Saturday, May 30, 2009

I.O.U.S.A. (2008)--2/5

Patrick Creadon, the director of "Wordplay," shifts into low gear with "I.O.U.S.A.," a soporific exposé of our country's financial woes. The film readily admits that this is a topic that doesn't get enough press--a local story on an important? town hall meeting is bumped from the newscast for the usual treacle. And Robert Bixby, the perennially ruffled executive director of the non-partisan Concord Coalition, admits that his message is "unsexy."

"I.O.U.S.A." tries to sex up both complicated and obvious axioms with fancy animated pie charts and bar graphs. They all--shockingly!--predict a dire future for the country. (The future we're living in, as the film was made in 2007/2008.) Every five minutes, it's like the irritating part in "An Inconvenient Truth" in which Al Gore rides an industrial lift in order to illustrate his point.

Reductionism is often a fault of movies, but "I.O.U.S.A." fails because it doesn't do it enough. Creadon crams too many concepts into a slim runtime. I'm not asking for him to dumb down the material, but rather to keep only the biggest ideas or to slow down complex narration. (Okay, maybe I am asking him to dumb it down.) "I.O.U.S.A." tries and fails to be a populist reference on the economy.

Partly Cloudy (2009)--5/5

The short "Partly Cloudy" screens before "Up" and after the "Toy Story 3" teaser. This enhancement of the baby-bearing stork legend is almost impossibly adorable. In this version, clouds are the creators and storks are the delivery-birds. Kittens, puppies, and babies are the primary output of clouds. But someone's gotta make less-desirable infants. An outcast cloud seems to be the only volunteer; he produces a baby alligator, porcupine, and head-butting ram. They're every bit as vibrant and singular as the "cuter" babies. And they come with the additional thrill of their danger to the cloud's stork.

"Partly Cloudy" is funny and tactile. It's told as a silent film; stork and cloud talk only in mumbling gesture-speak. With a well-earned story arc, it's the best Pixar short yet.

Up (2009)--3/5

"Up" is Pixar's "The Emperor's New Groove." This may sound like a dismissal, but I really like "The Emperor's New Groove." It's a loopy, inventive lark, free from ponderous expectations of being the latest "important" Disney film.

"Up" is a similarly freewheeling adventure. With a few dozen bushels of helium balloons, Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner, whose full name appears in crosswords more than you'd think) steers his airborne house to the Amazon Basin. Russell, a very round and earnest kid, accidentally stows away on the flight. "Up" has a lot of fun with the setup and with what Carl and Russell find when they arrive.

Initially, the meet a Rain-Blo-colored female bird that Russell names Kevin. Kevin has the temperament of a few different kinds of birds--ostrich, flamingo, chicken, turkey--combined with the physical genius of Donald O'Connor. She's an utterly original creation. Kevin and Dug, a talking dog, get the biggest reaction from the audience.

An ostensibly tear-jerking preface opens "Up" in the wrong direction. Carl's mostly silent life-story is a carbon-copy of similar, more effective sequences in earlier Pixar movies. I'm thinking of Jessie's abandonment in "Toy Story 2," the look back at Radiator Springs's heyday in "Cars," and even the first two acts of "Wall•E." Carl's old age, so forcefully introduced, is regularly contradicted: he can't walk down stairs, but he can hike over a mountain for days while dragging a floating house? Maybe writer-director Pete Docter feels a Pixar movie can't be simply fun. The brand demands pathos, no matter how corny.

In trash like "My Bloody Valentine," 3-D is an excuse to thrust stuff at the audience as often as possible. Pixar has wisely made a solid movie first and then thought about 3-D. Pete Docter, the director of "Up," says, "We’re showing you a story, and the 3D should be in support of that, not the opposite."

After the initial excitement, the 3-D in "Up" is forgotten. During the film, I kept pushing my Carl Fredricksen-style 3-D glasses down in order to see the actual film. Through the glasses, it's as if "Up" has been projected through a glass of rainwater. It's a tragedy for a film this vibrantly illustrated. Of course, I had to make do with the glasses; watching without them may be brighter, but it's also blurrier.

