Monday, December 29, 2008

Phantom India (1969)--4/5

Try not to eat while watching the first hour of Louis Malle’s seven-part documentary, “Phantom India.” The director, a translator, and a cameraman roamed India for two months in 1968 to capture miles of footage. The resulting film—part travelogue, part meditation, part mystery—originally played on European television. It’s recently been released on Criterion’s fabulous Eclipse imprint.

About that initial warning: Early in the proceedings, Malle happens upon a recently perished cow on the side of the road. The camera gazes at length as wild dogs, and then vultures, rip the flesh from its eye sockets. Malle is hypnotized by the carnage, but it’s an everyday occurrence to the Indians walking the street. They glance over only to stare down the alien presence of the film crew. Although Malle gradually becomes inoculated to the most common miseries, he acknowledges that the culture will always remain a mystery, a “phantom,” to non-Indians.

Malle often lingers during the rest of “Phantom India.” On dancers, water-carriers, a yoga master, a funeral. On whatever catches his eye. A repeated action can take on a life—and an arc—of its own. Malle has a preternatural way of syncing with the viewer. What I mean is, long scenes tend to end at the exact moment they start becoming uninteresting.

“Phantom India” is a precious commodity. What seemed exotic at the time may not even exist now. Malle’s voiceover occasionally offers Western critiques of a society he admits he doesn’t understand. These can be ignored. What matters is the document.

This is typical narration for the film.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Steves on Film

"The Tao of Steve" is will always be the best movie with "Steve" (or a derivation of the name) in the title. However, I'm intrigued by this upcoming release, "All About Steve." See, it's about this crossword constructor played by Sandra Bullock...

The 5 Best Video Games of 2008 (of the small percentage I got to play)

Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts (XB 360) is a kludgy game about building kludgy Lego-style vehicles. The learning curve is rather steep, mostly because the tutorials are so confusing. If you give it a chance, the awe-inspiring possibilities slowly reveal themselves.

Braid (XB 360)—This postmodern work of art overestimates its importance. Nevertheless, the puzzles are magnificent; they make your brain work in unique ways.

Chrono Trigger (DS)—Can I put this on here even though I haven’t played much of this version? It’s a perfect port of the Super Nintendo game, which happens to be the greatest role-playing game ever made.

Mega Man 9 (XB 360) is to "Mega Man 2" as "Superman Returns" is to "Superman II" (and it's good, to boot). Capcom ignores the “advances” of the later games to make a strict NES-style sequel to a classic. Once upon a time, games used to be this difficult—and this forgiving with enough practice.

The Orange Box (XB 360)—Five games in one, from play-test-it-until-it-gleams developer Valve. “Half-Life 2” is still unstoppable. The revelation here is “Portal,” a first-person puzzle game that plays like the door-chase climax of “Monsters, Inc.”

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The 9.5 Best Films of 2008 (including The Best Films of 2007 that I watched in 2008)

1. How was Emile Hirsch’s Into the Wild performance so overlooked? In his wanderings, Christopher McCandless left a heartbreaking impression on the people he met. The tragedy at the end of the story only makes later viewings more meaningful.

2. WALL·E is a Pixar film. That’s all one needs to know anymore.

3. The claustrophobic 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days creates terror in ways you can’t imagine. Also, it has the most depressing dinner party ever filmed.

4. Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains—Well, I would vote for him.

5. Bigger, Stronger, Faster* (The asterisk is part of the title.)—Speaking in the language of pop culture, overachiever Chris Bell covers every base many times over in this personal documentary of American inadequacy. He should forget about his body issues and continue to make movies! p.s. With the knowledge that Chris's brother, "Mad Dog" Bell, passed away last week, one scene in the film will be incredibly painful to watch.

6. The Swedish Let the Right One In is that other vampire flick.

7. Man on Wire is a classy look at a terrifying, breathtaking stunt. Just don't try this at home.

8. A painful look at deluded, mendacious parents and a baffling culture of precociousness, My Kid Could Paint That is maddening and weird.

9. Forgetting Sarah Marshall is an aggregate of many good things: Vampire Muppets, the charms of Hawaii, and truly R-rated humor (you know what I’m talking about).

I can't actually put this one on the list: Don’t watch Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull more than once. Especially not after you’ve recently watched “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Otherwise, it’s decent. Except for the monkeys. I’ll give you the monkeys.

With a little more brooding, this "Into the Wild" shot could be mistaken for one from "Twilight."

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Mamma Mia! (2008)--2/5

The best moment in “Mamma Mia!” comes towards the end. Stellan Skarsgård looks in open-mouthed horror as Pierce Brosnan attempts to sing a particularly odious ABBA song.

Which is actually unfair to Brosnan. His voice is mumbly, but he can reliably hit the notes. The song is just that bad. Meryl Streep showed off her impressive pipes in "Postcards From the Edge." Here, she's just as good.

"Mamma Mia!" goes through some epic convolutions to fit the ABBA songs into the plot. Just what these disco tracks don’t need is a focus on the lyrics. At this point ABBA songs are impossible to escape. They’re part of a cultural wallpaper, which, while pea green in a musty, shag-carpeted den, is ubiquitous nonetheless. “Dancing Queen” should stay in the background, like muzak. Or actually as muzak.

The height of the choreography in "Mamma Mia!" comes during the title song. Streep leads the extras on an indifferent shuffle through the Greek town. It seems that in lieu of rehearsal, the cast was asked to bring in costumes and caffeine every morning.

My thoughts exactly.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Let the Right One In (2008)--4/5

Yeah, it’s cold and dark in Sweden—ideal conditions for vampires. They knew this in “30 Days of Night.”* Eli knows this in “Let the Right One In,” a new vampire movie that actually follows most of the vampire rules.

As with the maddening fast zombies, filmmakers and authors are constantly tinkering with the vampire formula. In “Twilight,” the vampires can live in sunlight and don’t require human blood to live (among other things, so I’ve heard; I haven’t seen it). It’s alright to have fictional creatures with idiosyncrasies and rules. Just don’t call them vampires. Call them something new. I don’t know, be creative.

Or call them nothing. Eli (Lina Leandersson) requires fresh blood to live, she doesn’t age, doesn’t feel pain, and she needs to be invited in. If not invited, blood seeps from her pores. It’s not recommended. Hilariously, “Let the Right One In” has this authenticity, but doesn’t even think of itself as a vampire movie. When Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) asks Eli whether she’s a vampire, she shrugs and replies simply, (paraphrased) “I need blood to live.”

Eli finds a worthy friend/boyfriend/blood collector? in Oskar. Bullied at school and ignored at home, he spends his nights sociopathically stabbing tree trunks. “Let the Right One In” takes place in the eighties, which may explain the cruelty of the bullies. (According to teen comedies of the eighties, it was the era of the homicidal bully.) During the most traumatizing school field trip in history, they threaten to throw him in a frozen lake. Also, two younger kids find a frozen body during the same trip.

The meeting of Eli strengthens Oskar’s normally anemic responses to danger. To impress her, he smacks a bully’s ear with a long stick during that field trip. Later, she is able to kill an (adult) intruder when he can’t, violently gulping the victim's blood as he falls to the ground. They make such a heartwarming team.

*Which is really in Alaska, but at similar latitude.

Sick of these guys yet?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Crosswords, again

Check out the comments on my first published crossword, "Bawdy Parts"! (Links to full articles.)

"Perhaps "Bawdy Parts" marks his debut, and it's a good puzzle."--Orange, author of How to Conquer the New York Times Crossword Puzzle.

"well, this was a terrific puzzle."--joon, crossword constructor/blogger.

It's a New York Sun crossword. The newspaper went under in September 2008, but the crossword editor had accepted months of puzzles in advance. They're available at for a small fee.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Eight Instances of Cinematic Art Destruction

Batman (1989)—What’s worse, the defacement of art or the ghetto-blasted Prince music? Anyway, the Gotham Art Museum has some pretty impressive paintings. Joker and his henchmen destroy works by Degas, Rembrandt, and Vermeer, to name a few. The only work to survive is a grotesque Francis Bacon piece for which the Joker feels an affinity.

Bean (1997)—The British mime/clown/whatever sneezes on “Whistler’s Mother.” In trying to wipe it clean (with paint thinner), he destroys the face on the painting. Bean’s first solution is to draw a hysterical cartoon face in marker on the painting. Later, he replaces it with a print of the original coated in a layer of raw eggs. Nobody knows the difference.

Children of Men (2006)—Michelangelo’s “David” is seen in London with a shattered left leg.

I Am Legend (2007)—Will Smith, the last man in Manhattan, has several of the city’s masterpieces, including “The Starry Night” and “The Sleeping Gypsy,” hanging on his walls. Late in the film, the infected creatures attack the apartment in a pitched battle of gunfire and explosives. The paintings are surely destroyed.

