Monday, March 30, 2009

Beijing 2008 Olympics: Opening Ceremony (Available on DVD)--4/5

For thirty (or so) years, computer effects in movies have been striving for realism. The 2008 Summer Olympics Opening ceremony, directed by filmmaker Zhang Yimou, is an instance of real people successfully impersonating computer effects. People are the pixels, creating one small part of a tapestry of thousands. The ceremony uses this idea over and over, with increasing complexity. Each new iteration brings gasps, followed by "How did they do that?," followed by a speechless appreciation.

The moveable-type-blocks chapter may not be the most complex (or it may be; that's like asking which Shakespeare play is the best), but it is a good example of the ceremony's style. In a large rectangle, 897 of these blocks move up and down in a complicated series. They can be in more than just two positions--it looks like low, high, and mid, although there may be even more. In a sort-of analog computer screen, the blocks spell out Chinese characters, form the Great Wall, or just animate waves and geometric patterns. This is a task only a computer could control. Each block has its own motor controlled by a CPU, right? I would still believe that if 897 people didn't pop out at the end, waving cheerfully.

(This gets a 4 rather than a 5 only because of the lengthy Parade of Nations. It is part of the ceremony.)

The Bad News Bears (1976)--3/5

It's hard to watch Walter Matthau, especially in "The Bad News Bears," without thinking of Homer Simpson. Dan Castellaneta famously based Homer's original voice on an impersonation of Matthau. Here, Matthau is Morris Buttermaker, pool cleaner, Little League coach, alcoholic. His inept, grumbling tirades are one "D'oh!" short of a Homer-monologue.

"The Bad News Bears" is one of those glorious seventies PG-rated movies loaded with rude behavior and swearing. The Bears are outcasts throughout the film, showing only marginal growth as athletes and even less as individuals. The biggest smart-ass on the team is just as likely to get into fights at the end of the season. And the few *heartwarming* scenes are peppered with beer-drinking and a noticeable lack of resolution.

The whole thing has a kitchen-sink approach to comedy, clearly abetted by the cheap production costs of the whole thing. It seems like the entire movie takes place at public locations: the Little League diamond, City Hall, the side of a street, and others. I'm sure this looked attractive to the film's producers. (How they got talked into traveling to Japan for a second sequel is anyone's guess.)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

More T-Shirt Archaeology

This one's from "The Bad News Bears."

It's an old "Wacky Packages" image! Thank you Internet.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Career Girls (1997)--4/5

In college, Annie (Lynda Steadman) nervously stared at the ground, her overgrown bangs covering half of her dermatitis-afflicted skin. She wouldn't always be like this. We know because she comes back to London six years later to visit her old roommate, Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge). Hannah was no less insecure, channeling her problems into a quick temper, never saying exactly what she meant. About half of "Career Girls" is scattered with long-form flashbacks, with Annie and Hannah as best--sometimes only--friends in college. In the present, they reconnect just as strongly, as if no time has passed.

Steadman and Cartlidge perform impressive feats of acting. In each case, they have to show monumental change. Unlike most movies that show people at different ages, they're not mimicking their younger selves. Enough does bleed through--a nervous habit or a way of talking, for example--to connect young and old.

The title "Career Girls" makes the film sound like a sexy farce or a sequel to "Working Girl." It's a title that Annie and Hannah would mock, equally in college and in the present. They have grown up, have gotten jobs. But the jobs are a small piece of the whole. Mike Leigh (Happy-Go-Lucky) is more concerned with creating people that live and breath in his cinematic world. He shares just an hour and a half of time with Annie and Hannah. "Career Girls" ends just as you realize you could watch it for days.

Twilight (2008)--3/5


I can see how this is The Hottest Movie Ever for teenage girls. Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) is one calculated creation--pale and smoldering, with super-strength, color-changing eyes, and a fashion-sense cultivated over the last ninety years. Bella Swan's no slouch either; she's just as pale and beautiful. They're the ne plus ultra of emo kids.

In the liberal serving of Gothic cheese called "Twilight," they're created for each other. Edward is a seducing predator (but in a good way!) and Bella has an intoxicating aroma (to vampires) and an inscrutable mind. This is important because Edward's also a telepath. Clearly, subtlety is not one of "Twilight's" strengths.

"Twilight" is all about sexual tension that can't be broken. In so many words, he can't lose control around her delicious blood. Tragically, they can't keep their hands off of each other.

The diverting first hour of the film is composed mostly of Edward and Bella animalistically fixating on each other. It loses some momentum once the computer effects creep in. Edward's sprint up a mountain looks like a crude cartoon, with a single cel Scotch-taped onto different frames of film. And then there's the baseball scene, in which these mediocre effects are used for vampires in old-timey jerseys.