Shocking 3-D is annoying and subtle 3-D is unnoticeable. Conclusion? 3-D is a joke. It's not the future of movies. Here's hoping the fad dies out faster than Hollywood thinks it will.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

My Bloody Valentine (2009)--1/5

Is there a wrong way to watch a movie this bad? I ask because "My Bloody Valentine" is supposed to be seen in a theater in 3-D. The screen is constantly thrust at by phallic and otherwise distracting objects--a pickaxe, a tree branch, super exciting newspaper headlines!

Never mind the amateur acting, degrading female roles, and complete lack of reason for existing (because of the sort-of-recommendable original). It's the 3-D "improvements" that ultimately bring "My Bloody Valentine" down.

During a bar fight, a random thug punches at a mirror. Cut to the inside of the mirror shattering, followed by an excessive pause to the action to really sell the gimmick. At a rate of one 3-D money shot for every scene, the pace of "My Bloody Valentine" is undermined at every opportunity. 3-D glasses can't help this problem.

I don't know if this is to aid the 3-D, but "My Bloody Valentine" looks like it was filmed on video. Not digital video. Just video. Movement is blurry and colors are washed out. The cheap special effects are perhaps integrated more easily in this lo-fi environment.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Religulous (2008)--2/5

“Religulous” is evidence that Bill Maher’s smugness can’t carry a whole film. He has a better argument than Ben Stein’s intelligent design-propping “Expelled,” but their films could have been made by the same director. Each uses a distracting style of intercutting inexpensive or public domain clips to emphasize a point. So, for example, when Maher questions a Creationist Museum employee about dinosaurs living alongside people, a “Flintstones” clip amusingly (but not really) appears.

Maybe all the clips are in “Religulous” to obfuscate the fact that there’s not much going on in the film. Maher goes to some randomly selected religious centers, interrogates people with a raised eyebrow, and gets driven back to a hotel, thoroughly trashing them during the ride.

“Religulous” is concerned more with itself than it is about making any convincing refutation of religion. How else to explain the interview with a pot smoking Dutchman? He can’t even answer one question because he’s so baked. The only event of substance that occurs during this interview is that his hair (maybe) briefly catches on fire. His connection to religion is unclear.

The easy way to make these extreme religious people out as the nuts they are is to smartly debate them. Then, build the interviews into some kind of point. Maher is instead too concerned with cracking jokes and catching Biblical literalists in logical fallacies. “Religulous” is not a productive argument and watching it is not a productive use of 101 minutes.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Albuquerque, NM

New Mexican "Fez-Wearing" ducks, UNM Duck Pond.

My parents lived in this house before I was born!

This turquoise Beetle seems quintessentially New Mexican.

Mauger Estate B&B

Sandia Peak tramway.

Laura drinks the Doogie Mojito at Sandiago's. It's named after local celebrity--and personal favorite--Neil Patrick Harris.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Star Trek

In the latest "Star Trek" film, I totally wanted Old Spock to greet Young Kirk like the Abominable Snowman from "Monsters, Inc.":

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Some Sort Of Canyon, AZ

South Rim.

Hopi House, South Rim

Laura and Leslie near the Supai Tunnel, North Rim.

Yavapai Point, South Rim.

South Rim, once again.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Laura and Emily B. In Scottsdale, AZ

Emily used to live in Columbus.

Saguaro National Park, AZ

Laura and javelina "piggy" banks at the Desert Museum.

Laura's favorite flora, the "fuzzball plant." (It's actually a creosote bush.)

In front of the park's namesake.

More saguaros.

A scorpion at our campsite!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, TX

Some mountains.

Some more mountains.

Our campsite.

Monday, May 18, 2009

From A Few Days Ago

Laura's friend Josie and her husband Brendan in Greenville, TX. Laura realized our route would take us a few miles past their house.

The Only Two Pictures I Took In San Antonio

(It was pouring rain all day.)

Laura in front of The Alamo.