Manhunter/Red Dragon (1986/2002)—Francis Dolarhyde talks his way into the Brooklyn Museum’s archives, where he rips out and eats William Blake’s watercolor “The Red Dragon.”

National Treasure (2004)—Nicolas Cage and friends steal the Declaration of Independence, a document so fragile that it is permanently sealed in argon. (Is this art or just a priceless artifact?)

The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)—Pierce Brosnan cuts a Monet painting out of its frame and folds it into a briefcase.

Titanic (1997)—Paintings by Picasso, Monet, and Degas are seen floating in the sinking ship. I think the paintings might be more insulted by DiCaprio’s earlier “Look at his use of color” line.

Bonus, because it doesn’t involve damage and it may not even occur in the movie, which I haven't seen: The Da Vinci Code (2006)—The guy who dies at the beginning rips a priceless painting off the wall, surmising that it’s worth more than his life and no rational person would shoot through it.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Rape of Europa (2006)--4/5

The miraculous historical images in “The Rape of Europa” come in three main varieties.

1. Missing paintings. A database has been created in an attempt to keep track of masterpieces that were lost or destroyed during World War II. In most cases, the only pictures are black-and-white thumbnails. In a sobering moment, the film floats thousands of these images over a black void.

2. Empty museums. In a (mostly successful) effort to protect the greatest works of art in the world, countries involved in the war shipped their museums’ works to country villas. “The Rape of Europa” has disconcerting images of the moves and the subsequently empty galleries of the Louvre, the Uffizi, and the Hermitage. In one photo, the Louvre's Winged Victory is carefully shuffled down the stairs by staff on tenterhooks. At the Galleria dell’Accademia, the David and surrounding sculptures are encased in pill-shaped brick enclosures. The safeguarding becomes art itself; the protection preventing the viewing of the art.

3. Masterworks out of context. Immediately after the War, the allies began searching for and happening upon missing art. Hitler stored his personal cache of stolen art deep in a salt mine. In the mine, soldiers are seen casually propping up pieces like, say, Vermeer’s “The Astronomer.”

The Battle of Monte Cassino saw the Americans fighting for an Italian hill. During the battle, American bombers destroyed the monastery and its priceless frescoes. A veteran of the engagement questions the need for any hand-wringing about the loss of art. He says (essentially), “If it was necessary to capture that position, who cares about the art?” In cases like this, I can’t disagree.

Since this testimony threatens to nullify the purpose of the film, the filmmakers are brave in including it. Luckily, their immense scope justifies the film’s importance. Because it’s not just art. “The Rape of Europa” details Hitler’s plans for a utopian society, including a grand museum in Linz, Austria. His culture war dictated the destruction or sale of all non-Bavarian art. (This really means any art that didn’t mesh with his pinched, anti-modernist aesthetic.) This aspect of Hitler’s aspirations is small but nonetheless significant.

Is it worse than biting your thumb?

I like this, from The New York Times:

"Hitting someone with a shoe is a strong insult in Iraq. It means the person is as low as the dirt underneath the sole of a shoe..."

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Yearling (1946)--3/5

Life is cruel. Haven’t you heard? “The Yearling” works hard to remind us. If you even make it past infancy, you get to contend with nineteen-toed bears, coiled rattlesnakes, and inbred neighbors. Or you could just stop breathing, like Jody’s (Claude Jarman, Jr.) only friend, Fodderwing.

These are just the horrors visited upon humans in the film. Nature in “The Yearling” is a less-mediated circle of death. Flag the Fawn’s mother is hanging around the wrong clearing when Pa (Gregory Peck) is bit by a rattlesnake. He shoots her down to rub her heart and liver on his wound. (Does this work? And: gross.)

The most surprising thing about “The Yearling” is how long it takes for the title deer, Flag, to appear. The first hour is crucial to what comes later because the Baxter family’s subsistence is underlined—again and again and again. One eaten crop leads to lost revenue leads to possible starvation. Flag, unable to live anywhere else, is nonetheless informed by instinct. Jumping over a ten-foot fence, he eats the Baxter’s corn twice. What has to happen is no surprise; “The Yearling” is number three on The A.V. Club’s list, “Nine Classic Instances of Animal Snuff for Kids.”

The first hour is also superior. Without the melodrama of the deer, the actions of daily farm life move at a leisurely, unforced pace. One day Pa and Jody go into town. On another, they help with the wash. These mundane activities are made appealing by the quality of the filmmaking and Gregory Peck’s reliable gravitas. The lack of a clear endpoint in this section is novel in a children’s film.

“The Yearling” comes with a certification from the American Humane Society during the end credits. As evidenced by the injury undoubtedly done to animals in the film, the standards were way different back in 1946. Pa and Jody take their dogs out a-huntin’* the bear that’s killed their livestock (more death!). For sure, we think, the filmmakers won’t actually set two excited dogs on a bear. It’ll all be done with fancy cuts and movie magic. No such luck. For five excruciating minutes, the dogs jump on and swipe at the bear. He, in turn, envelops the dogs and attempts to break them in two. I think the animals would have rather played the odds in real nature.

*The dialogue in “The Yearling” is spoken in a strangely compelling 1940’s approximation of common-folk patois of the 1800’s. Favorite line: “That’s a mighty skimpity prayer!”

"Aww. Now I must shoot you, I reckon."

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

LOL (2006)--2/5

Joe Swanberg has managed to eke a career in the margins of the so-called “mumblecore” film movement. His films, along with those of Andrew Bujalski (“Mutual Appreciation”) and the Duplass brothers (“The Puffy Chair”), are defined by their ultra-low budgets, improvised dialogue, and mundane situations. They’re almost all the same. Once in a while, a thoughtful insight peeks through the awkward action and dialogue. Mostly, they’re exercises in urban navel-gazing and narcissism—entitled white kids rebelling by lazing around shitty, overpriced apartments.

The films can be effective time capsules of this phenomenon. Since the point is quickly grasped, the first film in this genre viewed by anyone—“Mutual Appreciation” for me—will probably be the best.

One more thing: The characters in “mumblecore” films all date women way out of their league—cast, no doubt, because they’re unobtainable to the filmmakers. The excitement of being in a Real Movie legitimizes the gratuitous, “naturalistic” sex scenes prevalent throughout. It’s all kind of smarmy, to say the least.

The same actors playing the same characters in Swanberg’s “LOL” are used to lazily show the effects of technology on the male libido. Swanberg plays a jerk in love with his PowerBook. He chats with friends sitting next to him and looks to the computer’s screen while making out with his girlfriend. Kevin Bewersdorf plays a jerkier jerk who makes music out of invented instruments and found sounds. He lies to an interested girl about a tour he’s going on just to get a ride to St. Louis. In reality, he may or may not be meeting up with an Internet porn crush he’s been emailing. Yeah. The plotlines are all left open. These losers will continue to shuffle—and mumble!—through every opportunity given to them.

More fascinating than any ostensible plot in “LOL” is the music made by Bewersdorf. In a sparsely-attended living room show, he creates a thrilling cacophony with voice loops, percussive slaps of the microphone, and a keyboard. Since we see him performing, character and actor are the same here. During the film, he asks the people he meets to make sounds—any sounds—on camera. From these collected voices, he composes inventive music and video collages used as scene breaks. Where’s the documentary on this guy?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Encounters at the End of the World (2007)--4/5

Leave it to Werner Herzog to make travel diary footage this entertaining. Of course, it helps that he’s an iconoclastic genius and his trip is to Antarctica. “Encounters at the End of the World” further documents Herzog’s kinship with those who willingly endure the extremes of the world.

Although initially mesmerized by the stark beauty of under-the-ice stock footage, Herzog’s interests gravitate towards the inhabitants of Antarctica. In the ugly, industrial McMurdo Station,* he meets a “philosopher/forklift driver.” This man’s imagery of people falling to the bottom of the world (“How did you end up in Antarctica?”) is repeated often by others.

The shots of “fluffy penguins” in “Encounters” are not about the beauty of nature. With a straight face, Herzog asks the resident penguin-communer whether he’s witnessed insanity in the birds. He says no, but Herzog’s not so sure. He finds a lone penguin marching towards certain death in the mountains. Any attempt to correct its course, says the expert, would be futile.

Did the early Antarctic explorers—Shackleton and Scott, in particular—have an affinity with this penguin? In the broadest sense, yes. They all traveled an irregular path to encounter hardship or death. However, the penguin does it out of confusion or misfiring synapses. The humans willingly took on the journey. Herzog, while fascinated with the impulse, derides it as a hubristic exercise. Can no part of the globe be unsullied by people?, he asks.

I think Herzog would be the first to admit that he is unable to fight this impulse; it’s a foundational part of his being. Only age has tamped down his wildest exploits.

