Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Trim Bin #4

- David Bowie will play Nikola Tesla in a film directed by Christopher Nolan. The film will also feature Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman as dueling magicians. Life is good.

- This trailer made the audience I saw it with laugh. I can't say they were wrong.

- If you see this, you are not fit to serve in my beloved Corps.

- The Cinemark in South Hadley, which has fast become one of my favorite cinemas, is showing Gremlins on Friday at midnight. Anyone who'd like to come is welcome. Doug, you can be sure I'll be thinking of you.

- The Top 10 Directors lists have been great. I was thinking today: what filmmaker blew his/her chances to make your top 10 more spectacularly than any other? I was thinking of Francis Coppola - every film he made in the 70's is an inarguable classic, then he gradually slid from interesting to uneven to bad to inactive. Who let you down?

- Another question, for personal reference: what is the most you would pay for a 35mm trailer of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2?

Friday, November 25, 2005

Top 10: Directors

I've been agonizing over this one since starting Cinevistaramascope, employing a variety of formulas that always returned unsatisfactory results. I finally had to go with my gut, and this list is made up of the directors whose films I've gone back to over and over, rewatching, discussing, and thinking about. Each has a consistent vision, and while almost every one has a few failures, none of the filmmakers below has ever directed a film that feels like it was made by a committee. This list is limited to directors who have made at least five films; a list of the best new directors may follow in the future. Rather than arguing the case for any director, I've provided links to definitive images from their work that explain better than I could why they belong on this list.

1. Stanley Kubrick
2. Martin Scorsese
3. Werner Herzog
4. David Lynch
5. Steven Spielberg
6. Ingmar Bergman
7. John Carpenter
8. Akira Kurosawa
9. Alfred Hitchcock
10. Quentin Tarantino

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

From Death to Birth

When we first see Blake (Michael Pitt), he is attempting to swim in the stream behind his stone mansion. This simple act, like many others we will see in Last Days - pouring cereal, making macaroni and cheese, tying a boot lace - seems almost impossibly difficult. For Blake, a famous musician hiding from his band after a stint at rehab, every waking breath must be counted as a triumph. He's reminiscent of Didi and Gogo, resolving to go while always staying still.

Blake is, of course, Gus Van Sant's semi-fictional interpretation of Kurt Colbain, and Last Days is - as the title suggests - the account of the uneventful days leading up to the suicide of an artist. Anyone who has seen Gerry or Elephant, the previous chapters in Van Sant's thematic trilogy on violence, can already guess that these days will be recorded with an adherence to minimalist narrative and characterization. We follow Blake as he wanders around the mansion, eating, fiddling with instruments, and hiding from his housemates (including Asia Argento and a monkeyish Lucas Haas). Visitors come and go, including a Yellow Pages ad salesman (Thaddeus A. Thomas, playing himself) and a private eye (Ricky Jay) hired to find Blake. A representative from the record label (Kim Gordon) has a conversation with Blake that is loaded with questions but contains no answers. Blake's story has a melancholy inevitability; this film could have been torture, but Gus Van Sant's assured direction has created a small masterpiece of loneliness and emotional dislocation. His images exist somewhere between the films of Abbas Kiarostami and Beck videos, placing his film at an intersection between 1994 and forever.

Midway through the film, there is a scene where Blake, strung out in a dark red dress, passes out while Boyz II Men's "On Bended Knee" video plays in the background. Van Sant cuts to a close-up of the television and lingers there for the remainder of the video. The effect is at first disorienting, then laughable, but ultimately very striking - Boyz II Men becomes the soundtrack to our hero's descent into the abyss, just as we are so often uncontrollably bombarded by crap culture in our most human moments. This lack of control is key, I think, to Van Sant's understanding of Colbain. Any work of art that becomes popular is unavoidably commodified, and Kurt/Blake's muse has been unavoidably stolen by this process. Nirvana, like Boyz II Men, reduced to a neverending hit parade - the soundtrack of our lives - and as time passes, the differences between the two become less important. The catalog becomes larger than the artist.

Van Sant juxtaposes this with the housemates' repeated play of Velvet Underground's "Venus In Furs." They recite the lyrics along with the record, and the effect is not unlike a Catholic prayer. Inspiration has given way to ritual. Meaning fades with each repetition. We forget where we came from. Blake performs a song about "a long lonely journey from death to birth," and Van Sant's film is concerned with the same. What happened? What comes next?