The same building.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Some Austin, Texas Cell Phone Pictures

Steve outside the Texas State Capitol

Laura in an AT&T wireless commercial. (Check out the background.)

Texas Memorial Stadium. Cue the "Friday Night Lights" theme.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Pennsylvania's Amusement Parks, Part II: Hersheypark

Hershey's Chocolate World is a smartly-designed adjunct to Hersheypark. Visitors can ride--for free--a "Chocolate Tour." I remember that one portion of this ride took visitors through the chocolate-making process. The temperature rose slightly and we were bathed with the smell of cocoa and roasted nuts. On the ramp out of the ride, a Hershey employee handed each of us a few Hershey's Kisses. The ramp ended at a food-court-sized Hershey's boutique. Like I said, smart design.

Another thing about the ride: it had an It's A Small World-style song sung by multi-cultural chocolate lovers and displayed on skewed TV screens. The lyrics went something like, "Hershey's chocolate, Hershey's chocolate, it's a Hershey's chocolate world." Repeat. I imagine a trip to Hershey's Chocolate World by a "Simpsons" writer inspired the Duff Gardens episode, "Selma's Choice." (Or it could have been a trip to Busch Gardens.)

One candy stood out from the usuals on display in the food court: Desert Bar. This was shortly after Desert Storm; at the time, people didn't associate the (camel-emblazoned, clearly Middle-Eastern) "desert" advertised on the package with "quagmire." The Desert Bar was designed to be an unmeltable--or at least less-meltable--chocolate bar. Aside from the clever play on words, Desert Bar failed to impress. Mom describes it as tasting like a regular chocolate bar that was melted and then reformed. I can find no picture online, so this candy must never have made it past Hershey, PA.

(Wikipedia has some info on the myterious Desert Bar. They were originally shipped to troops in the Persian Gulf. "Since the war ended before Hershey's stores of the experimental bar were shipped, the remainder of the production run was packaged in a "desert camo" wrapper and was dubbed the Desert Bar. It proved a brief novelty but Hershey declined to make more after supplies ran out.")

Continuing a tradition of what could be called April Fools' Day Parenting,* the family meandered over to the entrance of Hersheypark, the beckoning, chocolate-themed paradise. Willy Wonka's factory itself, right? We then turned around, walked back to the car, and drove back home to Ohio.

(I should add that we were only stopping in the midst of an eight-hour drive back from Shillington, PA. There was no way we could have stayed longer.)

*There's a similar Cedar Point story.

This Week And Next

I'll be out of town through Memorial Day.

More importantly, I won't be watching any movies. Sad.

I'll try to post some pictures.

Like this one--of Wilbur, Laura's hedgehog:

Quarantine (2008)--3/5

Ten years after “The Blair Witch Project,” “Quarantine” finally gets one-camera horror right. It has a few distracting moments of “Why is that guy still filming?” But all is forgiven in the final disturbing scene, in which night vision becomes the only way to see.

Documentary-style films and shows have created a new breed of actor/camera operator. Harris, if he indeed lenses the entire film,* has to act (scared, most of the time), carry a camera, be aware of all actor and special effect blocking, and get the coverage (in sometimes minutes-long shots). The aplomb with which he accomplishes all of these feats just adds to the creepy ambience.

Angela (Jennifer Carpenter, the sister on “Dexter”) tells Scott (Steve Harris) a few too many times that he has to keep filming. In “Cloverfield” and “Diary of the Dead,” this kind of line—“People are gonna want to know…how it all went down”—justifies some pretty detached behavior. The kids in these films should, after about five minutes of action, throw down their cameras and run like hell. The camera also excuses characters’ lack of involvement. Zombie-victims in “Diary” entreat the cameraman to quit filming and help them. (This would work as a muddled societal allegory, of the distance between documenter and subject, if the acting weren’t so bad.)

Angela’s entreaties in “Quarantine” are unnecessary; Scott works for the news and the footage is clearly worth getting. Plus, he gets into the action whenever possible, queasily smashing an “infected” with the camera’s lens or dropping it while in a melee.