In "Encounters,” he travels only to “safe” places already inhabited by humans. Legendary, though, are Herzog’s past exploits in film. The 1969 documentary/tone poem “Fata Morgana” follows him through the African desert. In “Fitzcarraldo,” he tells the story of a man who moved a boat over a Peruvian mountain by…moving a boat over a Peruvian mountain. A loopy woman at McMurdo tells of a similar past, including dangerous transits through Africa (in a garbage truck) and South America (in a strapped-down sewer pipe). Wherever he vacations, Werner Herzog quickly finds his soul mates.

*It has the “abominations” of aerobics and yoga classes.

An archetypal Herzog monologue from "Burden of Dreams."

Friday, December 5, 2008

Get Smart (2008)--2/5

“Get Smart,” a textbook case of mediocrity, is forgettable while being watched. Let’s see what I can still remember…(cue “Wayne’s World” special effect).

“Get Smart” is not a parody of anything. At best, it’s a mildly diverting action movie with a few laughs. The attempted- to successful-humor ratio is on par with “Transformers,” which wasn’t billed as a comedy. Full minutes go by in “Get Smart” without even a painful, failed joke.

Steve Carell is Maxwell Smart, the role made famous by Don Adams. Since I’ve seen very little of the original “Get Smart” series—and because I’m lazy—I’m going to assume that Don Adams’ second most famous character, Inspector Gadget, is just like Smart. In the irritating self-titled series, the incompetent Gadget only succeeds in confounding Dr. Claw because of his niece, Penny and her dog, Brain. The concept has merit if it’s not repeated eighty-six* times.

The problem with the new version of Maxwell Smart is that he’s inconsistently inept. He’s an expert marksman, he passes the agent exam flawlessly, and he’s skilled in information gathering. Only when it serves the plot—or serves up a lame sight-gag—is he a total moron.

In the laziest casting move, Patrick Warburton shows up in a cameo in “Get Smart” as a robotic strongman. Of all the “Seinfeld” bit-players, Warburton has coasted the most on his one-dimensional character.** Every role he’s had since has been a slight and less-funny variation on Puddy. If Warburton does have range, he’s never been able to show it. He’s always cast as “that Seinfeld guy.”

*The number of “Inspector Gadget” episodes.

**John O’Hurley, J. Peterman on “Seinfeld,” is now a part owner of the real J. Peterman company!

Maxwell Smart fights Cylons in “The Nude Bomb.” Wowsers!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Bolt (2008)--3/5

In “Bolt,” the title dog and his friends travel to Hollywood’s favorite locales: Hollywood, of course, and New York City, “Ohio,” and Las Vegas. The predictability in location choice extends to the scope of the film. “Bolt” is a slight entertainment.

One thing about “Ohio:” Remember the “Seinfeld” episode in which Newman and Kramer drive a mail truck full of empty bottles to Michigan? They stop in Ohio at a farmhouse and Newman gets into trouble with the famer’s daughter. Yeah, that’s what most people think Ohio is like. “Bolt’s” Ohio is no different: small towns and farmland.

“Bolt” is the first CG Disney movie made under the aegis of Pixar. John Lasseter, Pixar’s resident auteur, is credited as an Executive Producer. The Pixar effect is seen in Bolt’s central conflict. He thinks that he’s actually a genetically modified super-dog and eventually learns that he’s not. This still works, but it’s a little to close to Buzz Lightyear’s arc to be an original concept.

Often, behind-the-scenes employees are cast in small or cameo parts in animated films. Andrew Stanton, the director of “Finding Nemo,” plays Crush, the sea turtle in that film. Bud Luckey, an animator, plays Agent Rick Dicker in “The Incredibles.”*

None of these touch the brilliant casting of Mark Walton, an animator, as Rhino, the Bolt-worshipping hamster in a ball. When excited, Rhino’s tenor soars into squeaks and giggles. It’s just like a hamster would talk. Walton’s original temp track proved so funny that the directors chose to officially hire him. This bodes well for finally ending the trend of inappropriate celebrity voice-casting. If “Bolt” were a “Shrek” movie, Walton’s reading would be trashed in favor of Andy Dick caterwauling towards the microphone.

*He also made “The Ladybugs’ Picnic” and many other Sesame Street shorts.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Up the Yangtze (2007)--3/5

Stylistically, “Up the Yangtze” is a bold new documentary. It’s free of excessive talking heads and narration. These two elements are used sparsely as embellishments, not as necessary explication.

In the film, the Three Gorges Dam serves as an inexorable villain and a creator of cruel ironies. Yu Shui is the teen daughter of dirt-poor* itinerant farmers. Prior to the opening of the film, the rising waters of the Dam have forced the family out of a major city and to the opposite side of the river. They share a glorified lean-to with starving, scruffy cats. To support the family, and in lieu of further education, Yu Shui is forced to work on a cruise ship. She is given a Romanized name (Cindy) and washes the dishes of American tourists gawking at the rising flood.

We are constantly told that the Three Gorges Dam is for the good of the people.

“Up the Yangtze” is most effective when simply showing the terrifying beauty of the rising waters. In a somber time-lapse** segment, the waters slowly creep over Yu Shui’s family’s shack. (They have to move. Again.) Initially, the shack can be seen under the water. No trace remains in the end.

Relying only on the events captured in vivo, Chang reveals the nature of documentary vs. narrative filmmaking. Making one in the style of the other is not the solution here. Too often, opaque scenes of daily life and snippets of conversation stand in for a driving narrative.

And anyway, Chang’s ideas about serendipity and the sanctity of the image as it is captured ring false. Yu Shui works on the same cruise ship as Chen Bo Yu (Jerry). In Yu Shui’s opening scenes, we are led to believe that her departure is not foretold. The director knew the disposition of Chen Bo Yu and Yu Shui’s family before he started making the film. Any pretense to the contrary is untrue.

“Up the Yangtze” is still a worthwhile, educational film. Yung Chang’s dogma only reduces the powerful impact of the environmental decimation on display.

*Literally--the floor of their house is dirt.

**It may not actually be time-lapse. Rather, regular speed shots are separated by cuts of many hours. Regardless, it has the same effect as time-lapse.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Bean (1997)--3/5 & Starship Troopers (1997)--4/5

November 1997. I make the wrong decision when I see “Bean” instead of “Starship Troopers” on their shared opening weekend. I have to suffer through a whole week of classmates—particularly A.J. Hautzenroeder in 11th-grade English—telling me how awesome it is. Mr. Bean, the BBC character, and “Bean,” the movie about him, are mildly diverting. People usually love him or hate him. More entertaining at the screening than the film is the solitary middle-aged woman who knows she’s going to laugh so hard that she’s brought a new box of Kleenex to wipe her tears. The tissues do get used.

By the time I see “Starship Troopers,” all of the most disgusting and dirty parts have been described to me ad nauseum. It’s still awesome.

NPH, amazing as ever.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Living Daylights (1987)--1/5 & Licence to Kill (1989)--4/5

This is actually from a few years ago:

Timothy Dalton's two James Bond movies, "The Living Daylights" (1987) and "Licence to Kill" (1989), are among the most derided in the series, hovering somewhere around "The World is Not Enough" and "Moonraker" with most fans. In the latest Entertainment Weekly rankings, "The Living Daylights" comes in at number sixteen and "Licence to Kill," nineteen—out of twenty. The former mostly justifies the hostility, while the latter is defensible and even borderline excellent at times.

At this point, every Bond movie is compared to an aggregate ideal of the Perfect Bond Movie. Aggregate because no one Bond movie contains every perfect element—although "Goldfinger" is generally considered the closest. Too many modulations from the center are seen as deteriorations of the integrity of the series. Taking this kind of thinking too seriously has led to some of the series pitfalls, like the straightforwardly presented gimmickry of some of Pierce Brosnan's Bond films. An extreme example of this is the magical invisible car in "Die Another Day." "Licence to Kill" is the Timothy Dalton Bond movie that succeeds by willfully turning its back on the moldy conventions. As a result, the series is expanded and shows how unexpectedly deep it can be. (The new "Casino Royale" blows "Licence to Kill" away in this department, but it doesn't diminish its impact.)

Both films are typical relics of the eighties: "Daylights" clings to the Cold War dream of perfect, Godless Soviet villainy and "Licence" features speedboat chases in the Florida Keys.

The biggest failure of "The Living Daylights" is the poor definition of the bad guys. General Koskov (Jeroem Krabbe) defects from the Soviet Union but then returns because of plot mechanics too convoluted for me to remember. So he's the bad guy, right? If so, that means that James Bond is fighting for the Taliban against a general who is just trying to buy weapons for his army. However, the movie doesn't seem to think Koskov is the bad guy. Bond doesn't have a showdown with him and he survives past the end of the movie. It turns out that the villain is actually Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker), an American military dude seen in only two previous scenes, who is selling the weapons to the Soviets so they can fight the heroic Afghanis.* Whitaker's secret hideout is, um, a wax museum of warlords throughout history.

