he is the killer. The absence of children stands in place of footage of their actual abductions. As with all great thrillers of this time, our imagination supplies the horror.

The film could have done with a score, I think, to help support the first half of the film. Hubristic of me to suggest, perhaps, but some of the lenghty discussions about how "something must be done!" wore thin for me. Criterion has done their best with the print, but some flaws are still evident, especially an annoying line across the top of the frame for nearly the entire film.

Great cinema. Still powerfully relevant.


The Outsiders


Dir: Francis Ford Coppola (Jack; Captain EO)

Ripe slice of homoeroticism exploring class struggle in a midwestern town. I had not seen this film since I was a wee lad, and all I remembered was Ralph Macchio with a knife. While there is a lot to like about the film, the best part by far was seeing the incredible stable (pun intended) of young actors at the beginning of their careers.

Dig this cast list: Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, Diane Lane, Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez, C.Thomas Howell and the aforementioned Karate Kid. That list is in order of talent, BTW. Standouts in The Outsiders are Dillon and especially Swayze, who does the uncertain father figure thing very well. Of course, every single one of these boys spends half the movie with his shirt off, 'cause you know, they're tough. Here again Swayze is the standout, and by that I mean pecs; it is no mystery why this movie holds such a cult following.

The story is boilerplate. "Greasers" and "Socs" are from opposite sides of the tracks, and when a fight goes tragically wrong both sides learn the true meaning of Christmas. The dialogue, though, is rather strong. And the ruminations on manhood and independence make the story fresher than most. Told entirely from the point of view of the lower class gang, the treatment is more sophisticated than one would expect.

Coppola, too, shows touch. Many quite beautiful shots. I watched the expanded DVD version, which seems to have hurt the film overall. The added scenes, while more faithful to the novel, are superfluous to the movie, especially the tacked on coda of a new ending. Plus, the soundtrack has apparently been beefed up (informed sources tell me!), with a monotonous rock and roll beat coming over some of the more emotional parts of the movie. In this instance, whoever trimmed the film in the first place had the right idea.

I am glad I have seen this now. One of those films from my generation that I had neglected.




Dir: David Gordon Green (All the Real Girls)

Intriguing little film visiting some very ancient themes through the underbelly of the American South. A redenck and his two sons are visited by his brother, recently released from prison. Deep scars fester between the two, and they soon lead to a violent episode. The two sons head out on the lamb where their encounters take on a mythic character.

The film is dense with symbolism, probably too dense. The master metaphor is some old gold coins that the brothers dispute ownership over. Like Treaure of the Sierra Madre, greed brings tradgedy to the covetous, but here the point is woven overtly through Greek mythology. One needs the coins to travel the river Styx, etc. Aside from that, many of the actions of the characters are shadowy and wrapped in symbolism. For example, the younger son eats odd things and vomits, paint and mud and the like. Lots of things like this abound. In its direction, too, the film is poetic, sparingly using effects to imply hidden meanings.

All of that stuff usually distances me from the story, makes it cold and impenetrable. I prefer my films to invite me in and move me. The core story of brothers against each other and life in the sticks does this. All of the "indy film" flash detracts rather than elevates. I was disappointed when the character development ended and the action started. The family is the interesting part, and I wanted that story to linger longer.

But we at I Just Saw never slam a film for aiming too high and only getting half way there. The frank portrayal of country life and the literary quality of the storyline make this worth your time, but not something to go out of your way to see. Those with more tolerance for "cool" movies than I will like this better.


Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Left Behind: The Movie


Dir: Vic Sarin

Damn this movie to Hell.

The first in a triology of low budget Canadian prophecy films, this thing has been a massive video hit among the more faithful folks in this country. Stories abound of conversions after viewing, churches packed for screenings, and well meaning family members slipping copies to their heathen relatives.

But what a disappointment. I wanted cheese, but I had to sit through all of the Brussels Sprouts only to find that the Camembert wasn't on tonight's menu.

The Apocalypse is nigh, and the Biblical prophecies for the Armageddon are upon us. After the Rapture, where 142 million believers ascend directly to Heaven, the coming global kingdom of the antichrist is put into motion. Kirk Cameron is a reporter who has sussed out the plot, and found his own salvation in the process. The world seems to take the vanishings pretty well. There is global martial law sure, but you can still get from Chicago to New York pretty well, bars are still open, TV stations are still running. And no one seems to connect this to the Bible (the official story from our antagonist government officials is that background radiation from nuclear testing caused the disappearances. You see, disarmament is the work of the Devil!)