"Twilight" has its roots in Harlequin novels and Ann Rice, of course. Using the damp mountains of Washington and a high school setting, it does manage to eke out a sufficiently new look for vampire stories.

The Cullens: a rational parent's worst nightmare.

What I Can Remember From Arnold Schwarzenegger Movies Watched In My Youth

Commando: Arnold has to save his daughter and he robs a gun store with this woman he just met. They go to a mansion and kill people.

Conan the Barbarian: Decapitation. Arnold walks in circles for years. There's a big snake.

Junior: Arnold is wide-eyed in amazement. (That may be just the poster I'm thinking of.)

Kindergarten Cop: Kids are annoying. Dissonance. There's a fight in a bathroom. A urinal is involved somehow (the bad guy gets knocked out on it?). Out of all the Arnold movies, this one seemed the most inappropriate for children!

Predator: Arnold throws a knife into someone's neck. A guy's arm gets blown off. The Indian guy cuts his chest. Nuclear bomb.

Red Sonja: Where's Arnold?

Terminator 2: Judgment Day: I still remember everything.

The Running Man: Arnold's a helicopter pilot. Some guy's head explodes. A hockey player villain is choked with barbed wire.

The Terminator: Arnold has to cut out his eye. Sarah Connor and the guy have sex. The metal skeleton is crushed in a steel factory.

Total Recall: "Stick it up your nose." "You make me wish I had three hands."

Twins: A pulley/chain mechanism thing falls on the bad guy's head.

Arnold, wide-eyed in amazement.

The Big Bounce (2004)--2/5

For longer than you’d think, “The Big Bounce” coasts on the shaggy charm of Owen Wilson. Wandering around Hawaii, Jack Ryan (Wilson) is unable to work up the energy to turn down any felony that passes by. His slightly more proactive libido guides him towards Nancy Hayes (Sara Foster).

Cast primarily because she looks great in a bikini (or less), Foster equals Owen Wilson in the sun-drenched drifter department. She’s unfortunately tasked with carrying “The Big Bounce” as a femme fatale. This proposition fails partly because she undersells pertinent dialogue, mostly because of the disposable heist supposedly at the center of the film.

The heist predictably involves a pile of pathetically guarded money, a hidden key, and some other stuff. It could very well be straightforward, but its introduction, planning, and execution are, just like the rest of the film, excessively lazy. At one point, Walter Crewes (Morgan Freeman) has to stop mid-heist to explain to his partner in crime, in careful detail, exactly what’s going on, who’s working with whom, and why anybody cares. It still doesn’t make any sense.

Earlier in “The Big Bounce,” Walter takes an interest in Jack and offers him a job. Jack hangs out on the beach, occasionally repairing flirtatious guests’ showerheads. He has a salary and a spacious bungalow of his own. Why couldn’t he just stay here for awhile?

All the pictures of this movie are boring, so here's a volcano.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Never So Few (1959)--2/5

No surprise, Frank Sinatra gives another solid performance the John Sturges WWII flick "Never So Few." It also has some below-the-title roles for Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson.

In an effort to differentiate itself, "Never So Few" is riddled with second unit footage of Burma. Extras in the main characters' costumes wander around ancient architecture at a safe distance from the camera. The disconnect between these shots and those safely on a Hollywood set soon becomes laughable, like a "Mystery Science Theater" routine: "Actual Burma. Fake Burma. Actual Burma." and so on.

The battle scenes are handsomely staged, with a calculated number of casualties on both sides. The romantic subplot is gently shoehorned into the film. The problem is, nothing really stands out in "Never So Few." It's exactly what you'd expect from a forgotten war picture from the fifties.

George Takei has a rare pre-Star Trek role in "Never So Few."

The Signal (2007)--3/5

"The Signal" is presented in three "transmissions" made by three directors. The first and third section are unvarnished shaky-cam horror. The middle section stands out--in a good way, I'm pretty sure. It runs the conceit of "The Signal" into the territory of a morbid sitcom.

See, the signal has taken over television, radio, and cell phones. It looks like outtakes from Nine Inch Nails' "Head Like a Hole" video and it short circuits your brain. Fulfilling the fever dreams of many crass politicians, this is one form of media that really will make you kill.

(Of course, Stephen King had this idea a few years earlier, with "Cell." It worked until the second half's floating-zombie hive-mind.)