The main thing that "Licence to Kill" (yes, it's really spelled like that) has going for it is a credible bad guy. The other Fratelli brother from "The Goonies" plays Sanchez, a Colombian drug lord. Obviously, just dealing drugs is not enough to get James Bond's attention. What does is the fact that he feeds Bond's friend Felix to a shark and then turns his thugs on Felix's wife. He may be little more than a stock MacGyver villain, but at least he's got a massive hideout and a plan to take over the world with Nancy Reagan's inexorable threat of hard drugs.

The two most damning things a character in a James Bond movie can do are to declare close friendship with or love for 007. These characters' subsequent proximity to death is up there with counselors who have sex at Camp Crystal Lake.

Seemingly acknowledging the deficiencies of Timothy Dalton as Bond, "Licence to Kill" is a great movie because it does things differently. At times it's not necessarily a great Bond movie, but rather a great eighties action movie. Among other divergences, Bond has to violently break away from MI6 and beats up M in the process; Q works with Bond throughout the movie; and the stunt work and violence are ramped up and portrayed more seriously. The stunts in the film are outstanding—perhaps the best in the series—because we know they are not aided by computers.
Timothy Dalton never feels comfortable as James Bond. In "The Living Daylights," he looks either pissed off or in the clouds for most of the runtime. He's kind of the same in "Licence to Kill," but at least the film gives him more to do, and more of a reason to do it.

*To further confuse matters, Joe Don "Mitchell!" Baker plays an American ally of James Bond in two of the Brosnan outings.

Maryam D'Abo, Bond Girl from "The Living Daylights."

Monday, November 24, 2008

Quantum of Solace (2008)--3/5

Hidden somewhere in "Quantum of Solace" is a great Bond movie. As the first direct sequel in the series, it continues the meaningful, multilayered plot begun in “Casino Royale.” Camille (Olga Kurylenko) is more than just the latest Bond Girl. Her poignant backstory could support a Kill Bill-esque spin-off. Speaking of spin-offs, Jeffrey Wright is fab in the role of Bond’s CIA counterpart, Felix Leiter. Get this guy a contract, stat!*

The pre-credits car chase threatens to deride the whole enterprise. Minutes after the end of “Casino Royale,” Bond (Daniel Craig), with an abducted Mr. White in the trunk, is pursued on his way to a hidden interrogation chamber. Metronomically, the film cuts every two seconds, no matter what this does to any understanding of just what the hell is going on. The same goes for the later foot chase, boat chase, other foot chase (with crosscuts of an opera!), and plane chase.

The galling—and possibly redeeming—thing about the action is that it’s thrilling, logical, and well-covered. The DNA can be seen, with concentration. The producers should have canned the editors, Matt Chesse and Richard Pearson, early in the process.

Critics have been deriding "Quantum of Solace" for its lack of plot. On the contrary, it has just as much plot as "Casino Royale" or any other Bond film. What it's actually missing is a clear sense of style. The hatcheting of the action scenes extends to the interstitials. Bond travels to a lot of places in the “Quantum of Solace;” the director is obsessed with creatively announcing each location change.** These scenery changes amount to—not much. The actors read their expository lines and move along to the next place.

One concept of the film is that Bond is constantly on the run—towards the villain Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) and away from M (Judi Dench). With this in mind, the breathlessness has its place. Lost to this shuffling are the vicarious pleasures to be had in the Bond universe, like Bond gambling, drinking, seducing, etc. His trip to Port-au-Prince, Haiti in "Quantum" is about as exciting as a layover in that country.

“Quantum of Solace” is still a decent film. The preceding is mostly a reaction to the failed opportunities in the film, especially after the heights reached in “Casino Royale.” Greene’s evil plot, while characteristically over-the-top, is complex, logical, and frightening. Its repercussions are felt by an entire country. The whole film has a brutal language more aligned with Ian Fleming’s worldview. Bond triumphs, but he’s not enjoying it anymore.

*The last two sentences of this paragraph courtesy the style of “Variety.”

**This technique of using fonts that match the locale is expertly used in the game “Final Fantasy IX.”

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Thanksgiving Turkeys

To counterbalance all the recent positivity, here are the 2007-2008 films that have a 1/5 rating. I'm including 2007 films because I watched most of them in 2008; the list would be too short without them.

Maybe I'll write about these someday (yeah right):

10,000,000 B.C.
30 Days of Night
The Brave One
The Darjeeling Limited
Diary of the Dead
Feast of Love
Hell Ride
John Adams
La Vie en Rose
Lars and the Real Girl
Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others)
Made of Honor
Reservation Road
Rocket Science

Paranoid Park (2007)--4/5

Gus Van Sant loves endless shots of kids walking towards the camera. He made a whole movie (“Elephant”) of just this shot. In the first fifteen minutes of “Paranoid Park,” Van Sant uses this technique, along with gauzy, endless shots of skateboarding, to recalibrate the audience—and to scare them away. The austerity and confusion at the beginning are litmus tests. The film makes sense only in unconventional ways.

To attract viewers, the “Paranoid Park” DVD is unfairly billed as a mystery.* It does have elements of a mystery: a death, a weapon, a cop on the trail. But the pieces of the puzzle are shown out of order; the film is more interested in high school society than anything else.

Alex (Gabe Nevins) is the fluttering narrator of “Paranoid Park.” As a sometime-skater, he is automatically a suspect in a suspicious death near the eponymous skate park. A security guard has been chopped in half by a passing train at a depot. The detective may or may not have a skateboard that may or may not be part of the crime.

First-time actor Nevins helps “Paranoid Park” in several ways. For one, he can actually skate.** The film never jumps to an obvious stunt double in the distance.

The structure of the film is dictated by Alex writing a story of his recent troubles. This is why moments are repeated and shown in a haphazard order. Alex’s stuttered and affectless narration comes from the story. Again here, the genius of the casting shines through. The not-fully-literate Alex is focused only on sounding out the words; extra attention cannot be used on reading with any emotion.

Special notice should be made of the subtitles on the “Paranoid Park” DVD. In addition to the expected dialogue and incidental sounds, songs on the soundtrack and the artists who perform them are shown at the proper times. An effort is even made to describe the songs. This leads to subtitles like, “‘Walk Through Resonant Landscape No. 2’ by Frances White…music is made up of birdsong and other ambient sounds, rising in intensity.” Cool. This really only adds contextually to an appreciation of the film, but it’s better than the norm.

*I’m assuming the marketing is out of Gus Van Sant’s hands.

**Specifically, he can skate as well as his character. He’s not great, but he’s better than most people.

Monday, November 17, 2008

"The Simpsons" 20.6: "Homer and Lisa Exchange Cross Words"--3/5

If not for the secret message crossword at the end of the episode, “Homer and Lisa Exchange Cross Words” would rate lower. Both plotlines (Crosswords and Homer as a Break-Up Artist) fail to bring the jokes.

Homer betting against Lisa is a retread of the sentiments of the third season episode “Lisa the Greek.” In that one, Homer bets on football based on Lisa’s hunches. Back in this episode, Will Shortz and Merl Reagle appear in a minor-league setup-punch line cameo.

The hidden message crossword by Merl Reagle appeared in the New York Times Magazine on November 16, the airdate of the episode. To solvers not aware of the “Simpsons” connection,* the puzzle just has a corny pun theme: celebrity’s last names are changed to words and clued accordingly. Thus, “Hall of Fame golfer who invented the all-plastic club?” is ARNOLDPOLYMER. Ha, ha, I guess.

Revealed on “The Simpsons” are the two ingenious messages. Moving from the NW to the SW of the puzzle is the message, “DUMB DAD SORRY FOR HIS BET.” And reading the first letters of all of the clues gives the message, “DEAR LISA YOU MAKE ME SO HAPPY REALLY REALLY REALLY HAPPY SORRY HE TOLD ME I NEEDED A HUNDRED FORTY FOUR LETTERS WHAT WAS MY POINT AGAIN OH RIGHT BOUVIER OR SIMPSON I CHERISH YOU.” It’s as if Homer exists in our world—maybe he never escaped from the 3-D episode “Homer³”—and was able to convince Shortz and Reagle to hide the messages.

Each theme layer added to a puzzle makes that puzzle exponentially harder for a constructor to fill. The abundance of foreign words (SEHR crossing SOTTO?) and initialisms (IOC next to SWA) can be forgiven in this case.