“Quarantine” wisely limits itself to an enclosed apartment building that gives the film a tangible sense of place. During a brief pause, the building’s super rattles off each apartment and its tenants, including the guy in the attic who hasn’t been seen “in months.” This on-the-fly map/checklist grounds the action and opens up the possibilities for tension. Without it, Angela and Scott’s last stand up the stairs would be just screams, scares, and whip pans.

*I hear that he doesn’t do much of the filming. This may negate the rest of the paragraph.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Baby Hedgohog Chaser...

...for the last post.

Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father (2008)--4/5

About an hour into "Dear Zachary," the film could very well cut to black and stay there for the remaining runtime. The director, Kurt Kuenne, despairs at events.

Usually, unforeseen happenings are what make successful documentaries. Steve James had no idea his three-week commitment to "Hoop Dreams" would uncover enough pathos to warrant an eight-year journey. "Dear Zachary" isn't like this. Kuenne's concept is sunk, his title doesn't make sense, there's no fucking point.

I make it sound as if "Dear Zachary" is about Kuenne. It is when it has to be, but it starts out as a eulogy for his good (best?) friend Andrew Bagby.* Kuenne's extensive adolescent filmography features the charismatic Bagby. He easily finds scores of friends from Bagby's life to discuss him on camera.

Andrew was murdered in 2001 by ex-girlfriend Shirley Turner. Extant footage of their relationship shows her as crude, demanding, and retroactively psychotic. She fled to Newfoundland, where she was supported by a sinuous extradition court and appeals process. And, oh yeah, she announced--at a press conference, no kidding--that she was pregnant with Andrew's son, Zachary.

At the time of filming, Andrew's parents must share custody of Zachary with Turner, murderer out on bail. Kate and David show an unparallelled fortitude, moving to Newfoundland and having to interact with Turner daily. Kuenne tailors his documentary to Zachary, forming a collage of his friends' memories of his late father.

And then...the idea of a "spoiler" seems insignificant for "Dear Zachary." But just think of the worst thing that could happen. This film works outside of any labels--true crime, documentary, remembrance, incrimination. It's touched by pure evil.

*Andrew is a generous, gregarious personality who would probably be called "best friend" by a few dozen guys.

Last Chance Harvey (2008)--2/5

The audience "Last Chance Harvey" is courting has seen this before in countless romantic comedies. What could have been "Before Sunrise" for the older set--an intelligent look at a relationship through conversation--is instead a movie about logistics. Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson are still world-class actors. Nobody needs to see them in a trying-on-dresses montage set to upbeat music.

Needing to meet the minimum movie-length of ninety minutes, writer-director Joel Hopkins adds a subplot involving Kate's (Thompson) mother. She suspiciously watches her new neighbor using his smokehouse, thinking he's dispatching murder victims. But he's actually smoking large hams. Yes, he's using the smokehouse for its original purpose. Mystery solved.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Permanent Vacation (1980)--1/5

"Permanent Vacation" is not quite awful, but still not worth seeing. With shots as long as those in "Stranger Than Paradise" and existential musings more scattered than those in "Ghost Dog," it's for Jarmusch completists only. It follows the aimless Allie Parker through a sometimes-Lynchian, gamelan-scored NYC. Many of the people he encounters can't even be bothered to hold a conversation; instead they writhe on the ground or stare blankly. Jim Jarmusch's concepts can--and generally do--support a watchable film. "Permanent Vacation" is an immature art student's bid at profundity.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Star Trek (2009)--3/5

Using an inorganic screenwriting method, the plot of "Star Trek" is derived from a fear of angering fans. The results are awfully silly.

"As silly as saving the whales, Mr. Peabody?"*

"Quiet, you."

Romulan-with-a-grudge Nero travels in time through a black hole to the moment of James Kirk's birth. By killing Kirk's father, Nero creates a parallel universe. Without paternal guidance, Kirk grows up as a felonious delinquent. Depending on how nerdy you are, you recognize that this is so wrong. But don't fear: everything from the previous shows and movies plus everything from this movie is canon.