I find myself unable to be more specific about Last Days. My aim is not to be evasive, but rather to avoid stealing the experience of the film away from you. Any attempt to claim that I "get it" would make me a total asshole - what does it mean to "get it"? What a sad, reductive phrase. Van Sant's film is poetry, and ever since Plato banned the poets from his polis, all art, particulary art with this kind of purity, has been at odds with formalist interpretation. I will say this: Van Sant and Pitt have taken a subject that could have been the fodder for tv-movie trash and made a subtle, profound rumination on art, creation, and implosion. It deserves mention alongside films like Sid and Nancy, Velvet Goldmine, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch as a great rock and roll movie. And at its end, Van Sant gives us a moment of sublime grace. These moments are always rare in art, and in a culture on bended knee (or trapped in the closet), they're especially hard to come by. Treasure this one.

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Trim Bin #3 (overdue)

- Saw the new Superman Returns teaser before Harry Potter on Friday night. I apologize for any doubts I've expressed in conversation about the film; judging by the trailer, he completely understands the multiple archetypal meanings behind the Kal-El mythos. It made me teary-eyed. I applauded it and a gaggle of thirteen-year-olds laughed at me. Philistines.

- I found out later that Bryan Singer is shooting Superman with the new Panavision Genesis HD camera system. I looked it up here and fell head over heels for it. It's evident from the teaser that the system can create a look that isn't quite film, but instead has its own unique splendor. While I still feel that celluloid should always co-exist with any digital technologies, this is the first digital camera that, for me, opens up new worlds of possibility.

- The latest issue of The Beacon, MCLA's newspaper, features an edtorial by Jen Thomas decrying audiences' desensitized responses to violence in cinema (inspired by Saw II). It's riddled with the sort of generalizations and fallacies that often characterize film writing. "Instead of intelligent content or character development," Thomas writes, "viewers now rely on bang-for-your-buck instant gratification." Is this even typically true? Certainly it would be a convenient way to explain the success of movies like Boogeyman, but what about March of the Penguins or Million Dollar Baby or any other number of recent hits that fly in the face of this oft-echoed sentiment about what audiences want?

The article then goes on to comment upon a class' horrified reaction to documentary footage of animal abuse, wondering why we respond with more horror to cruelty to animals than to human violence. As Max pointed out, the documentary was real. Surely the class would have had a similarly sobering reaction if shown, say, Night and Fog. Thomas cites Jarhead as an example of the audience's disconnect; the audience I saw Jarhead with was certainly involved - perhaps not on a visceral level, but was that the intent? Opinion pieces like this suggest that the primary purpose of filmmaking is to incite sensations that replicate our responses to real-life experiences.

"It's impossible to see any movies now that don't have some sort of unneccessary violence" - that isn't even remotely true. How does The Beacon let stuff like that through? Ah yes, because its editors and writers are largely unprincipled and amateurish. I overheard a conversation in a class recently between the editor-and-chief and a few writers recently about SGA's frequent complaints that The Beacon takes positions on campus issues that don't reflect SGA's policies. One person commented, "But you don't write bad things about SGA, right? So there's no problem." I said that negative comments about SGA shouldn't be a problem - that it would in fact be their duty to keep their financial supporter in check. The editor cited "courtesy, you know..."

I don't want to be guilty of the same things I'm criticizing here, so I'm not going to call The Beacon's staff, made up mostly of perfectly decent people, a pack of gestapo pigs whose grandparents probably started Vietnam. But there it is.

But enough of this business...

- Speaking of MCLA, my "Intro to Mass Media" professor was explaining the nature of independent cinema the other day. Among the examples of independent movie houses he gave: Cannon, Polygram, Spike Lee (the person, I guess), and MTM (Mary Tyler Moore Productions). He left out Carolco, RKO, and Wilbur J. Cobb.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Piss off, Harry.

NOTE: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is a good movie, and the audience I saw it with went crazy for it. However, the following write-up will not be a rave by any stretch. If you loved or are still anticipating seeing Goblet, than read no further - wonder is too rare an experience to let one cranky film dork ruin.

Let's start with the good news: the last two reels of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire are near perfect. When the Tri-Wizard Tournament enters the maze, the film is infused with a subtle, shivery dread that is sure to startle many a youngster (something I'm always in favor of). I don't want to spoil too much, but when the film reaches the cemetary and a ritual straight out of Hammer, and we are finally introduced to Ralph Fiennes' deliciously sick and twisted Voldemort, the labored theatrics of the previous two hours and change were all worth it.

