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.