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.