But about those two hours...

The first twenty minutes of Goblet, which take place at the Quidditch World Cup, are chaotic and ugly. Quidditch can be, as the first three films have shown, a visually dazzling, kinetic experience. Here, we get the XFL version of Quidditch - roaringly loud, on a massive scale, but here's the thing: nothing happens. Nothing much happens for most of Goblet, which in its near-slavish devotion to its source material manages to reproduce the notes without hearing the music.

I don't mean to sound too crabby - there's a lot to like here. The adult cast is uniformly excellent, if too often shoved to the sidelines. Brendan Gleeson is a great Mad-Eye Moody; as readers of the book know, Gleeson has to play many different layers of subtext, and he does so masterfully. Maggie Smith has some nice moments, and Alan Rickman has a silent bit that is easily the greatest thing in the film. And I, for one, am a fan of Michael Gambon's Dumbledore, especially because he isn't afraid to make choices that weren't indicated in the book. He's playing Dumbledore, not just impersonating the old hippie.

The biggest problem is director Mike Newell, who doesn't seem to have any distinct perspective on the material other than possibly his paycheck. The film is technically superb, of course, but Newell constantly makes editing choices that cut away from what we want to see to some cumbersome bit of plot business. He adds a lot of small details, like the lingering close-up of the Beauxbaxton girls' bottoms, that just made me cringe. And while the visual effects are the best money can buy, he doesn't seem to have taken the time, as Alfonso Cuaron did with Azkaban, to integrate them believably into the film - for instance, look at the scenes involving the dragon. Is it ever believable that, big and loud as it is, it may actually be a threat to Harry?

Speaking of Cuaron, gone is all of the depth of character and emotional subtext that made Azkaban such a rich experience. Cuaron achieved authentic performances from his young cast, filled with adolescent uncertainty. Radcliffe, formerly the weak link, is good here, but many of the other kids (particuarly Emma Watson) are affected with a young actorly self-consciousness. I know I was the same way at sixteen, so hopefully it will pass. The Weasley twins are bloody brilliant, though.

Still, though, the final scenes in Goblet are really astonishing, and I suspect that if Newell did indeed have any real motivation for making the film, it can be found in these scenes. He doesn't shortchange us on the horror - these scenes, as they did in the books, jumpstart the series into a whole new world of fear and adventure. Even with all the problems I had with Goblet, I can't wait for Order of the Phoenix, which is also my favorite of the books (Harry is not a dick). Anyway, I'm very much in the minority in this one, which might say more about me than the film, so take my complaints with a grain of salt. This movie's gonna make a bajillion dollars, and you'll probably love it. Just don't make catcalls during the bath scene like the audience last night - for God's sake, he's a child.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Top 10: One-Sheets

This week's Top 10 was inspired by a discussion at Film Freak Central. Too often nowadays, marketing departments resort to "big heads" to sell a movie. The ten posters below all evoke the specific tones and themes of the films they represent. They are iconic, elegant, and can stand on their own as striking works of art.

1. Alien
2. Jaws
3. Batman
4. Altered States
5. 2001: A Space Odyssey
6. Miller's Crossing
7. American Beauty
8. Ghostbusters
9. Return of the Jedi
10. Full Metal Jacket

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Life Without Fire

We are poised high in the air, soaring over desert landscapes stained with oil, circling giant columns of fire. Our vision is filled with black smoke and searing light; our ears are flooded with Wagner. This can only be Herzog's world. With Lessons of Darkness, a film that Herzog assembled in 1991 from postwar footage of oil fires in Kuwait, there are no moments of punditry, no easy answers. Herzog's film is concerned with more than the Gulf War; it plunges us right into the abyss.

The film's soundtrack is composed of pieces by Wagner, Mahler, Verdi, and others. Herzog supplies sparse narration, but this is a film driven by images, like Godfrey Reggio's Quatsi trilogy. Unlike Reggio, Herzog is not primarily concerned with preaching to the choir; when he appeared at Images earlier this year, he took strong exception to his frequently being labeled a "naturalist." From the beginning, Herzog denies us specific relation to Desert Storm or Middle Eastern conflicts in general - his narration informs us that we are on a planet somewhere in our solar system. As the camera swoops over cityscapes, the narration states that nobody below is yet aware of the destruction to come. In fact, this footage was shot long after the end of the war; however, it would be a mistake to assume that Herzog is up to run-of-the-mill bullshittery. Lessons of Darkness takes a specific conflict and, rather than being limited to a comment on that conflict, is elevated to the level of poetic allegory. There are no answers here, but this is not to suggest that Herzog is being utterly nihilistic; rather, he has opted to observe and reflect, raising questions instead of placating us with reassuring "War is hell" soundbites. It is a film about the end of all things, about the ways in which we willingly plunge into the void.