Okay, that's one function of "Star Trek." The other should have been to tell a coherent story that's not reliant on humorless gimmicks and plot holes. J.J. Abrams, working with screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, has brought a lot of good into "Star Trek." The action has a looser, poetic style than in the previous films; advances in computer effects, combined with the influence of Bourne and Bond, are responsible. The young actors channel the originals with enough warranted changes, based on their slightly different origins. They're unfortunately ill-served by busy plotting wrapped up in its own mythology. 

Individual moments are among the most thrilling in the series. What Kirk's pursuit on the ice planet lacks in originality, it makes up in honest terror. And the destruction of a major planet signifies Abrams' intentions to leave nothing untouchable. With a series as ancient as "Star Trek," an age worn in the lines of Leonard Nimoy's face, a film that even tries something new is worth a look.

*In "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home."

Friday, May 8, 2009

Frost/Nixon (2008)--2/5

Michael Sheen looks and sounds nothing like Richard Nixon. It's a good thing he plays reporter David Frost in Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon."

Frank Langella looks and sounds nothing like Richard Nixon. He does play Nixon in "Frost/Nixon." Didn't anybody notice this while filming the movie? Oliver Platt, as one of Frost's "cornermen," does a better impression of Nixon during their prep.

"Frost/Nixon" is based on (a play based on) a series of famous interviews. In a short feature on the DVD, Ron Howard extolls the fidelity of the film while comparison shots of interview and movie are played. Real Nixon is tired and contrite while Langella Nixon devours the kitschy seventies scenery, goosing lines and drawing out pauses for cheap dramatic effect.

The final interview scene is the reason "Frost/Nixon" exists. The rest is a blurry preamble: research montages; exposition told, then shown, then told again; and news reports. The ready-made arc of the original interviews has been pulled apart, burnished using Ron Howard's aggressively middlebrow MO, and bolted back together as an "improvement" on the real thing.

Shoulda gotten this guy.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Arbitrary Double Features

I saw these odd combinations only because they were playing at the Lennox theater on the same day. In rough chronological order:

The Legend of Drunken Master/Best In Show--I think we originally wanted to see just "Best In Show," which was sold out. Some of the group decided to see a painful double feature of "Little Nicky" and "Best In Show." (Painful only because of the first movie, of course.)

Monsters, Inc./The One--I saw these films with my old roommate John "Mike" Holmes. "Monsters, Inc." had "Episode II" and "Finding Nemo" teasers.

Hulk/The Italian Job--I needed something to cleanse the palate after the excruciating "Hulk."

Drumline/Die Another Day--We packed a lunch.

Femme Fatale/Punch-Drunk Love--Kickass films, both.

28 Days Later/Finding Nemo--Jarring, to say the least. This was the second screening of "Nemo" for me/first for roommate Kellie.

Million Dollar Baby/Assault on Precinct 13--Both complete duds. I walked out of the latter after about an hour.

Jay and I have tickets from the old Mansfield Cinemark 10 theater (now the dollar theater) for "Rugrats: The Movie." We stayed only for the "Episode I" teaser trailer (NERD!) and then walked across the hall to see "Antz."

The subsequent full trailer for "Episode I" is the only reason I've seen the entirety of "Wing Commander."

I'm glad those "Star Wars" prequels were worth the wait!

Jet Li, upon finding out I didn't pay to see "The One."

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman (2005)--3/5

Upon hearing that a rival hangman has completed a job in fourteen seconds, Albert Pierrpoint (Timothy Spall) vows to beat the mark. His next hanging clocks in at seven-and-a-half seconds. This brings up a few questions:

1) At what time do you start timing? The stop time is obvious, but not the start.

2) Is there some sort of adjudicating committee that keeps track of hanging time around the country? If so, they should really get some rules written down so people aren't cheating on their start times.

To Pierrepoint, a quick hanging is a "humane" hanging. He has no interest in criminals' crimes or stories. By the time Pierrepoint encounters them, they've been through what he thinks of as an infallible process. The only thing left is to get the job done as a professional courtesy.