In addition to increasing violent tendencies--or removing the thin barriers to said tendencies?--the signal distorts reality. This leads to the unsettling central section. Anna (Cheri Christian) and Ken's (Christopher Thomas) New Year's Eve party preparations are disturbed by the signal, leading to creative use of a balloon air pump. For Anna, each knock on the door--by innocents seeking refuge or by fuzzy-brained maniacs--could still be from a party guest! The proceedings have the feel of any "I Love Lucy" episode, only with a corpse instead of a fur coat. "Sorry about the mess, would you like a cocktail?"

Dude looks like William Petersen, ca. "To Live and Die In L.A."

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I like these sentences...

...from Videogum:

"Oh, MAN. First, I will confess that I exaggerate. In fact, to say that I am prone to exaggeration would be the understatement of the millennium."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Synecdoche, New York (2008)--2/5

"Synecdoche, New York" is a miserable slog through Charlie Kaufman's pet obsessions. It's not confusing, so much as it nakedly refuses to cater to audience expectations. Like "Adaptation," another, relatively sunny, Kaufman-penned meta-commentary on the artistic process, it may also have built-in rebuttals to criticism. My words are currently being sucked into the worlds within worlds that comprise the latter half of the film.

Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), with a name deemed so whimsical by Kaufman that other characters repeat it three or four times more than necessary, staggers through his life like he's never quite woken up from a nap. He's crippled by phantom and real illnesses. His wife, a painter of microscopic nudes,* moves to Germany and never comes back. After receiving a MacArthur grant, he begins staging a play based on his life. In a city-sized warehouse, he recreates his life. To do this, he of course has to recreate New York. This version comes complete with a smaller version of the warehouse inside, with a smaller version of New York. And so on.

It's a novel idea, even if it does plagiarize broadly from Kaufman's earlier works. Somehow, the concept doesn't translate to the screen. The more piled-on the loopy ideas, the less Cotard--and the audience--cares. By its very nature, the play can never have a dress rehearsal, an opening night, or even a title. "Synecdoche, New York" is one long trudge to death. Of Cotard, of his play, and of art. Maybe even of the world. Lovely.

*And what's up with Kaufman's endless supply of *quirky* artists?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Dersu Uzala (1975)--3/5

"Man is very small before the face of nature."--Captain Vladimir Arseniev.

This quote--one that could define many movies--highlights the strongest scenes in Akira Kurosawa's Russian film, "Dersu Uzala." It's a relatively free-form journey into the tundra of Russia. But don't worry, Kurosawa's classical composition is still on display in scenes of static conversation. (It's his first color film, and the print quality is poor, so the compositions don't jump from the screen like usual.)

At the turn of the last century, Captain Arseniev is leading his men on what seems like a pointless exercise. Ostensibly, they're surveying the area, but little is seen in the way of work. Like "Aguirre, the Wrath of God," most of the runtime is spent on trudging through ice, mud, or over swelled rivers. I can think of only one scene in which any mapping of terrain is performed.

Dersu Uzala, Mongolian who lives in the wilderness, appears and guides to the men, saving lives on more than one occasion. With a hint of colonialism, Dersu acts almost as a magical servant "other." He has a connection to the forest and tundra, sensing things long before the urban Russians. However, his growing friendship with Arseniev counteracts the initial negative connotations.

In a terrific scene, Dersu and Arseniev are trapped on a frozen lake. As the sun rapidly sets, they realize they're stuck. Thinking quickly, Dersu commands Arseniev to start cutting down the tall grasses. The task doesn't make sense, and the situation seems hopeless, but they cut and cut. And cut some more, until they have a small mountain of grass to burrow into. The next day, Arseniev, surprised to be alive, wakes up to stand in awe of Dersu going about his business. He's tearing down the "tent" as if nothing extraordinary had happened. It's hard not to feel the same way about Kurosawa's films.

Would you think to make a tent out of this grass?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Wendy and Lucy (2008)--5/5

“Wendy and Lucy” uses the relationship of its title characters as a window into so much more. With a few hundred bucks left Wendy (Michelle Williams) is working her way up to Alaska. The fish factories there offer jobs and housing to drifters, so she hears. In unhurried, authentic scenes, everything she has is whittled away.

With this, her most well-known film, Kelly Reichardt is now a major talent. She has the eye and subject matter of late-model Gus Van Sant, without his occasional authorial intrusions. (People walking towards the camera, long shots just to be long, etc.) Reichardt—unblinking in her portrayal of all characters—saves the most sympathy for Wendy and for anyone else who shows some measure of kindness. Wendy’s yearning for Lucy, her genuine gratitude to the security guard, her reactions to bad news—everything she does has an enviable humanity and innocence.