There is also a paradox here. Horrific as these images of destruction can be, they are also exhilarating and beautiful. Herzog seems to realize this; he begins the film with a quote (falsely attributed, he cheerfully has admitted, to Pascal) stating that the end of the world, like the beginning, is infused with "glorious splendor." This is reflected towards the end, when two firefighters ignite previously extinguished wells just so they can put them out again - Herzog questions this "madness," suggesting that for the men, perhaps life without fire is unbearable. But he also gives us two scenes that force us to reconsider our innate attraction to spectacle. One woman has struggled to speak since soldiers killed her two sons; another woman's young son has not spoken since a soldier stomped on his head. The nationalities of the soldiers are never specified, nor are they particularly relevant; destruction is a human problem, not an American or Iraqi one. It is unclear whether these scenes are literally documentary or fiction, and as a result, we are forced to draw our own conclusion about their truth (Herzog has his own ideas about truth, famously illustrated in his Minnesota Declaration).

It is also worth noting that for some, Herzog's use of long (in running time, not focal length) shots and repetitive imagery grows wearysome or boring. Lessons of Darkness will do nothing to change that opinion - it's a challenging film, one that requires patience and attention, but can be very rewarding, both intellectually and emotionally. It's worth noting how many run-of-the-mill films use the kind of epic exteriors Herzog is preoccupied with as a sort of garnish. Think of how many films begin with the camera swooping over a coastline or flying over mountain ranges for no other reason than to feign weight and style. We are accustomed to experiencing the world around us as a backdrop for our mundane little soap operas, mostly ignoring the greater story that is playing out all around us. Films like Lessons of Darkness force us to adjust our vision; we may not like what we see, but it would be a sin to turn away.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Trim Bin #2

- Last weekend, I went to a WFF screening of The Graduate with producer Lawrence Turman in attendance (I tried writing a review this week, but found little to say that hadn't been said before). At the post-film Q&A, the first question came from a woman in her fifties or sixties who asked "So why aren't movies this good anymore?" Everyone applauded. Turman acknowledged that there are still good films being made, but said that there are less because the increased importance of foreign grosses has led to movies that are less dialogue and character-driven. He bemoaned the fact that films are heavy on effects and fantasy elements and light on the sort of emotional content that "you and I" care about. Turman's other producing credits include Caveman, Booty Call, and both Short Circuit movies.

- The teaser for Darren Aronofsky's new film The Fountain is up. I liked Requiem For a Dream alright, but Pi really blew me away. This looks to be more visionary sci-fi on a larger budget (and with 100% more Jackman).

- I'm kind of childishly enjoying the negative response to Get Rich or Die Tryin'. Many people I respect adored director Jim Sheridan's last movie, In America. More than one commented on its "warmth." I thought it was insincere and dishonest. It annoyed me that Sheridan couldn't decide whether the film was a period piece or not, and tried to chalk it up to "magical realism" or some such nonsense. The scene where the little girl sang "Desperado" over a montage of her sad father driving a cab was pure torture. Get Rich, a blatant form of corporate synergy in place of filmmaking, should cause people to reexamine In America - the warmth was calculated like a thermostat.

- Jonathan Caouette is coming to Mass MoCA on December 1 with his film Tarnation. I highly recommend checking it out - Caouette's large-scale home movie is remarkable both for his sophisticated use of the simplest filmmaking tools (iMovie!) and his unflinching portrayl of his life and family. And in February - the return of Herzog!

- Okay; to be fair, Turman also produced The Thing.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Top 10: Guilty Pleasures

Pauline Kael defines guilty pleasures as "the works [one] wouldn't try to defend on aesthetic grounds but [has] enjoyed intermittently."