This film was like a very silly All the President's Men, as Cameron unravels the divine origins of the trouble. There is also a very boring family struggle after the wife is raptured but the adulterous husband and cynical daughter are left behind and they come to Christ. Here, all the bad dialogoue and poor acting that I had anticipated would be delivered by cool soliders of the Devil is actually in the service of 1 1/2 hours of drivel.

What I wanted was Jack van Impe-like ravings against global government. And that is sort of there. Two international bankers are foreclosing on billions of dollars worth of loans made to the UN. Once they own the UN (yes, own the UN), they have ten tracts of land where they are going to grow some miracle wheat and corner the world's food supply. But the antichrist foils them and takes over ther UN himself, and we leave the first film with him plotting to rebuild the Temple of Solomon and rule the world. Then the war will come, etc. etc. etc. That's all the cool stuff, but I have to wait for the next two movies. Grrrrrrrr!!!!!!

Sure, I'll watch the next two. But I resent having to sit through #1. If any of you are going to make a fire and brimstone B-movie, just put all the good stuff into one DVD and save me the trouble of multiple viewings.


The Celluloid Closet


Dirs: Rob Epstein (The Times of Harvey Milk) and Jeffery Freidman

Hollywood's relationship with homosexuality is explored in this documentary. I had not seen it for a while, and it is an interesting time to revisit it given the national attention that Brokeback Mountain is receiving. This film leaves off with Philadelphia as a pionerring humanization of being gay. One cannot help but think that in ten years we have moved from the celebration of a single film to the potential for a whole series of movies that take homosexuality as a matter of course. But the Celluloid Closet is a very useful chroincle of what will hopefully be a distant memory in the future. As Ron alluded to in his recent reivew of B.M., when such a story ceases to be about "gayness" and is just about "love," then we will know we have made it.

The most interesting parts of the documentary are the examinations of the Hays Code and the Legion of Decency (God I love that name!). Attempts to introduce "perverted" sexual material over the objections of the censors led to humorous and awkward metapohors and clunky non-verbal acting. A movie that I reviewed some time ago on I Just Saw, "Suddenly Last Summer," is rightly held up as an example of how this censorship can lead to a bad, silly movie.

The political representation of homosexuality once these prohibitions were lifted is also well examined in this film. Once characters could be gay, they were often frought with pain, confusion, self revulsion and suicidal tendencies. Of course, so too are all kinds of straight characters in melodramas--one has to discern when such protrayals are the result of prejudice and when they are the result of plain old bad writing. But the general trend is well taken and well pointed out.

The documentary does suffer from over statement of the impact of movies. It sometimes comes across like "if only positive images of gays were in Hollywood films, then there would be no homophobia or at least we homosexuals would feel good about ourselves." Crises of identity are no doubt exacerbated by homophobia in films, but the writers and actors interviewed for this documentary fetishize their own medium. Some of that is unavoidable in this project; but more contextualization with society at-large would have been welcome.

The subject matter here is the primary driving force of the film. The documentary does little to elevate the subject in the way that truly great documentaries do. But it is an piece of important film history, and should be reckoned with.


Unforgiveable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson


Dir: Ken Burns

My second time through this fascinating documentary by one of America's most underappreciated film makers. His three massive, multi part films "The Civil War", "Baseball", and "Jazz" are all richly famous elucidations of Americana. And while they continue to draw huge audiences in occasional replays on PBS, I am not sure that Burns himself gets enough credit. His style of documentary is now genre defining, his subjects sprawling and important, and his influence on popular culture is among the highest of all filmmakers.

Unforgiveable Blackness is only a 3 and half hour film, so it's small by Burns' standards. His subject is Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world and source of major political scandal in the 1910's. Burns obviously understands the cultural importance of sport, and his examination of boxing's importance to the country at this time is detailed and rich. An amazing amount of printed material survives from this time, giving us in depth information and trivia about the variety of farm hands and circus giants who engaged in the sport at the time. And since showing boxing films was the primary means of revenue generation for the promoters (early pay-per-view), archival footage of many of these fights exists, some of the earliest examples of recorded motion.

Burns has taken this silent footage of Johnson's fights and subtly added sound to recreate the feeling of a modern viewing. Not ostentatious, just background crowd noise, some punching sounds, and lots of snap edits so that an image of a punch landing comes quickly at the point of impact. Still photos as well are used in this manner. The time involved in that operations must have been enormous, and the result are some truly invogorating fight scenes. The technique is brilliant, but not obtrusive. The film is worth watching just for that display of direction.