As much as he is featured in “Wordplay,” Merl Reagle is rarely seen in the New York Times (six puzzles in the last fifteen years). In fact, his last two NYT contributions have been this “Simpsons” tie-in and the puzzle seen in “Wordplay” (solved by Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, et al). At his regular gig, this Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer puzzle is overtly about “The Simpsons.”

*It’s hard to write about “The Simpsons” because the official name has the “The” in it. That fragment should technically read “not aware of the “The Simpsons” connection.” Ugh.

November 16, 2008--image from Diary of a Crossword Fiend.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Heartbreak Kid (1972)--3/5

“The Heartbreak Kid” is a comedy with an impressive pedigree: Elaine May directing a Neil Simon screenplay, starring Cybill Shepherd and Charles Grodin.

The real star is Eddie Albert* as Mr. Corcoran. When Len (Grodin) is initially with his daughter (Shepherd) at a bar, Corcoran throws dismissive stares in his general direction. When it appears that nothing will stop Len, Corcoran baits him with long silences punctuated by creative outbursts like, “not if they tied me to a horse and pulled me forty miles by my tongue.” In these conversational chasms, Len’s foolish arguments become transcendently idiotic. Sometimes the best conveyance of malice is simple body language; Corcoran’s stillness is electrifying.

“The Heartbreak Kid” was recently remade with Ben Stiller…

*“Green Acres Guy,” as my roommate calls him.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


Is Wally Lamb a Fugazi fan?

This is Blu-ray

I love the Blu-ray commercials on regular DVD's. The studios are trying to sell you on the detailed picture of the new discs. Of course, since the shots in these commercials are on a standard definition DVD, they don't look any better.

The "This Is DVD" commercials on old VHS tapes are even funnier. Apparently, DVD images have the power to blow you back in your seat, dilate your pupils, and set your house on fire. Too bad the picture is still VHS-quality.

This Is DVD, as shown on a VHS tape and then uploaded to YouTube.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Hamiltons (2006)--3/5

On the surface, “The Hamiltons” has the look of a generic modern-torture movie. According to Netflix, it’s about a family whose “extracurricular activities tend toward the sadistic.” Above all, it’s part of the “8 Films To Die For” shovelware imprint, home of the unwatchable “Captivity.”

In “The Hamiltons,” four orphaned siblings live in a large house in a new—to them—community. People in their orbit tend to disappear.

The slow revelation of the family’s true nature is what the film is really about. Although it is a surprising film, it doesn’t have an implausible Shyamalending;* the truth can be deduced at one of many points along the way. And instead of graphic eviscerations, the film is concerned with cohesive storytelling and a general creepiness.

One opportunity for gruesome special effects is neatly sidestepped. The family keeps a violent, bloodthirsty creature locked up in the basement. (Hopefully) without giving too much away, the first sight of the creature is somehow heartwarming. In effect, the budget limitations are played for unexpected pathos.

“The Hamiltons” pays extra attention to how each family member deals with the horrors around them. Wendell is extroverted and clearly unhinged, David is parental, Darlene is goth, and Francis is awkwardly growing up. Each of these personalities is in some way reactionary to inescapable urges.


Technically, this scene does occur in the movie. Trust me, it's not "Saw VIII," or whatever one they're on now.

Monday, November 10, 2008


Sunday's (11/16/08) New York Times Crossword will be Simpsons-related. Sunday's episode of The Simpsons will be New York Times Crossword-related.

As you were.

Simpsonized "Wordplay" stars Merl Reagle and Will Shortz.

La Haine (Hate) (1995)--5/5

HBO's "The Wire" understands the dramatic opportunities of shocking disparity. In his only trip out of the inner city, Marlo travels to a St. Martin’s bank to personally check up on his money. When McNulty unsuccessfully attempts to stay sober and live a normal family-life, it's the sight of him in uniform or at the dinner table that gives a frisson.

So it is, too, with "La Haine," Mathieu Kassovitz's searing, wide-eyed look at Parisian housing projects. Three friends, Vinz, Hubert, and Saïd, travel into the city in the afternoon/evening of the day chronicled in the film. After missing the train back, they decide to go to a pretentious artist’s opening. After boorishly drinking and approaching women, they are kicked out. The pointlessness of their way of life is nakedly on display when in contrast to this caricature of “acceptable” society.

The kids don’t know any better. Where they’re from, every conversation is an argument or a trading of insults. Parents are absent or useless. Cops, the only other visible authority figures, are inept, corrupt, or otherwise dangerous. Again in the city, Vinz is unbelieving at the politeness of a city cop. In the projects, cops and kids are forever at war. Violence leads to revenge leads to more violence.

Kassovitz is a master of the rack focus shot—that technique in which a person in the background sees something in the foreground, whereupon foreground object pops into focus.* It can be used in other ways, of course. Upon first meeting Saïd, the camera swoops above his head and racks its focus to the bruised and armored cops protecting their precinct. This, combined with the unflinching gaze of black-and-white film, connotes the tension to come in every scene. Suppressed violent and otherwise felonious urges can be released at any time, and often are.

*See: every horror film ever made: “What’s up with that crazy doorknob? Oh God, now it’s in focus!”

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

On font sizes

One thing The New York Times is conservative about is font size. Major stories get an all-caps headline. Only monumental stories get all-caps in a 72+ point font:

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Demons (1985)--4/5

Laura and I have had incredible luck in picking horror movies to watch on/around Halloween. One year she picked “Dead End” based on the title alone. It’s a surprisingly well-acted and -compacted ghost story starring Ray Wise, the dad from “Twin Peaks.” Last year we watched the canonical Italian zombie film “Zombie” and the Jodie Foster-showcasing “The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane.” This year was no exception.

“Demons” is an Italian-financed movie, filmed in Berlin, with European actors speaking (presumably) heavily-accented English. Dialogue is overdubbed by American actors. The multiple filters of cultural interpretation give the proceedings a committee-created pop-sensibility. In short, “Demons” may be the cheesiest, eighties-est, horror film ever made.

This is a film in which four punks* drive around the city while snorting cocaine out of a straw in a Coke can (ha ha) and listening to Billy Idol. Hey, remember the eighties? No? Just watch this scene.

A later—and extremely awesome—scene finds our hero and heroine tooling around a movie theater on a motorbike, hacking at demons with a samurai sword. The only thing missing is Bruce Campbell.

The plot (if you hadn't figured it out yet) involves a haunted movie theater that spawns demons to kill American stereotypes. One bite, scratch, or spray of demon goo turns someone into another demon. Maybe. The logic of the film’s world has a kitchen-sink nature to it. Some people transform instantly, some gradually, and some not at all. Late in the film, a different kind of demon is “birthed” from an already-mutated human. This only happens once, and no later mention is made of it. I’d like to think that the answers will be revealed in the further chronicles of the demons, of which there are many.

A motorbike? Really?

*You can tell they’re punks because of the leather jackets and mohawks.

Note the "American-style" pimp.

Monday, November 3, 2008

In This World (2002)--3/5

The British director Michael Winterbottom is incapable of making the same type of movie twice. Before and after “In This World,” he directed “24 Hour Party People” and “Code 46,” respectively. The former is an amusingly shaggy biopic of Tony Wilson, Joy Division, and other Manchester scenesters. The latter is an austere, futuristic Tim Robbins vehicle.

“In This World,” however, follows two Afghani nationals’ attempts to travel from a Pakistani refugee camp to London. The journey moves through Pakistan, Turkey, Italy, and France. Rigorously shot on location, the film is deeply embedded in the underground of each country. The camera lingers in the cracks of the shantytowns and city streets, catching unguarded moments of praying, eating, and working.

The verisimilitude extends to the actors. Jamal is playing himself, more or less. The sobering end-titles impart that, after not granting asylum, England will deport the actor one day before his eighteenth birthday. Enayatullah, his traveling companion, is equally untrained. No matter; they’re living rather than acting.

As a road movie, “In This World” is most fascinated by the refugees’ modes of transportation. Whether by foot, pickup truck, or bus, each step could be their last. Often the confusion and fear of Jamal and Enayatullah are palpable. They will give a seemingly arbitrary amount of money to a foreign stranger without knowing what exactly they’ll get in return. Maddeningly, this confusion extends to the style of the film; a tenuous logic connects many scenes. In the most hellish sequence of the film, they (and others) are locked in a trailer on a cargo ship to Trieste. The squalid trip lasts so long that only two people survive. Nobody is waiting for them at the end of the journey.

The only conventional touches are the humanitarian voiceover introduction and the insistent soundtrack. Plaintive strings are offset by Arabic (Afghani?) chanting. Otherwise, “In This World” is a new kind of film, reenacting as closely as possible the shared dangers of untold people. It’s a documentary of events that could never be documented.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

"Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles: Season 1" (2008)--4/5

Unlike most time travel films, the Terminator series embraces its fundamental paradoxes. Kyle Reese is sent back in time by John Connor in "The Terminator" so he can save Sarah Connor and conceive, um, John Connor.* As seen at Cyberdyne Systems in "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," the original T-800's (Arnold Schwarzenegger) arm and CPU have been preserved. The study of this futuristic technology leads to the development of Skynet and the Terminators!