1. The Monster Squad (Dekker) - Basically a horror version of The Goonies, this is an incredibly entertaining movie despite lame, smutty humor, terrible performances, and a completely out-of-place reference to the Holocaust.
2. Heavyweights (Brill) - Hypocritical, obnoxious film set at a fat camp, but undeniably funny. Jeffrey Tambor's delivery of the line "I did not send you to go-cart camp" has been a huge influence on my own work.
3. Lifeforce (Hooper) - Naked space vampires attack London. Nothing to defend here, but reread that plot summary.
4. The Last American Virgin (Davidson) - Mostly forgettable Porky's clone with an almost unintentionally bleak, unsettling ending.
5. Evilspeak (Weston) - Clint Howard summons Satan with an Apple II. Can this be wrong if it feels so right?
6. The Last Starfighter (Castle) - A young man is given the opportunity to defend the universe from hostile aliens based on his superior gaming skills. Hamhanded filmmaking, but perfect wish fulfillment.
7. Rocky IV (Stallone) - Balboa single-handedly ends Cold War. Braindead yet undeniably awesome.
8. The Gauntlet (Eastwood) - Clint escapes a hail of gunfire in a souped-up bus. That's most of the plot. Worth seeing to hear Eastwood deliver the line "Because I get the job done."
9. The Wizard (Holland) - An autistic boy, his brother, and a waif who will someday rock on Kirsten Dunst's IPod run away to a video game contest at Universal Studios. Really just an extended commercial, but the reveal of Super Mario 3 is one hell of a money shot.
10. Jason X (Issac) - Jason in space. Enough said.

Feel free to make your own confessions.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Radio's lying.

I've always avoided seeing 1941. Countless times, I've held it in my hand at the video store for a few moments before returning it to the shelf. I was afraid that it'd be the disaster it's generally known as, and that I'd have to reevaluate my opinion of the Spielberg oeuvre. I feared the indignity of having to sell my Jaws poster and stuffed E.T. doll on eBay. Most of all, I was afraid that I'd have to choose a new uncool mainstream auteur to defend on a regular basis. I've spent most of my life defining myself by my tastes, and it's a bit late to change course in such a drastic fashion; besides, Sydney Pollack doesn't return my calls. So last night, I finally decided to bite the bullet and watch Spielberg's much-maligned WWII comedy. Is it terrible? No. Good? Well...

The plot of 1941 revolves around post-Pearl Harbor fears that the Japanese would stage a large-scale attack on California (this element of the film is based in fact). As the film begins, a Japanese sub heads towards its planned target - Hollywood. At first, the film follows Wally (Bobby di Cicco), a young Zoot Suiter who tries to win the affections of Betty (Dianne Kay) at a jitterbug contest. However, any pretense of a coherent narrative thread is quickly abandoned in favor of over two hours of huge-scale slapstick and sophomoric sex jokes. The film's budget ballooned to $35 million (an enormous sum at the time) and required almost a year to shoot; Spielberg's budgets and schedueles have subsequently become tighter, and after seeing 1941, it's clear why.

1941 isn't a total failure. John Belushi is great as Wild Bill Kelso, a crazed pilot that is reminiscent of but subtly different from Bluto Blutarsky. Belushi was brilliant at playing stupid - the scene where he guzzles Coca-Cola over the Grand Canyon is a gem, and when Col. Maddox (Warren Oates) asks to hear his plane's guns, we catch a sociopathic twinkle in his eye. Spielberg works in fun parodies of Duel and Jaws; they could have been awkward, but they're effectively self-deprecating and irreverent. Robert Stack, as real-life General Joseph Stillwell, has a great, straight-faced scene while watching Dumbo. The aerial effects are very impressive, easily the equal of the dogfights in Star Wars in terms of believability. And, if nothing else, 1941 is worth seeing for the cast; I've frequently seen Christopher Lee and Toshiro Mifune torturing Slim Pickens in my dreams, but never in a motion picture.

The biggest problem with 1941 is a sense of overkill. Spielberg appears to have gone for the densely packed, MAD magazine style of humor, and later films like Airplane and The Blues Brothers (both released the year after 1941) would succeed at this. But 1941 is such a loud, frenzied amusement park ride that we're not offered an opportunity to stop and enjoy the sights. Much of the famous cast isn't given the opportunity to make any real impression (according to the credits, Mickey Rourke was in this, but damned if I know where). The bawdy material is just embarrassing. While flying an airplane, Tim Matheson informs Nancy Allen that they'll reach their target "just as soon as I make it through these... (stares at her breasts) ...hills." Ho, ho. The chaos works contrary to the comedy; the end credits feature the leads' reactions to various explosions, and I found it odd that a slapstick farce would end with screams rather than guffaws.