She’s forever hindered by conflicts with the real world—a place she doesn’t quite fit in. It’s not just one bad decision—to shoplift dog food—that does her in. It’s the bullying store clerk who grabs her arm, the garage that charges to tow a car one block, the unhinged fellow drifters. Wendy carefully plans her journey down to the last dollar. She’s tragically too nearsighted to factor in any type of large or small derailment.

Seen in the margins are the alternatives. The Security Guard (Wally Dalton) carries a wistful sadness, compounded by the sight of his rough-looking companion, picking him up in a dented boat of a car. Likewise, the store clerk depends on a ride to and from work. They have support, but they’re not free to roam. Neither is Wendy, once the badness starts. She’s literally stuck in the same parking spot for days—an indignity, after weeks/months/her whole life? on the move. Wendy’s capacity for love extends only minimally to humans. Inevitably, Lucy becomes just such a hindrance.

Teeth (2007)--3/5

"Teeth" has a silly concept, to be sure. It takes an entrenched, mythical fear--the "vagina dentata"--and gives it the tempo and trappings of a modern horror movie.

Yes, this movie exists. It's one part "May" and one part "Friday the 13th, Part II," with a small dose of originality. Jess Weixler brings a knowing naiveté to the role of Dawn O'Keefe, abstinence advocate. She's afraid of her own body even before it kills.

"Teeth" doesn't skimp on the gore. If you were wondering.

What Just Happened (2008)--1/5


And what happened to the question mark from the original title of Art Linson's original collection of entertaining, albeit insular, Hollywood horror stories?

Much like, "Fiercely," the made-up film within "What Just Happened," the book has been muddled and whitewashed in its trip to the big screen. Instead of Alec Baldwin's refusal to shave his Manson beard on the set of "The Edge," we get Bruce Willis refusing to shave on the set of--huh, is the movie's title ever mentioned? It's hard to care either way.

Robert DeNiro, in what must be a favor to Linson, plays a fictional producer with problems. They're not real problems though. We're supposed to feel bad for him when he misses a plane out of Cannes. Or when his ex-wife reupholsters a favorite sofa seat. Those kind of problems.

The building blocks can work. Hollywood has been making movies about movies as long as its been making movies. "Sunset Boulevard," "The Player," and "Mulholland Dr." are among the best. "What Just Happened" is playing the material too straight, assuming it has an audience outside of Orange County.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Cube 2: Hypercube (2002)--2/5

The first cube, from the first "Cube," was a tangible structure, the rooms within all labeled with their coordinates. Escaping the cube required a combination of mental and physical abilities. But it could be done. "Cube" had a goal, an accomplishment, for its characters.

As the title suggests, the cube in "Cube 2: Hypercube" is extra-dimensional. Portals, instead of doors, connect any room to any other, ad infinitum. From room to room, time and gravity can shift.

The portal idea is a good one, leading to some thought-provoking terrors. One psychotic man roams from room to room, killing the same other characters over and over. Each time, he collects the a trinket; by the end of the film, he has a dozen of the same wristwatches and name badges.

It becomes increasingly clear that the cube has No Exit. "Cube 2" is more surreal but less exciting than "Cube." It's a noble attempt at actually doing something new, rather than rehashing the formula with new personalities. But since anything can happen, moving forward with these guys feels pointless.

(This is not from "Cube 2.")

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Three albums down; she still can't see through those bangs.

a/k/a Tommy Chong (2006)--3/5

One of the more surreal things is that the DEA wasn't looking for Tommy Chong's weed. In force, they deployed to his house for making and selling hand blown glass bongs. Specifically--and, in a blatant case of entrapment--for shipping them to a nagging "customer" in Pennsylvania, where pipe-selling shenanigans of this sort are illegal.

"a/k/a Tommy Chong" follows the affable dude's serving a "vacation," he calls it, of nine months in a California minimum-security establishment. It's also an abbreviated biography of the man, positing that the heat from the clueless government was an inevitable detour in his life. Cheech and Chong's paranoid fantasies finally came true, making them more prescient than Aldous Huxley (in stoner logic).

Vintage footage of the W administration shows them equating dope-smoking with terrorism. They tried to make an example of a famous pothead. Instead, they galvanized citizens' awareness of the insane drug war and made Tommy Chong an even stronger activist.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Mysterious Skin (2004)--4/5

Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) remembers everything about the first time his Little League coach crossed a line. Brian (Brady Corbet) remembers nothing.