The three films (so far) in the series should be appreciated for their superficial pleasures--action, special effects, moment-to-moment plot. Thinking about the temporal problems too much leads to madness.

Ignoring established continuity, "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" works in much the same way; it can be enjoyed for what it is. The Fox TV series seems to ignore the plot developments of "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines." Jumping from 1999 to 2007, John (Thomas Dekker), Sarah, and Cameron (yet another new Terminator) skip over the action of that film. Also, John’s age doesn’t mesh with “T2.” In 1999, Dekker is only a year (or so) older than Edward Furlong was in 1991. (They jump forward in time in the first episode. Would it have been too hard to just start in 1991?)

"Sarah Connor" delivers thrills in the vein of “T2”--robots chasing cars, robots killing each other, flash-forwards, gunplay, etc. Since cutting-edge special effects from 1991 are cheap enough to be on a weekly series today, the "look" of the show is similar to an expensive feature film.

The new medium supports variations on the established themes of the series. On “monster of the week” episodes, Sarah and John encounter, for example, Terminators on different missions or people accidentally caught up in the main storyline.

And throughout the first season, the serialized adventure allows stories and characters to slowly build momentum. FBI Agent Ellison, curious to a fault, is gradually schooled in the ways of the future. Cromartie is a malevolent Bad Terminator whose head travels through time and—well, it’s sweet, but it takes some explaining.

Watch the show. Just don’t think about it as much as I did.

*Evidently, this is called a predestination paradox.

Forget you ever saw these losers.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Strangers (2008)--2/5

"The Strangers" observations:

The bad guys:

They can get into and out of a dead-bolted house without making any noise.

They can shatter four car windows just as quietly.

Too many times to count, the camera--or Liv Tyler--spots a masked figure from afar. After a quick cutaway shot, the figure disappears! So apparently, they can also cover dozens of yards in a second.

The good guys:

At four in the morning, and without much hesitation, Scott Speedman opens the (conveniently windowless) door to a girl who's scouting for victims.

After accidentally shooting his buddy, Speedman illogically gives up the well-defended room he and Tyler are bunkered down in. Instead, he runs outside by himself to a decrepit barn to possibly find an old ham radio. This does not turn out well.

The three villains are actually morons as well. They're lucky enough to be slightly less moronic than the Speedman and Tyler. After being shot at by the defending couple, do they run away and try their luck on another, less well-defended house? No, they continue to wander around outside and inside of the house.

"The Strangers" has a reasonably realistic and scary setup; the ineptitude of the filmmaking ultimately renders it unsalvageable.

Michael Pitt in "Funny Games," a much better movie.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Hud (1963)--4/5

For maximum dramatic convenience, the denizens of “Hud” serve as surrogates for absent “traditional” family members. Fifteen years ago, a car accident caused by Hud Bannon (Paul Newman) killed his older brother. Hud’s father has raised Lonnie (Brandon De Wilde), the brother’s son. Hud is essentially Lonnie’s cool, dangerous older brother. Alma (Patricia Neal), the housekeeper, completes the group as a lone maternal voice.

“Hud,” based on a Larry McMurtry novel, is a rare western in which languor and repetition trump action and dynamism. The lone bar fight sequence is as sad as it is thrilling. Geneses of characters’ behaviors are buried deep in the events of their lives. By the end of the film, accumulated behaviors and imagery define a complete picture of each star.

Hud spends much of his time driving into and from town in his gaudy pink Cadillac. The amount of time the film spends on the road indicates the distance the farm is from anybody else. Over the years, this long, necessary journey has been the defining motif of Hud’s life. The accident that killed his brother hasn’t taught him to drive carefully. Rather, he drives faster, more recklessly (and drunkenly), as if to get it over with as quickly as possible.

“Hud” is also a rare modern western, taking place during the time of its release. Despite this, the film is not based on a pining for an earlier, purer cowboy archetype a la the McMurtry film “The Last Picture Show.” Instead, change is defined as incremental generational differences. The three ages of the Bannon family men effectively delineate these changes. And although the sequence screams “Symbolism!,” the shooting of a herd of sick cows later in the film speaks to encroaching government regulation.

Most of the strength of “Hud” stems from its gorgeous black-and-white photography. The camera lingers on the far horizon, sometimes populated with gloomy cows, sometimes free of any movement. Paul Newman plays such an electric character that his presence is felt even in the empty vistas.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Confessions of a Superhero (2007)--3/5

Among the hordes of sad, wannabe-actors in Hollywood, the costumed figures in the fascinating “Confessions of a Superhero” stand out. You know these guys. They greet tourists in front, but not on the property of, Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. In some ways, they have reached a certain level of success: tourists enjoy taking pictures with them; there’s this movie about them; they’ve appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” On the other hand, they’re glorified panhandlers, emphasizing to every passer-by that they work on “tips.” All of them want to be doing something in the film industry. This is just a temporary gig—that’s lasted five or more years.

“Confessions of a Superhero” examines four of these entertainers (Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and The Incredible Hulk) in sometimes painful detail.

Superman (Christopher Dennis) is the saddest and most deluded character in the film. He’s surrounded by mountains of eponymous memorabilia (worth “one million dollars”) in his one-bedroom apartment. He claims to be the son of Oscar-winning actress Sandy Dennis. In an interview with her living relatives, they say they’ve never heard of him.

On the street, Superman is the de facto role model of the costumed mass. It helps that he bears a remarkable resemblance to Christopher Reeve and that his costume is modeled authentically on Reeve’s. He has no problem finding paying tourists. In one amusing exchange, Superman chides Ghost Rider for smoking while on the job. Ghost Rider’s reply: “He’s made of fire.”

Although she conforms to a lot of stereotypes of the “country girl trying to make it in Hollywood,” Wonder Woman (Jennifer Wenger) has the most potential to break free. She’s still young, talented as an actress, and aware of the world outside the Hollywood Boulevard sidewalk. With any luck, she’s not there anymore.

Northside History, Vol. 1

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

W. (2008)--3/5

“W.” digs as deep as it can into the mind of George W. Bush. The result is a surface-level movie about a surface-level person. Except for a need to impress his “Poppy” and a spiritual awakening, no other explanations are needed for his aspirations.

To his credit, the usually slippery, left-wing Oliver Stone mostly sticks to the facts in “W.” If the whole thing feels like re-watching painful recent history, so be it. The serial failures of Bush’s youth and presidency are made clear with this approach. People watching this movie in the future will stammer, “It couldn’t possibly have been like this!” To which we will solemnly reply, “Yes. That actually happened in this country.”*

Ignoring the scattered dream sequences, the few moments treated as fact that clearly go off-topic weaken the film. In an extended, overwritten war room scene, Dick Cheney proclaims that, in order to secure Middle Eastern oil, there is “no exit” from Iraq. Even though Cheney thought this, he never said it so dramatically to a room of people.

Later, Josh Brolin (perfectly cast) recites Bush’s infamous “Fool me once” quote. The only problem is: he does it at the dinner table. As anybody who’s seen “Fahrenheit 9/11” knows, this quote comes from a public speech.

Like Jr., George Bush Sr. is treated the way he deserves. To wit, James Cromwell’s character’s inner life is the most plumbed in “W.” Bush Sr.’s decision to end the Gulf War after one hundred hours is the reason believed by the rest of his family for Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory. To his dismay, Jr. takes out Hussein in order to get re-elected. It’s an extension of the life-long “disappointment” father feels towards son. (Sorry: I know it’s crass to compare young and old W in this way, since the latter’s decisions have destroyed the world.)

W’s well-cast cabal members fall into one of three groups. Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) and Rove tell him what to do. Powell (Geoffrey Wright) and Tenet (Bruce McGill**) meekly raise concerns. Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), Rice (Thandie Newton), and everyone else sycophantically follow him.

If all this sounds didactic and simple-minded, that’s the point. The strength of the film is its adherence to the primitive, “us vs. them” mentality of the Bush administration.

*Thanks to Laura for the theoretical conversation. She also brought up how awesome and creepy this movie would have been if directed by David Lynch. Imagine Toby Jones’ Karl Rove (even more troll-like than in real life!) entering Bush’s head, appearing in front of red curtains, and speaking the secrets of re-election in tongues.

**Jack Dalton from MacGyver!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Wall•E (2008)--5/5

Pixar is the most masterful modern studio at promoting its films. The standard advertising campaign for them barely scratches the surface of the depth within. (It doesn’t hurt that most of their productions naturally expand fictional worlds far beyond audience expectations.)