I'd like to say that this is simply a demonstration of Steven Spielberg's worst instincts as a director, but 1941 doesn't feel like a film directed by Spielberg (or by anyone, for that matter). Moments like the "knock, knock" joke in Catch Me If You Can and the coathanger gag in Raiders of the Lost Ark (originally filmed and then deleted from 1941) demonstrate that he is capable of directing comedy, but the masterful timing that is one of his best strengths is completely absent here. A late scene where Ward Douglas (Ned Beatty) destroys most of his home with an anti-aircraft gun should have been a highlight, but everything is too telegraphed, too obvious, and too loud. Most of Spielberg's films leave me elated; this one left me with a bit of a headache.

In one scene near the end, a ferris wheel is blasted loose from its foundation and rolls frantically down a pier, its occupants in a state of panic. It's a great comic setpiece, worthy of mention alongside Slim Pickens riding the bomb in Dr. Strangelove and the flying car in The Blues Brothers, and it almost makes the film worthwile. If the rest of the movie hadn't been so labored, then it could have been filled with wonderfully anarchic moments like this. Instead, it's hit-and-miss. It isn't Spielberg's worst movie - that honor belongs to the "Kick the Can" segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie - but it is his most baffling.

I think I'll hang onto E.T. for now, though.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Trim Bin #1

The Trim Bin will be to Cinevistaramascope what Parade Magazine is to the newspaper: a weekly Sunday supplemental composed of scattered observations. Hopefully it won't be quite as disposable.

- The trailer for Munich is out, and it's intriguing. The visuals recall Catch Me If You Can, and the opening mixture of archival and new footage has a hardness that is appearing more and more prominently in the Spielberg canon. I know it's hip to bash Spielberg nowadays, but I will always contend that no director more frequently makes the right emotional choices. This is the trickiest subject matter he's ever taken on; if he pulls it off, Munich could be an important film. You can check out the trailer here.

- On the other side of the spectrum, I don't think I really need to convince you that King Kong is worth seeing. I was psyched before, of course, but after seeing the new trailer...holy monkey-loving Jesus. Anything I could say is beside the point. Check it out here, though if you plan on seeing Jarhead, then I recommend waiting and letting it wash over you on the big screen.

- Caught a bit of the wretched 4-hour version of Dune, the one David Lynch removed his name from, on Sci-Fi last night. Lynch's film is admittedly flawed, but the long version is just laughable, even worse than the "Love Conquers All" cut of Brazil. It made me think of when I was nine and would sit with reverence through both cuts multiple times when Sci-Fi would have its Dune weekends (my lost weekends). This was back when I still went to church with my mother; if I'm going to be honest with myself, I always really, really tried to believe in the Bible, but stuff like Dune and Lord of the Rings spoke much more directly to my soul. This isn't a slam of Christianity; it's more an observation about what a complete lost cause I am.

- Speaking of lost causes, after another DVD viewing of Revenge of the Sith, yes, I will always be a Star Wars fan, no matter how socially unacceptable, dated, irrelevant, or just plain embarrassing it eventually becomes to be labelled as such. At least I'm not a Browncoat.

- Check out Ebert's "Great Movies" review of Dark City here (unless you haven't seen it, as it contains some spoilers). Here's an excerpt:

I believe more than ever that "Dark City" is one of the great modern films. It preceded "The Matrix" by a year (both films used a few of the same sets in Australia), and on a smaller budget, with special effects that owe as much to imagination as to technology, did what "The Matrix" wanted to do, earlier and with more feeling.

His recent reviews had shaken my faith in him a bit (***1/2 for Stay?!), but this is great film writing that reminds why I always check his review of a new release first - he's one of us.

- Jess and I saw Jarhead with a sold-out audience. It was a great audience experience - a diverse crowd of about 300 laughed together, was silent together, and was moved together. There were no snarky teenagers or old ladies turning to their husbands and asking "WHADDID HE SAY?" in sotto voce. It really grabbed everyone, and at the end there was the unmistakable sense of a valuable shared experience. This is the sort of thing that will turn the box office slump around. The last movie I saw that got that kind of response was War of the Worlds; before that, The Passion of the Christ (although that audience was a bit different, of course). Both films were big hits that endured beyond the opening weekend hype; Jarhead looks to be another. The slump isn't about piracy or DVD; it's about creating films that are worthy of discussion and attention, that need to be seen with an audience. These are the films that remind us why we go to the movies in the first place.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Don't worry, be happy

Jarhead begins with a basic training scene that transparently apes the virtuosic opening of Full Metal Jacket. At first, I cringed at what I thought was a hip "wink-wink" moment; by the end of the movie, the scene had come into focus. This was a war fought by kids who knew of bigger wars from bigger movies. Jarhead isn't quite as great as Kubrick's film, but it belongs in the same ballpark. Sam Mendes' film comes damn close to being a definitive portrait of a war that was over as soon as it began, only to be followed by an inferior sequel.