I myself am a fan o thef sport, even while acknowledging its brutality. The film offers some ruminations on this subject, how boxing appeals to the uncivilized parts in us that are nonetheless in us. But it quickly becomes apparent that boxing is not the real subject. Boxing made Johnson famous, but race made him a danger.

Johnson broke the color barrier in boxing, forty years before Jackie Robinson, when he was finally allowed to fight for the title in 1908. No non-white held the title after Johnson lost it in 1915 until Joe Louis won it in the 1937. Attempts to regain the title by whites inspired the "Great White Hope" phenomenon, a national obsession. To add insult to racist injury, Johnson flaunted his relationships with white women and his flashy lifestyle. Johnson spurned anti-miscegenation bills in Congress and was convicted of white slavery by a Justice Department obsessed with silencing the icon. The brilliance of the documentary is to spend more time on this contextualization than on the sport itself, raising Johnson's story from one of a great fighter to one of a symbol of freedom and perseverance in this nation's most troubled times.

One cannot be help but be agahst when a quote is read from the New York Times pleading for someone to knock the stupid grin off that black brute and teach him the inherent supremacy of the white race and the necessity of protecting the virture of white women. There are literally hundreds of these srots of things, from all manner of outlets, that pepper the film. That is the New York Times, less than 100 years ago. School children know a lot about Jim Crow in the 50's and 60's studying the post WWII civil rights movement. But the turn of the century is largely a mystery. Burns has illuminated the issue for me and exposed the ubiquity of shocking prejudice at the time. It is a chroncile of how far we have come, but how deep the roots were and remain.

The documentary is powerful and important. I cannot recommend it higher.


Sunday, January 08, 2006


Director: Mario Van Peebles (New Jack City, Panther, Posse)

In 1971 Sweet Sweetback’s Badassss Song was released with an X rating. The film was self-funded by a black director, Melvin Van Peebles, who also starred in the film (a necessity when they couldn’t afford Screen Actor Guild Actors). Despite opening in only two theatres nationwide, the film was buoyed by black attendance and became the best grossing independent film of 1971.

Badasss is Mario Van Peebles tribute to his father’s groundbreaking film. He does a great job of conveying the incredible struggle of a filmmaker fighting to make a film where the black lead kills some crooked white cops, has sex with a white woman and gets away in the end.

Mario was in the original movie as a 13 year old kid and has a wonderful perspective to tell the story of his father’s fight to make this movie. Sweet Sweetback’s Badassss Song was made by a crew whose previous experience was making porno movies and a bevy of black and Latino newcomers. The film was filmed quasi-illegally, with the non-union leads rushing through shots before the cops could show up.

At one point during the filming the crew was arrested because the cops thought the boom mike wielded by a long-haired Puerto Rican was a bazooka.

A few things work out for the filmmaker, including finding an up and coming Earth Wind and Fire to perform the classic soundtrack. Van Peebles produced the film at a unique time in the history of the United States. Jeremy Varon points out that 1 million young people self-identified as revolutionaries in 1970 – not democrats or republicans – but revolutionaries. In this context the film finds a natural audience who might view authority with an extremely critical eye.

There are a few weak points in this film. The use of the handi-cam to add “realism” is taken a bit too far, and the cosmic-sixties cuts are reminiscent of the original film, but get tiring.

My favorite moment in the film comes when Melvin Van Peebles can’t finish the movie without some quick cash and has to turn to one of the only other successful black actors in the early seventies – Bill Cosby – to finance the rated X film.

The lessons learned by rebel filmmakers continue, since Mario Van Peebles was refused studio funding for this film, he raised the million dollars to make it himself. The movie is a great story and a moving documentation to the rebel spirit of Melvin Van Peebles. So go rent or buy a copy of Badassss as your contribution to independent black filmmaking.

And be on the lookout for his next project – an album with hip-hop rebel madlib!

Cross posted on Maximum Wisdom and I Just Saw

Saturday, January 07, 2006


Dir: Clint Eastwood (Pale Rider, Blood Work)

1992 (Oscars for Film, Director, and Supporting Actor...among others)

When we have our bar stool conversations about the greatest living directors, we always seem to overlook Eastwood. Although he may not have as many exemplars as Spielberg or Hitchcock, Eastwood enjoys a simliar level of consistancy. Although Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River are exceptional films, Unforgiven is Eastwood's magnus opus.