After doing this for awhile, Pixar knows exactly how much to show in a trailer to get people to the theater. Just the setup for great Pixar films would be the absolute for most other studios. The superior Pixar films can—and do—have the most content withheld in their trailers.

The trailer for (and title of) “Finding Nemo” promises an undersea adventure of parent searching for child. It conceals the significant portion of the film that takes place in the saltwater tank at the dentist. Notably, this setting is the home of Nemo for most of the movie. It also introduces nearly half of the speaking roles in the film. The more limited setting* allows for sharper action and a stronger definition of character traits.

Not surprisingly, “Cars,” the least-interesting Pixar film to date, has a revealing ad campaign. If not explicitly stated, the main character’s arc can be inferred from the trailer: a race car learns to slow down and appreciate life in a small town. That’s it, really—the setup is the movie.

“Wall•E” is the apotheosis of the ratio of trailer content to film quality. A hint of the first act’s story is visible through a trailer dominated by simple character traits. No mention is made of the melancholic tone of the film or of the Axiom. This ship, carrying the infantile remnants of humanity, is where a large portion of the movie takes place. Upon first viewing, “Wall•E” moves in unexpected, lyrical directions.

Pixar was once the only producer in the now-crowded market of computer animated features. Its consistency has allowed it to have faith in potential customers.

*Almost anything would be more limited compared to the ocean!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Sex and the City (2008)--2/5

Read the previous two posts for this one to make (more) sense.

Four years later, “Sex and the City: The Movie” arbitrarily breaks three of the four primary relationships of the series.

Maybe it isn’t terribly surprising that the characters slip into easily-sketched character traits of lesser episodes of the series. Time has to be spent to reintroduce four main characters, their beaus, and a host of lesser beings. Any shades of grey or complexities would extend the already-deadly two-and-a-half-hour runtime. It’s fun to see these characters again, but their development as people is stunted.

Big gets cold feet again. Miranda is mean to Steve again. Samantha can’t be in a relationship again. Plus, Steve cheats on Miranda! This is so out-of-character that David Eigenberg, the actor playing Steve, has trouble delivering the lines.

Michael Patrick King, writer-director of “Sex and the City: The Movie,” is like an angry, manipulative god. Under his power, Carrie and friends are tossed around like kamikaze “Sorry!” pawns. Samantha has moved to California, but she is able to pick up and take weekend trips to Manhattan like it’s a PATH ride from Jersey. Seemingly every other scene has the three other friends gasping in surprise that Samantha has come to New York. Why so shocked? She was just here two days ago!

Almost axiomatically, any dramatic action in the spirit of the original series has to destroy the gains made in later seasons. This movie really shouldn’t exist.

Charlotte, Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, about to clothesline a pedestrian.

"Sex and the City: Season 6" (2003-2004)--3/5

In the satisfying final episode of “Sex and the City” (the TV series), all four characters had finally found love. End of story. Yes, the entire series had been about finding and losing love, but this is what it had been building towards. Using love-interests and plot points introduced in prior seasons, the respective relationships of the characters were stronger than any that had come before. (In Carrie’s case, Mr. Big had been introduced in the first season.) Unlike “The Lost Weekend,” “Sex and the City’s” happy ending was earned.*

*This isn’t to say that the characters can’t be happy without men in their lives. (With the exception of Samantha, the show/movie may think otherwise.)

The Lost Weekend (1945)--2/5

“The Lost Weekend” has one of the least-convincing of all film endings. Upon drinking himself silly for an entire weekend—this after a ten-day stretch of sobriety—Don Birnam (Ray Milland) is convinced that he is finally in control of his drinking problem. The movie he’s in believes this too; the music crescendos happily to signal the end credits.

If only the movie had maintained its earlier vein of cynicism. Up to the conclusion, “The Lost Weekend,” through Birnam, defines alcoholics as incurable and clingers to false hope. The sudden reversal of this idea smacks of Hollywood tinkering.

P.S. “The Lost Weekend” is the genesis of the scene—featured on “The Simpsons” and “Futurama”—of a character walking in the dark past germane neon signs.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Leatherheads (2008)--2/5

Towards the end of “Leatherheads,” Jimmy (George Clooney) has a plan to get Carter (John Krasinski) to admit the truth of his wartime deeds. Carter has ridden a wave of war hero and football star popularity to the pros, where he has invigorated the startup league.

Jimmy borrows a military truck and some uniforms, dresses up his teammates, and parks the truck outside the football commissioner’s office. Upon looking out the window, Carter has a pang of conscience and recants his story. On the way out, he sees who is actually in uniform. They share a meaningful glance.

This is a pretty obvious set of circumstances for a screwball movie. The audience should know some kind of setup is in the works from Jimmy. We may even guess that the truck has football players instead of soldiers. But “Leatherheads” seems to go out of its way to not explain what’s going on. The players have been so poorly sketched out during the rest of the movie that simply seeing them in a group is not enough. In an earlier scene, Jimmy runs into an old war buddy and asks if he can borrow something. Is it just the truck? The whole platoon? Just their uniforms? Only in the next scene is it explained what actually happened.

In other words, a not particularly funny, clever, or interesting gag is stretched over three distinct scenes. The climactic football game ends with the same kind of poorly-explained trick.

Like another recent George Clooney vehicle, Steven Soderbergh’s “The Good German,” “Leatherheads” focuses on the background, to the detriment of the rest of the movie. The 1920’s style is lush and inventive—the oversize billboards and painted murals throughout come to mind. Clooney, Zellweger, and Krasinski all comport themselves well enough, but they are ciphers against this onslaught.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

"The Office: Season 4" (2007-2008)--5/5

Late in the episode “Dunder Mifflin Infinity” from “The Office’s” fourth season, Michael Scott, following directions from a GPS, drives a rental car into a lake. Since “The Office” is shot as a documentary, this scene is one unbroken shot. The actors and cameraman actually ride a car into a lake. While it fills with green water, all three have to scramble out and onto shore. “The Office” has been reinventing the concept of a sitcom for a while, but this stunning scene is far beyond other current primetime shows.

In the world of “The Office,” is the Dunder Mifflin documentary ever shown on TV? Characters never reference big things that would be revealed by its airing. (Correct me if I’m wrong.)* Just to name two: Pam doesn’t know that Jim bought a ring a month after they started dating. Andy still doesn’t know that Angela is cheating on him.

Since their work has nothing to show for it, the premise of a film crew at the office gets stretched each season that “The Office” is renewed.

The best thing about the documentary crew as a character is that the focus of the show is limited to work-related events. Stories from the outside are conveyed through clever use of the show’s format. The revelation of Jim and Pam’s relationship is seen when the camera crew follows him from work at a distance. What the audience gets of Dwight and Angela’s undercover romance is subtle glances, hushed conversations, and a happened-upon office party tryst.

The private moments that are seen are thrilling because of their rarity. Even better are the times when characters who know they’re being filmed don’t care what the camera sees. Andy’s serenade to Angela and Jim’s big smooch with Pam come to mind.

Maybe the last episode of “The Office” will have the premiere of “The Office” for the Dunder Mifflin employees. The show wouldn’t be able to continue after that.

*“Sex and the City” has the same problem. Carrie’s friends and dates don’t mention the mean things she writes (famously, for a major newspaper and book publisher) nearly as often as they should.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Speed Racer (2008)--2/5

For whom was “Speed Racer” made? Babies, cats, and drug users will like the bright colors and movement, but not understand the stabs at narrative. Fans of the original series will like the attention to character and vehicle detail, but zone out during the two-plus-hour pummel of the whole thing. Gamers and ten-year-old boys will like the races, but be insulted by the juvenile humor holding them together.

And this is only the potential audience. It rules out people that wouldn’t even come near the movie (film snobs, hockey moms, etc.).

For years, film critics have used the phrase “like a video game” to describe a movie they think is too artificial, colorful, and manic. This is as unfair as saying a movie is “like an album” and leaving it at that. A whole art form can’t be shorthand for crappiness. Maybe it’s a generational thing. Roger Ebert famously claims that video games are not "high art" and never will be.

The phrase “like a video game” is this era’s version of “like MTV.” When used in a review, both cases require some elaboration. 1) Which video games or aspects of MTV?* 2) Why is the movie actually not good?

The parts of “Speed Racer” most like a video game are, admittedly, like a sweet-looking video game. Taking inspiration from the anti-gravity game series “Wipeout,” the cars in the film have tenuous traction with the ground. This allows them to flip around, power slide, and jump over other racers at will. Nausea-inducing drops and twists in the well-defined tracks seem designed with this in mind. Further linking “Speed Racer” with a game are the weapons integrated into the Mach 5, which are introduced by their concomitant steering wheel buttons; the steering wheel is a glorified console controller.