Jarhead has met with some criticism for not being overtly political. With the exception of Three Kings and the French Plantation sequence in Apocalypse Now Redux, I can't think of any great war films that are. An adaptation of Anthony Swafford's first-person recollections of the Gulf War, the film instead focuses on the nature of men who go to war. I say "men" not to be dismissive of women in the military; Jarhead is largely about male insecurity; the desire to give one's life meaning through allegiance to a so-called "greater cause," the male fantasy of protecting one's fellow man, and the constant, maddening doubt the protagonists feel about the fidelity of their girlfriends and wives back home. At one point, Fergus (Brian Geraghty) glances as a picture of Swafford (Jake Gyllenhaal)'s girfriend, scantily clad in his USMC t-shirt, and asks, "Doesn't she have any of her own clothes?" I couldn't help but think of my sister and my future brother-in-law, and the roles that were assigned them both when he signed up.

The first half of the film follows Swafford and the rest of his elite sniper squad, led by the gung-ho Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx), as they sit around in the desert, waiting for something to happen. Here, the film is all about boredom, sexual frustration, and the urge for release in the form of a kill. Early on, we see a theatre filled with Marines watching the "Ride of the Valkyries" sequence in Apocalypse Now, aroused at the sight of helicopter fire and completely unmoved by the shots of fleeing mothers and children. Whether the Corps created this bloodlust or simply freed what was already there, its clear that for these guys, combat has become an orgasm, a moment of clarity. The moment never happens, and while I can't feel too bad for Swafford because he never got to shoot anyone in the head, the larger notion of chasing something - anything - to believe in is moving. Swafford repeatedly tries to have the space for religion on his dogtags changed to "no preference," and the unspoken assumption is that the Corps will give him something the church hasn't. While we see that it has for Sykes and Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), Swafford's spotter, for our protagonist it is ultimately more emptiness. It's war as masturbation.

Mendes films those vacant moments with unforgettable images. A gas-masked football game staged for the benefit of a newscrew turns into a man-on-man pigpile. Actually, there's a lot of homoeroticism in this movie - I'm glad that Mendes turned the common subtext of war movies into plain text. The soldiers alternately seem ready to screw or beat the snot out of each other, sometimes both. A brilliant scene midway between Swafford and Fergus allows the tension, sexual and otherwise, to come to the fore, and it's perfectly disturbing. And the actors are uniformly great. Gyllenhaal, who I had dismissed a bit as a droopy-eyed cipher, displays layers of anger, ferocity and sensitivity that threw me completely off-guard (though I wish he hadn't thrown in a Donnie Darko reference). Jamie Foxx has a sincerity as an actor that works brilliantly in this role - he did great work in Ray, to be sure, but this and Collateral are more worthy of his presence. It was nice to see Dennis Haysbert in a smaller role - his Major Lincoln is perversely funny. And Peter Sarsgaard deserves all the credit in the world; he's quietly becoming a master at understated portrayls of men who reveal more through small gestures than through big, showy scenes, and Troy is no exception. The climactic "Let him have the shot!" scene could have been muddled in less capable hands; in Sarsgaard's, it is devastating.

Mendes' instincts here are just spot-on - the soundtrack, which uses Bobby McFerrin and C&C Music Factory, and the references to Metroid (gamers - is the ninth-level thing accurate?) and Rambo squarely place us in 1991, in the midst of a non-war. The burning oil wells and charred bodies of the second half are handled perfectly; instead of bashing us over the head with easy "War is hell" nonsense, Mendes allows them to be quitely haunting. He even comes up with one image of a horse that touches the ecstatc truth that Herzog is after. DP Roger Deakins and editor Walter Murch (who also worked on Apocalypse Now) both do pitch-perfect work. Thomas Newman's score is both exhilarating and ominous, echoing the wet dreams and nightmares of our heroes.