They've each repressed the memories in different ways. Neil still believes that it was a good thing. It'll be some time before he understands the power one person can have over another--especially an adult over a child. Brian, no less traumatized, believes it was an alien abduction. His dreams lead him back to Neil, abducted as well, so he thinks. They meet halfway on Christmas Eve, each with a better understanding of what happened and a tentative way forward.

The damage is written on Neil's pained face, in his mumbled dialogue, in the way his body's natural state is "slouch." He wants to disappear, and he says as much in the last line of the film. His mind has yet to catch up with his instincts. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is phenomenal as Neil in "Mysterious Skin."

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Rachel Getting Married (2008)--2/5

A parade of asinine musicians obscures the already thin conflicts in "Rachel Getting Married." The wedding band, led by an aimless fiddler, are one room away in almost every scene, no matter where the action is taking place. It's like a meta-comment or a parody of film music. (Remember that "Blazing Saddles" scene with Count Basie playing in the desert?) Regardless, it's annoying.

At the wedding, a Dylan-haired guitarist indifferently works out the notes to the "Bridal Chorus." Then, groom Tunde Adebimpe sings! Granted, the actor sings in TV on the Radio as a day job. And it is a reprieve from his default acting style of staring into space.

I haven't even gotten to the jazz combo yet. Or the aging Brit-rocker. Or the samba marching band!

Why are they wearing saris?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Death Note (2006)--4/5

"Death Note" started as a manga. It's been made into an anime. Now, we have the feature film. The intelligence on display--from Light, L, and the author of the series, Tsugumi Ohba--still manages to surprise.

Light (Tatsuya Fujiwara) finds the Death Note, a book that can be used to kill people whose names are written in it. At first, Light uses the book to kill criminals. This Godlike power polarizes the general population. In setting up a committee to find Light, the police recruit the genius L (Ken'ichi Matsuyam) to help them.

"Death Note" is like a supernatural Mr. Ripley story. The appeal lies in the convoluted logic Light uses to outsmart L, and the brilliant deductions by L himself. They're always one step ahead of each other, forced to work in increasingly complex ways. Light soon crosses a line and begins to kill non-criminals just to protect himself. L has to used advanced, illegal surveillance equipment to advance his searches.

The craziest action sequence, at the end of the film, seems to play itself out with relative internal consistency. It's only afterwards that the insane use of the Death Note is revealed. It's amazing that the Death Note, after tricking us so often, once again has the final word.

Note: "Death Note" is only available as a DUBBED DVD. Ugh.

From the comments: "Turns out I'm probably wrong. The full record on the library's site claims "Japanese or dubbed English dialogue, English subtitles."

In my defense, I was using an unfamiliar DVD player."

Sunday, March 15, 2009

"This American Life" (2008)--3/5

I checked out "This American Life" from the Upper Arlington Public Library. In this picture, the guy on the right is recruiting the drifter on the left to pose in a painting of the crucifixion (not as Jesus; he's already got a good Jesus). In Salt Lake City, it's hard to find people with beards. The artist only works with real beards. Check out the shirt.

Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)--4/5

It's a big deal when Poppy (Sally Hawkins) has to confront her deeply troubled driving instructor, Scott (Eddie Marsan). Until now, he's been merely humorless. Poppy interacts with him like she does with anyone else--with boundless effervescence. If it fails to lighten his mood, no matter. At least she tries.

Scott gets it into his head that Poppy likes him. After he sees her with a new boyfriend, the subsequent argument finally forces her to--well, I want to say get serious. But Poppy's bliss is no act. Mike Leigh, working, as always, closely with the actors, has created a very adult character. Poppy is a grade school teacher, she gets drunk with her friends, and she goes out on dates. She just does all of these things with childlike aplomb.

Anyway, the argument forces her to drop the smile, to actually be unhappy. In a movie about a perennially happy person, this is a deeply moving development. She's met someone with immunity via repressed anger; he's beyond help. The moment Poppy realizes this is one I won't soon forget.

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl (2008)--2/5

The "American Girl" formula can be used for any era. It involves a detailed recreation of a time and place and a smart girl to experience it. National news and trends are usually the catalyst for precocious adventures.

Unfortunately, the Depression-era "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl" has the quality of an historical theme park. Hobos are all friendly and ever-so smudged with dirt. A villain has a comical mustache. Cars are pristine.

And yet..."Kit Kittredge" bounces along happily, like a live-action Disney movie from the eighties. Kit herself (Abigail Breslin), when solving mysteries a la Nancy Drew or reporting on the Depression for the Cincinnati paper, is a likeable role model. The film probably works for girls young enough to be excited by--and old enough to not be terrified by--their doll coming to life.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Cruise (1998)--1/5

A claustrophobic experience--and I only watched ten minutes! Timothy "Speed" Levitch, a New York City double-decker tour guide, talks and talks and talks. His voice is loud, sharp, and ugly. Nothing he says is thoughtful or interesting.