The final lap of the final race of "Speed Racer" will hopefully be inspiring for future games. The faster Speed drives, the trippier the visuals become. By the finish line, he's skimming through a swirling seizure of red and white diamonds.

The rest of the movie is truly terrible though—like a novel.

*Okay, it’s well-documented—on the Web and in everybody-of-a-certain-age’s mind—what’s wrong with MTV. This mention is specifically referring to the quick cuts, outré fashion, and narrative haziness of 80’s music videos and the supposed infiltration of said elements into *respectable* films.

BTW, Defamer fondly remembers an era of MTV that most people already complain about for the lack of “M.” It’s gotten worse?

Friday, September 26, 2008

On Wikipedia

Have you ever watched a movie and noticed details that were laughably wrong?

Some examples for me:

--The family in "Dan in Real Life" competes in teams on the same crossword. One team yells across the room that they've finished with the acrosses and are starting with the downs--an impossible way to solve a crossword.

--Robert Downey Jr. in "Chaplin" plays the violin, by holding the violin and bow in the wrong hands. (It's not a lefty violin--the chinrest is on the correct side.)

--Gogol's mother in "The Namesake" has the title of Librarian, but all she seems to do is shelve books.

If these movies are this wrong about stuff I do know, how can they possibly be accurate regarding anything else? While using Wikipedia at least ten times a day for years, I've spotted one or two errors on the site. Since it gets the few things I know right, I trust that it gets everything else right.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Fall (2006)--4/5

In Tarsem Singh's "The Fall," Roy Walker (Lee Pace) is a laid-up stuntman who tells a fantastic tale to a similarly-injured (they both "fell," get it?) young girl named Alexandria (Catinca Untaru). Alexandria visualizes the story as an ostentatious, globe-spanning epic. Tarsem's first film, 2000's J-Lo vehicle "The Cell," visually conveyed the mind of a serial killer with arresting style. The production design was tragically married to a by-the-Thomas-Harris-numbers crime thriller. Thankfully, "The Fall" has style and substance.

In the 1920's, Walker, a Hollywood stuntman, has the disconcerting charge of being seen in films, but never recognized. Slowly revealed during "The Fall" are the circumstances of his accident: namely, a girlfriend leaving him for the film's star and a botched attempt at a foolhardy stunt. By telling a story, he is able to control at least one thing in his life. He captivates Alexandria better than any movie could.

Walker has a selfish plan to commit suicide by gaining Alexandria's trust. Since he is unable to move from bed, he enlists her to bring him pills. These attempts fail for different reasons, underlining the lack of power he has, even over whether he lives or dies. Alexandria befriends Walker before connecting him tangibly to the film industry. When his latest movie is projected at the hospital, she see his value to the new medium.

"The Fall" has a passing similarity to Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth," in that they both concern the inner lives of girls. However, "The Fall" lacks the earlier film's claustrophobia and brutality (mostly); it could spiral out infinitely. Paradoxically, pretentiousness is somehow an asset to Tarsem's vision. Traveling to India to film an incidental scene of a fantasy movie in front of the Taj Mahal almost defines the word. From the beginning, though, the ever-widening scope adds to a concatenating beauty.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)--2/5

Criteria for a good kung fu movie:

1) Exciting fight scenes

2) Lots of fight scenes

3) Other things (story, characters, setting, acting, etc.)

Number three is not that important. A kung fu movie's story only has to quickly move--plausibly or not--from fight to fight.

"The Forbidden Kingdom" wastes time developing a derivative story. Like "Doomsday," the inspiration is Xeroxed rather than referenced. At least "Doomsday" had some upper-class ripoffs (Cameron, Carpenter, Romero). "The Forbidden Kingdom" steals from forgotten and/or junky kids' movies. The nerdy kung-fu movie fan who learns to fight from the legends is a lift from "Sidekicks," which was already a shameless "The Karate Kid" rehash. "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III" is already the definitive time-travel-via-mystical-Chinese-artifact movie. The entire framing story is, for all intents and purposes, the same as that in "The Neverending Story." Ergo, "The Forgotten Kingdom" is a soon-to-be-forgotten, junky kids' movie.

("The Neverending Story" may not mesh here for some, and it is kind of forgotten, hence the "and/or.")

The main draw of "The Forbidden Kingdom" is the "once in a lifetime" meeting of "kung fu legends" (I'm sure this is how the press release of the movie breathlessly reads) Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Ho-hum. It could be that the meeting is ten years too late. It also could be the dullness of the whole affair.

Classic Jackie Chan movies are known for the impressive martial arts, death-tempting stunts, and intricate physical comedy, sometimes in a combination of all three. Presumably, Chan's age keeps him from attempting the intense stunts of his youth. Since he still fights with prowess, the opportunity still exists for decent fight scenes. With the exception of a few intoxicated Chan moves (echoing the canonical "Drunken Master" films), the fighting in "The Forbidden Kingdom" is all in the self-serious Jet Li style. It's also loaded with tiresome "wire fu." Quick and technically proficient, yes, but without memorable moves or character quirks of the best choreography.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Regarding The Previous Post

Oh, I’m gonna catch some flak for actually recommending that last one. The film in question (I can’t type the title anymore) holds a metascore of 55/100 at Metacritic. Yes, my score of 3/5 is only slightly higher than this. But movies are becoming just as susceptible to modern critical grade inflation as video games. (The scales are still different. The 65/100 for Microsoft’s “Too Human” is essentially a drawing of Calvin pissing on the game.)

The low score for this movie—okay, okay: “Baby Mama”—indicates a similar level of disgust. I think critics initially cringed at the high-concept-by-committee-ness of the whole thing. They punished Tina Fey et al for not making something as fresh and off-the-wall as “30 Rock.” (Very little is.) To be fair, most reviews did pick up on Steve Martin’s performance.

Baby Mama (2008)--3/5

Spoilers ahead.

“Baby Mama” is yet another movie squarely in the Romantic Comedy mold. Two strangers form an odd couple through plot machinations (Tina Fey hires Amy Poehler to be her surrogate mother). A series of lies and impossibilities builds to a scene of revelation (the baby isn’t actually Fey’s). Finally, serendipitous and thematically germane plot “surprises” tie up the story (Fey actually does become pregnant).

It also has a terrible title that makes it sound like a sequel to “My Baby’s Daddy,” a movie to which nobody wants a sequel.

Making a movie like this is playing with a stacked deck. The only way to combat the unyielding conventions is to get the little things right. To that end, “Baby Mama” is rich with supporting characters. Steve Martin is almost phoning it in, but his new-age Whole Foods-ripoff owner is still the most consistently funny character in the film. Martin’s ability to deliver lines like, “I was talking with Jimmy Buffett this morning about trans fats…” is without peer. Sigourney Weaver is also amusing as a loopy and well-meaning surrogate finder. The jokes about her age vis-à-vis her fertility are consistently on target--Fey and Poehler even bond at a particularly low moment by commenting on this.

In a rare stroke, “Baby Mama” does not take place in New York. Although Philadelphia has been used in plenty of movies, the setting is still novel enough. And it isn’t New York. With close attention to detail, the movie gets in some quick throwaway gags with Greg Kinnear’s Pennsylvania-themed fruit smoothie names. (BTW, the best movie about Philadelphia is “Philadelphia.”)

Monday, September 15, 2008

Drunken Angel (1948)--4/5

The stagnant cesspool throughout Akira Kurosawa's "Drunken Angel" artfully evokes postwar Japan. The opening credits are shown over a closeup of the bubbling mess in the center of a busy Tokyo block; it's visible or nearby for the entire film.

On the edge of the sump lives Doctor Sanada (Takashi Shimura), an alcoholic--seemingly all of the men in the film are--who cares more for his patients than they deserve. The surprising central relationship in the film is that of Sanada and Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune), his patient. Multiple scenes in which they meet end in fisticuffs, all because Matsunaga insists on living an untenable lifestyle.

Kurosawa has strong disdain for the insidious world of organized crime, of which Matsunaga is a part. It would be one thing if it remained self-contained. Tragically for Sanada, this is impossible. His scruples as a doctor require him to care for Matsunaga. Even worse, the girl he looks after is falling into this wrong crowd. (In a heartbreaking, unspoken grace note, Sanada's ward is presumably an orphan from the war.)

Every element of the movie seems to be weighted with more than a superficial importance. A Japanese historian could say exactly what each motif and character symbolize. As it is, one thing is more obvious/worth mentioning: Toshiro Mifune's Matsunaga as a potent stand-in for WWII-era Japan. He is a yakuza in a world that, in its tenuous grasp for basic sustenance, doesn't have a place for him. He refuses to listen to reason, even--and especially--when it leads to certain death.