Timothy Spall has made a career out of pathetic, hangdog characters. In "Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman," his skills are used to create a man of strong convictions, but one who is out of step with society. His reactions to growing protests are to hide in his house and stutter rebuttals. He can't understand why anyone would take much interest in his work, much less pubicly condemn him for it.

Of course something must pierce Pierrepoint's repose at the gallows. Will it be the young lady, the thirteen Nazi men and women in the same day, or his old drinking buddy, charged with killing a lover in cold blood? Hmm, I wonder...

The Wicker Man

Here's a YouTube classic: the best scenes from Neil LaBute's remake of "The Wicker Man." It's further evidence of his inability to make a film that isn't unintentionally hilarious. See also: that last post on "Lakeview Terrace."

Lakeview Terrace (2008)--2/5

Any attempts at behavior justification detract from the minor trashy thrills to be had in “Lakeview Terrace.” It’s another “yuppies in terror” film, this time with a racial twist as reason for its existence.

Michael Keaton terrorized Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith in “ Pacific Heights .” Same thing with Ray Liotta, Madeleine Stowe, and Kurt Russell in “Unlawful Entry.” Now “Lakeview Terrace” has strong-willed cop Samuel L. Jackson as interracial couple Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington’s Worst. Neighbor. Ever.

Abel Turner (Jackson) has a magical house. No matter what window he looks out of, he’s able to see his neighbors doing something that annoys him. Upon seeing them in their pool in flagrante delicto (am I using this correctly?), he widens his eyeballs in rage. Jackson must have practiced this acting maneuver in front of a mirror for about twenty seconds while reading other awful scripts; he uses it to signify lots of things in “Lakeview Terrace.” But mostly rage.

Abel’s wife died three years before the movie takes place—in a car wreck with her white boss. His daughter is beginning to show signs of rebellion. Somehow, these factors are supposed to contribute to his actions. In truth, he’s simply--and with the eye widening, unnervingly--psychotic. Any other explanation is a waste of time. Fast forward to the yelling and violence and noise.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

More on Shedd's Spread Country Crock

As a kid, during "General Hospital" breaks, the Country Crock ads--those ones with disembodied hands fetishizing the product--drove me crazy. I desperately needed to see the people who were talking.

Clevelander Jack Riley is the longtime voice of the man in the Country Crock commercials. You may recognize him as the voice of Stu Pickles on "Rugrats" or as the funny guy who traded off with Fred Willard on "The Tonight Show" in a series of satellite interviews. He also has a brief role in "Boogie Nights" as (I forget if it's) Amber Waves' or her ex-husband's lawyer.

I made these connection a few years ago--I happened to be listening to the radio as he sat in the broadcast booth for a few innings of a mid-season Tribe game. I bet it's the only time Tom Hamilton talked about "Boogie Nights" on the air!

The Seventh Continent (1989)--3/5

"The Seventh Continent" has no intention of explaining itself. In building tension, director Michael Haneke gives us the life of a middle-class Austrian family for two days, one in 1987 and one in 1988. Haneke is nothing if not thorough with his concept; he conveys boredom and resignation in a family is by filming boring scenes of resigned characters.

It's more than just this, though. "The Seventh Continent" is ascetically planned and is storyboarded as rigorously as a Coen Bros. film. For nearly ten minutes, the family is rarely seen in their scenes. A moving hand or a face distorted through glass, for example, are the only evidence of life. It's the world's dourest Shedd's Spread Country Crock commercial.

Upon closer examination, every scene hides an unsettling joke beneath the domesticity. It could be something as little as the mother's extra spoonful of sugar in her daughter's cereal or as forboding as the violent slaps of a car wash's brush.