He appears as himself in "Waking Life." That's good casting.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Max Payne (2008)--1/5

“Max Payne” has a lot to mourn:

Beau Bridges. His brother Jeff gets to be the villain in the much better “Iron Man.”

“Sin City.” Its unique look has been unceremoniously robbed, washed out, and dumbed down.

Olga Kurylenko. Max Payne isn’t the first video game anti-hero to push her out of bed.

Practical effects specialists. Their work has been superseded by phony digital arterial spray.

Mila Kunis. She was such a sweetheart in her last movie, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”

The “Batman Begins” score. Will it blend? Sadly, yes.

Winged Norse Hell-Demons. I’m sure they’re not normally this boring.

Mark Wahlberg. On second thought, don’t feel too sorry for him. He should know better at this point.

I've Loved You So Long (2008)--3/5

Laura and I have different insights (hers is better) into why the ending to "I've Loved You So Long" doesn't work. I'm caught up on the convenience of the reveal. A well-worn piece of paper that explains everything happens to fall out of Juliette's (Kristin Scott Thomas) pocket. The superior first two acts have given Juliette control over the mystery of her long incarceration and recent release. It's as if the letter senses the film's runtime and spontaneously jumps to the floor.

She feels the resolution clouds the point of the movie. Juliette has demons, to be sure, but she actually did a better thing than we've been led to believe. "I've Loved You So Long" is instantly transformed from an uncompromising look at a conflicted soul into a middling melodrama. And missing are the questions of why she never thought to explain herself and why nobody noticed anything amiss at the time.

Is all this too vague? Too damning? "I've Love You So Long" is still worth a look, primarily because of Scott Thomas's complex, touching performance--completely in French. (Her (convincing to me) accent is explained by her character's half-British parentage.)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Permanent changes on “The Simpsons"

Matt Groening has said that he wants “The Simpsons” to end just as it began. Here are some of the changes, major and minor, that haved lived on outside of any specific episode. Many of these can’t be reasonably undone.

(I couldn’t seem to find a list like this online.)

The Simpsons get Santa’s Little Helper. (12/17/89)

Mr. Burns gives Bart a giant Olmec head, often seen in the Simpsons’ basement. (7/11/91)

Lisa becomes a vegetarian. (10/15/95)

Kirk and Luann Van Houten get divorced. (They remarry years later.) (12/1/96)

Mrs. Krabappel and Principal Skinner start dating. (4/6/97)

Apu marries Manjula. (11/16/97)

Springfield moves five miles down the road. (The town’s original site is buried in trash). (4/26/98)

Manjula has octuplets. (11/21/99)

Maude Flanders dies. (2/13/00)

Barney gets sober (for a few seasons). (4/9/00)

Lisa becomes a Buddhist. (12/16/01)

Snowball II is replaced by a different Snowball II. (“Principal Skinner notices and says it is a cheat, to which Lisa replies “I guess you're right, Principal Tamzarian”” Source: Wikipedia) (1/11/04)

The Android’s Dungeon and Baseball Card Shop closes (although it may have re-opened). (11/18/07)

Mona Simpson dies. (5/11/08)

The birth years of all of the characters keep creeping forward. (Various episodes.)

Slasher (2004)--3/5

Michael Bennett likes to drink. And smoke. A lot. At seven in the morning, he grabs two bottles of beer for the trip to the airport. One night, he lights a new cigarette before the current one is halfway done, as if he's forgotten about it. As the Slasher--and he asks people to call him The Slasher--Bennett travels across the country to diffuse his creepy, drug-fed energy into oblivious car buyers. The idea is to get people to agree to cars priced beyond their means, sometimes without even a test-drive. The jacked-up prices are magically "slashed" by the Slasher. The documentary "Slasher" follows Bennett on a weekend trip to impoverished Memphis.

Director John Landis follows-up with a young lady lucky enough to "win" the chance to buy an eighty-eight dollar car. Back home, in a scene straight out of "Matilda," the serpentine belt comes off in her brother's hand. Minutes later, the car makes an ominous creaking sound and begins expelling engine oil. Some deal.

The Slasher says that his wife is worried about him on his trips, what with his binge drinking in parking garages, dehydrating work ethic, and late-night strip club excursions. Maybe his lengthy stays on the other side of the country are what's keeping the relationship going in the first place.