William Munny (Eastwood), an aged killer who eschewed a life of intoxicated violence under the pressure from his now deceased wife, struggles as a pig farmer along with his two children on the plains of the American West. Munny’s vows of sobriety and nonviolence are challenged when a naïve, aspiring killer, the Schofield Kid, approaches Munny to assist him in tracking down a pair of cowpokes responsible for knifing a Big Whiskey prostitute who made the unfortunate error of commenting on a cowboy’s shortcomings (they cut her up real good. They even cut up her teets). Despite his initial reservations, Munny gathers his partner, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), and joins Schofield in an effort to collect the bounty. Munny’s effort inevitably attracts the attention of Big Whiskey sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (in an Oscar winning performance by Gene Hackman), a sadistic lawman with a misconceived sense of justice. Invariably, the film ends with an explosive gun battle between Munny and Daggett.

Unforgiven clearly follows many of the formulaic elements of the western, including a final gunfight and the struggle between the law and the desperado. While dealing with major generic elements as the friction between town and country, the lawful and the unlawful, the innocent and the guilty, and the administration of justice, Unforgiven reverses these tensions, overturning the traditional hierarchy of values present in most westerns. In offering new perspectives on generic standards, Unforgiven becomes a uniquely reflexive film, possessing a keen self-awareness of belonging to a particular genre. Although I am big fan of the Western, I am even a bigger fan of the cynical Western (Who Shot Liberty Valance?, for example), and this is the best.

Unforgiven is a story best told by Eastwood. With numerous roles as the laconic bad ass of the American Wild West, Eastwood's performance as William Munny amplifies the ironic undertones of the film. Although Eastwood really stresses the unavoidable return of one's violent nature, it is hard not to like Eastwood's anti-hero, especially juxtaposed to Hackman's Bill.
Munny really seems to appeal to the Teddy Roosevelt's Speak Softly and Carry A Big Stick mentality of the American ethos.

This is one of my favorite films of all time. Very little else to say.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

Dir. Judy Irving

I love it when wilderness thrives in our cities. At the end of my block in New Paltz was a Century 21 realtor whose freshly paved parking lot was being attacked by bamboo. Originally planted as a nice decoration, the fast-growing bamboo cracked right through the asphalt growing up through puddles and gaining a couple of inches on the parking lot every year. Cold comfort when you consider how much earth we pave every day, but I still cheer for aggressive natural reclamation.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill documents a flock of parrots who've taken up residence in San Francisco. Born of parrots trapped and shipped from Argentina, these birds have escaped and created a healthy and growing flock in the hilly city.

The movie also tells the story of Mark Bittner whose love for the parrots manifests itself through advocacy, feeding and documentation. He becomes the narrator of the film and his voice oozes with authenticity. It is obvious that he loves and cares for these parrots identifying them by names and caring for injured birds.

The question of anthropomorphism is always difficult in these kinds of documentaries. This film does a good job of talking about that risk, and despite the heavy attention paid to a loner bird named Conner, the heartstrings seem pretty loyal to the bird's narratives. When Mark gets a chance to speak in front of the City Council who are deciding what to do with the birds, he calls for them to simply leave them alone.

There is a real difference between films like the Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill and recent nature films like The March of the Penguins and Grizzly Man. This film does not have to go searching into animal's habitats to find a great story or compelling graphics. Of course the Wild Parrots is a film made by long-time environmental film-maker Judy Irving for Docu-rama rather than a corporate film.

At the heart of this problem is a disconnect between cities and nature. The belief that nature is somewhere out there in a pristine form untouched by humans is ignorant. The air and water of Los Angeles are important -- animals LIVE there -- some of those animals are even humans. One consequence of this kind of thinking is that environmental fights are located only in places where spotted owls live, thus toxic waste that causes cancer, air emissions that cause asthma and lead paint which causes birth defects aren't environmental issues because they are located in the city.

One of the best ways to combat this kind of foolish thinking is to examine the nature surrounding us. When I lived in New Paltz I tried to study the common and local grey squirrels. Here in Northern California we have the opportunity to study a gang of hummingbirds. Notice the feral cats in your neighborhood, or the times that insects come out. Another way is to think about the politics of environmental issues that affect cities. Issues like water, air quality, environmental racism and transportation inequity.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill makes an argument in a compelling way. The parrots are persuasive in part because they are smart and form human-like pairs. But for me, the birds story is really neat because they thrive in a place where they were discarded. In the film we get to see some third generation babies, who are truly wild parrots of San Francisco including new color markings.

This is the best nature film since The Witness. See it now.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

The French Connection

1971 Oscar Winner Best Picture

Dir: William Friedkin (The Exorcist)

Oscars also went to Friedkin and Gene Hackman for this gritty and realistic protrayal of narcotics agents attempting to foil a heroin transaction. Justly famous for its car chase underneath an elevated train, this film had ripened in my mind over the shockingly large number of years since I had seen it to the blooming magesty of the most finely scented roses. The car chase held up grandly; but I am not so sure that the rest of the movie fared as well.