This is a remarkable film - a meditative, philosophical examination of war, and while it mostly avoids direct comparisons to the current war, it certainly gives a good deal of insight into why decent guys like my sister's boyfriend signed up for such an insane war. It's problematic at times - it doesn't give us any answers and leaves us with far more questions. But then, so did Full Metal Jacket.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Top 10

Friday shall from this point forward be "list day" (catchy, no?). Each week, I'll post a list on a new subject, and give my choices. Please feel free to contribute yours - my hope is that this might spark a lively discussion. Let's start with the obvious - all-time top 10:

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick)
2. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Spielberg)
3. American Beauty (Mendes)
4. The Shining (Kubrick)
5. Kill Bill vol. 2 (Tarantino)
6. Nashville (Altman)
7. Vertigo (Hitchcock)
8. Raging Bull (Scorsese)
9. Blue Velvet (Lynch)
10. El Topo (Jodorowsky)

No honorable mentions, lumping-together of sequels or trilogies, or any other kind of cheating. This is supposed to be painful. I look forward to seeing your choices.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Piece of pie.

Jess suggested that it may be worthwhile to post a negative review here and there, for perspective's sake. So let's talk about a film I find truly offensive - 2010, a sequel to my favorite movie that prefers exposition to enigma and hardware to poetry.

The film picks up in the titular year, as the first film's Dr. Heywood Floyd - played here by Roy Scheider - leads an American-Soviet space expedition to Jupiter in the hopes of boarding the abandoned U.S.S. Discovery, rebooting HAL, and finding out what happened to astronaut Dave Bowman. At one point, Floyd says of the famous monolith from both films that he has a lot of questions, and suspects that the answers the monolith could provide are much bigger than the questions. This typifies director Peter Hyams' wrongheaded material to the approach - he wants to give us big answers, whereas Stanley Kubrick understood that this would be wrongheaded grandstanding with a subject so immense. Kubrick embraces ambiguity - the unknowable - in his films, often to the frustration of audiences who prefer to be spoon-fed. To be clear, I think there are perfectly valid reasons to dislike 2001 - its performances are intentionally flat, and the deliberate pace can be challenging. But I could only regard a person that prefers 2010 to the original as a person that rarely dreams, and such a person has no place in my cinema.

It's not just that 2010 is a very different film from the original. James Cameron's Aliens was drastically different in tone, style, and even genre from Ridley Scott's original. But in that case, the difference in directors was a breath of fresh air; Aliens gives extra depth to the protagonist and further explores the world of the first film. 2010 trashes the world of 2001, and Hyams doesn't create anything of interest in its place. For starters, he betrays the silent space of the earlier film, giving us spacecrafts and strange lightshows that "WHOOSH!" and "ROAR!" In any other movie I wouldn't mind this, but seriously, if Hyams can do this, does he even like 2001? Why even make a sequel to 2001 if one of the things that makes it so distinctive is apparently disposable? It'd be like making a sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind but replacing the five-note greeting with Coldplay - it's vulgar and dumb.

2010 exists to resolve the "loose ends" (as a character in the film says) from the first film. This consists of both spelling out what Kubrick had already implied and defining things that simply should not be defined. The character of Dr. Chandra (Bob Balaban), HAL's inventor, informs us that HAL's malfunction was the result of his attempts to serve his contradictory orders - that is, both the publicized aspects of the mission to Jupiter and the top-secret ones. We could have guessed this already, but Hyams discards the more disturbing implications of this and leaves us with the moral "It's wrong to lie, even to computers." Gee, thanks. As for the monoliths, if you haven't actually seen the ending of 2010, then you probably should see it for yourself. Let's just say that a giant word processor is really quite pathetic compared to what 2001 promised. Kubrick's film blew the lid off of speculative fiction; Hyams tries to jam it shut again.

The biggest problem with 2010 is the absence of awe. The one scene that produces any tension is the space walk between the Russian space station and the Discovery. John Lithgow and Elya Baskin are both believably terrified as they drift through space, and the scene ends with a nice shared moment between the two actors. But what a disappointment it is that, in staring into the vastness of space, the only emotional truth that Hyams can find is fear. This is a film without wonder or imagination, one that gives us a last-minute call for peace that feels cold and insincere. At one point, the Star Child, the most optimistic and moving image that cinema has yet produced, appears aboard the discovery. But it's small, and it's just there for effect, devoid of meaning - it's just a fetus, whereas before, it was a god.

My god, it's full of shit.