Note: By the end of "Slasher," you will cringe upon hearing Bennett's gravelly voice, along with the words/phrases "slasher," "slash," and "eighty-eight dollar car."

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)--4/5

I knew I'd seen Tom Ammiano somewhere recently; he's the latest California politician trying to legalize weed. In "The Times of Harvey Milk," he's one of the many fascinating talking heads painting a picture of Milk's brief tenure as San Francisco Supervisor and the "Mayor" of Castro Street. The film complements Gus Van Sant's recent biopic by underlining the accuracy of that film and by taking a less personal look at Milk's work for all people's rights. He tirelessly supported gay issues, of course. But he also cared just as much for other minorities--Asians, African-Americans, the elderly, the list goes on.

Watchmen (2009)--4/5

(But I still have a backlog of longer pieces.)

Spoilers, spoilers…

“Watchmen” has a better ending than Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ original holy book. Instead of using a “giant alien squid,” Ozymandias uses Dr. Manhattan’s energy to cause the destruction. The change gets the same point across and connects snugly with what’s come before. The tragedy of Dr. Manhattan’s downfall is of no consequence to him, as he’s, at this point, become completely unconcerned with the affairs of humans.

The change also shows the skill of director Zack Snyder. He really does get it. For the most part, “Watchmen” is obsessively faithful to the book. Frame after frame is xeroxed directly from the page. This alone is a remarkable technical feat. But it’s a little unnecessary. The additions and, tellingly, subtractions, of Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse shore up the narrative, making the characters resonate outside of the theater. Gone are the generous matching-cuts with “Tales of the Black Freighter,” so effective as a book within the book, so time-consuming and distracting if they had been in the movie.

“Watchmen” is a complete, complex parallel world, further distanced through its exploitation/parody of the eighties concern over Soviet nuclear annihilation. With the exception of Dr. Manhattan, superheroes have no super powers. Sure, Rorschach can scale fences with well-placed leaps and Silk Spectre II has the strength of a person three times her weight. These can be accepted, like wirework in kung fu movies.

At its heart, “Watchmen” gets to why anyone would want to fight crime in this way in the first place. The novel structure of the comic—and now of the movie—involves disparate pieces completing a whole. Like Dr. Manhattan’s mind, the film seamlessly moves from the just-as-complex alternate past to the present, from character to character.

As to their motivations: Dr. Manhattan feels he has no choice. A being of his power must be used for good. (“Good,” meaning the causes of the U.S. and five-term president Richard Nixon.) The movie takes place as he’s solidifying his apathy towards anything smaller than, say, a planet. “Good” and “bad” have no meaning to him. Rorschach is a functioning psychopath, Travis Bickle meets The Punisher. He’s the twisted conscience of the movie, in the end unable to live with his own ethical morass. Nite Owl’s story is less interesting, maybe less fleshed-out. He’s effectively Batman, with a hidden subway tunnel of gadgets and costumes. He wants to make a difference, but he’s much too flawed to really give a damn either way.

They fight in a world with no future. The golden age—of superheroes, of humanity—has come and gone. It may never have existed in the first place. Yeah, “Watchmen” is pretty bleak.

Sukiyaki Western Django (2007)--2/5

(I'm trying a new format of short commentary on more films.)

Takashi Miike's got style to burn, but it's usually in support of unstructured messes like "Sukiyaki Western Django." His best film is the classic, (mostly) austere thriller "Audition." The commentary in "Sukiyaki" on the Western as a genre is intriguing--Japanese actors reading English dialogue in a "Nevada" that looks exactly like the town from "Yojimbo." Too bad the plot goes in three or four too many directions at once. Oh well, there's always the five movies he's made since this one.

You can tell they spent more time on the costumes than on anything else.

Monday, March 9, 2009

"Generation Kill" (2008)--3/5

“Generation Kill” has the tendency to commodify its own colloquialism. Ed Burns and David Simon, creators of “The Wire,” are in love with their own verisimilitude. Is it possible to say that “Generation Kill” feels accurate, but in a cold, calculated way?

The most prominent example of "Genereation Kill's" authenticity is the dialogue. The Marines speak in a complex, unexplained slang, so much so that the titles of the episodes are derived from it: “Screwby,” “Stay Frosty,” “Get Some,” etc. But why is author Evan Wright’s character so prominent? The “Rolling Stone” journalist is forever moon-faced, experiencing war as a neophyte, having things explained to him. He wrote the book, he was there, so he’s on the show, I get it. It could be the choice of actor: the not-up-to-it Lee Tergeson.