All right, this is going to be one of the those failures of high expectations that aren't really failures at all. The film is historically monumental, one of the first portrayals of cops who are as dirty as the criminals. It also exposes the prejudices of the anti-hero, forcing us to appreciate Hackman's Popeye Doyle for his craft but loathe him for his attitude. The realism of the stakeouts is a daring move by the director, with long patches of cops standing around waiting for the criminals to do something, juxtaposing in one fantastic scene Hackman eating a slice of pizza in the cold while the drug dealers dine on steak and fine wine. Intellectually, I heartily endorse such an approach that remains narratively sophisticated in what could have been a standard cop movie.

And yet, 35 years it came out, The French Connection is suffering from its imitators. Such accounts of crime and punishment are now so common that they lack punch. Every episode of Law and Order explores the same themes that were groundbreaking for this film! While I grant this film its historical importance and know that it is essential viewing for that reason alone, I did not find myself moved as viscerally as I had hoped.

My criteria for a good film is that it move me. Somewhere, anywhere, I don't care. I want to finish feeling differently than when I began. The bigger the shift, the better the film. And through no fault of its own, The French Connection does not move me as much as it could, as much as it no doubt moved those who were never exposed to this sort of thing. There are several movies like this for me, but Animal House sticks out. Too many Frat Boy adventure movies have made it harder to laugh at the inventiveness of that film.

Sure, one of the most important movies ever, with great acting and cracking direction. But not transcendent. My historical moment renders me jaded. I am a product of my time and a flawed moviegoer.


Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe


Dir: Andrew Adamson (Shrek; Shrek 2)

Comparisons abound between this film and The Lord of the Rings, driven by the obvious parallels between the two authors and their subject matters. But since I am new to this story, I found it much more like another famous British writer's fantastical vision than Tolkien's. Narnia struck me as Wonderland with a morality tale, a place where a child's willingness to suspend disbelief opens the door to taking part in a classic quest to right past injustices.

The strong points of the film are visual. Narnia is yet another in a series of recent films that are doing wonders with CGI. Once again, it is technology in the service of narrative, not just to dazzle, that makes it so noteworthy. Adamson has cleverly blended his animated characters (animals, mainly) with live specimens to heighten the realism of the scene. Hitchcock blended real birds among puppets to control a flock; Adamson places real wolves among digitized ones to make a pack feel real. Real human frames are grafted onto animated horse's bodies for the centaurs. Nothing seems forced (except for a few shots of humans against an obvious green screen) and the film is quite striking to look at.

The allegory, itself a matter of much public discussion, is supposedly Christian. But if it is, the metaphor is both indirect and not unique to the Bible. Even though there is a "messiah" and a "resurrection scene," so too are such elements in all sorts of myths and fables. Indeed, a phoenix makes a brief appearance, and that myth is just as indebted to a resurrection as the story of Jesus. Narnia is more like a hodegpodge of every fable you can think of; witches live among ogres who live among centaurs who live among griffins who live among humans. The themes of justice found in the movie are old, well worn, bordering on trite. But as an Aesop's Fable sort of children's story, it is hard to critique the narrative, no how cycnical your secular critic is.

Easily the weak part of the film are the humans, four children of varying ages. The dialogue falls into the lazy trap of writing lines for adults and then having kids speak them. Even the youngest girl speaks like an English society matron (that dialogue was what first drew the Alice comparisons in my head, for she too is hardly a child when she speaks). The script is also guilty of one of my greatest pet peeves, where chracters fail to learn lessons from past experiences. A skeptical teenage girl, who wants to employ reason and logic and caution to all decisions, continues to drag her heels against joining in the great liberatory war that these kids have been prophesized to lead. Even after all manner of fantastical things happen, even after two talking beavers serve them tea, she is unmoved by the scene and refuses to embrace the reality they are in. I understand the narrative device of having your heroes express reluctance before putting themselves at risk, but this script goes to that well so often, from all but the youngest of the characters, that the device ceases to build tension and simply induces eye rolling.

Just once, I'd like to see a story where a common person is thrust into an uncommon context and openly accepts their responsibility as a outgrowth of their chracter, not just thrust upon them due to extenuating circumstances.

Still, Narnia is fun to look at and its message is more than acceptable. If one forgives the dialogue, it is worth two hours of your life on HBO.