Only a few times in “Generation Kill” do the Marines run into trouble when they expect it. If the series is true to life, fine. Maybe what I’m complaining about is that the source material isn’t very exciting. I’m also proving the adage (with which I disagree) that anti-war films can’t be entertaining; otherwise, they glorify war. “Generation Kill” really wants it both ways. Each element is, again, calculated--to be pro- or anti-war. Any seeming complexity is only a byproduct of the whiplash of jumping between the two poles.

The fifth and some of the fourth seasons of “The Wire” leave me similarly cold. The creators are so confident in their rhythm and didactic themes that the proceedings have the whiff of formula. What the audience least expects is what will probably happen.

(“The Sopranos” was always good at taking into account what would happen in any other movie or show, the exact opposite, what the cultish fans thought would happen, and then not doing any of those things. Of course, the famous series-ender comes to mind as the most perfect example of this.)

Saturday, March 7, 2009

I Know Where I'm Going! (1945)--4/5

In "I Know Where I'm Going!," Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) never makes it to where she's going. Namely, it’s Kiloran, a Scottish Isle accessible only by small boat. If Powell and Pressburger's films weren't so unique, it could be said that they subvert expectations. Broadly, “I Know Where I’m Going” is a romance, an appraisal of small-town traditions, and a seafaring adventure tale. But it really has no precedent. The only subsequent film that calls it to mind is "Local Hero," and that's mostly due to the similar Scottish setting and easygoing magical realism.

From the beginning, Powell and Pressburger's technique mirrors their heroine's situation. The opening credits, in a proto-Dogme 95 style, are part of the opening shots—on the side of a wagon, on a chalkboard, and so on. This integration, involving detailed planning on the part of the filmmakers, hints at Joan's mapped-out life. Later, fog and other natural leitmotifs underline her state of mind.

Joan is on the way to be married to a never-seen industrial magnate on the island. Typical Highland weather (fog and gales, mostly) forces her to stay on the main island for days. It’s here that she meets Torquil (Roger Livesey), a sailor unconcerned with rushing to Kiloran, as long as he’s on leave. They meet in a scene of amazing restraint, considering what a major force in Joan’s life he’ll become. It’s just one of many convincing elements of “I Know Where I’m Going!” With this introduction, the final moments of the film are made predictable. Everything in between is still up for grabs.

Ignoring the plot, which is truly charming, “I Know Where I’m Going!” is a compelling travelogue—always a plus for a movie. Occasionally slipping into Gaelic, the native characters (played by Highlanders) are joyously attuned to the weather’s idiosyncrasies. At one point, Joan and Torquil quietly peer in on a raucous diamond wedding celebration. We feel the same way, as if the bagpiping and chanting are the culmination of centuries of tradition.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)--4/5

Only Woody Allen has the guts to answer the age-old question, “Will our relationship improve if we both sleep with Scarlett Johansson?” For Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) and Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz), Scarlett—I mean, Cristina—love is the only thing keeping them from killing each other.

According to my Netflix ratings, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is the second best Woody Allen movie, after “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Not bad for a director in his fifth decade of filmmaking. And for one who is so recently derided.

England and now Spain have awakened a fresh, freewheeling sensibility in Allen. Thanks to a counterbalancing narration, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” moves at a brisk tempo, punctuated by longer conversation scenes. The actions packed into this ninety minute film would push a less-rigorous director toward the two-and-a-half hour mark.

In an amusing cameo, Woody Allen mainstay New York City itself is seen in the background as the domain of Vicky’s fiancé and other unexciting squares. Barcelona is a relative bohemia to the American visitors, crawling with nouveaux riches and sexy artists.

One such artist, abstract painter Juan Antonio Gonzalo (Javier Bardem), boldly approaches Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina’s table one night with a surprising request. They are invited to travel to Oviedo to “eat well, drink wine, and make love.” In this sequence lurk his competing urges towards logic and romance.

This prelude gives way to the tumultuous, yet somehow reasonable, actions of the rest of the film. Thought-provoking ideas of adultery, sexuality, art, and culture pop from the screen. Juan Antonio’s precarious balancing of his demons reveals a complex, hyper-realistic character. To all the actors’ credit, even the most hysterical scenes—like one involving a gun—have an organic charm.

Scarlett Johansson has a role perfectly suited to her talents; it doesn’t involve too much heavy lifting. She even holds her own (ha ha, literally) against acting champs Bardem and Penélope Cruz.

Like many summer stories, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” winds down the whirlwind with a sense of melancholy and shared experience. What did you do on your summer vacation?

Monday, March 2, 2009

Stuck in New York

...for one extra day.

But I met my first Simpson's character--Will Shortz! (No pictures for that, though, so you'll just have to believe me.)