The climax of "The Seventh Continent" is absolutely stacked with memorable images. From the beginning of his career, Haneke, director of the audience-baiting "Funny Games," set out to provoke a response. Here, a two- to three-minute shot finds the family ripping in half tens of thousands of schillings and flushing them down the toilet. This and the other alien acts of destruction--systematically ripping up books and shirts, sledgehammering furniture and mirrors--end up being more shocking than the logical endpoint. Haneke has an inkling of his audience's potential thoughtcrimes and is happy to meet it more than halfway.

Monday, May 4, 2009

My Own Private Idaho (1991)--3/5

Critics who admire Keanu Reeves as more than just Neo and Ted (from Bill & Ted) must have "My Own Private Idaho" in mind. Scott (Reeves) starts as a drifting hustler, ends as a charming society man, and has an interlude as "Henry IV's" Prince Hal, complete with Falstaff, here named Bob.

As a testament to the quality of Shakespeare and of Gus Van Sant, the old and the new complement each other. Mike, his father (the Mayor of Portland), and Bob speak in verse for a long stretch of "My Own Private Idaho." It never detracts from Van Sant's recreation of a homeless Portland society.

The combination of flamboyant theatricality and the run-down fringes of a city is reminiscent of Terry Gilliam. Interesting: Gilliam's "The Fisher King" came out one month before "My Own Private Idaho."

Portland is one of four wildly divergent settings in "My Own Private Idaho." Seattle, where Scott and Mikey (River Phoenix) start out, would be similar, but it's scenes aren't played in Shakesperean verse. In Idaho, Van Sant fashions the "purple mountains" and "amber waves of grain" of the film's pedal steel guitar soundtrack as literally as possible. It serves as a humanizing respite for the kids. And Rome has a little bit of both--fast city and slow country.

Mikey often wonders how he got where he is, like when he wakes up at the base of Portland's Elk Fountain. In another film, his daze would be due to drug use. Because he's a narcoleptic, the idiosyncracies are humanizing and tragic.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Waterworld (1995)--3/5

I’ve seen a lot of movies worse than “Waterworld.” So why’d it take fourteen years for me to get around to it? By the time the film was released, it had been a well-documented exercise in hubristic money-burning. Any supposed slight—especially those regarding Kevin Costner’s balding, begilled, and misogynist character Mariner—became magnified in the public eye. “Waterworld” still stands tall as one of the great Hollywood flops.

Seen independently of its production travails, “Waterworld” is a simple, well-meaning, post-apocalyptic action piece. In an attempt to distinguish “Waterworld” from the oft-plundered “Mad Max” series, the filmmakers bring (perhaps too-) detailed logic to the world. Mariner’s home base, a lovely trimaran boat, transforms with the manipulation of gears and ropes. Its destruction is the greatest tragedy in the film.

Careful, too much logical thought about “Waterworld” leads to madness. How long ago did the icecaps melt? Someone says hundreds of years ago. That can’t be true because Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn) is unaware of cities—or any other swath of dry land. And Mariner has inherited gills and webbed toes. But it must be true because the Dennis Hopper-led “smokers” have unspoiled cigarette packs, poorly camouflaged wave runners, and a plane. See what I mean?

As perhaps the primary agent of its downfall, the difficult ocean location shooting is what ultimately distinguishes “Waterworld.” Despite the problems—storms, equipment malfunctions, ego-transport—the film has an endless horizon. In contrast, a scene in which Mariner swims to the ocean floor with Helen looks exactly like what it is: models, tank-shots, and poor special effects to tie them together—essentially, what I thought the whole film would look like.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Reader (2008)--1/5


Ralph Fiennes has a thankless role in "The Reader." It seems that all day, every day, Michael (Fiennes) is paralyzed with vivid memories of Hanna (Kate Winslet). She's naked, she's running a symbolically cleansing bath, she's naked again, then she's old (with typically bad makeup), and then she's dead. Kate Winslet has a thankless role, too--everyone does--because "The Reader" is a laughable bore.

During Hanna's trial, the stigma of illiteracy competes with the "stigma" of Nazism. Steps are made to excuse the bizarre juxtaposition, as when Hanna takes most of the blame for her actions and those of her fellow SS guards. It's still inexcusably nearsighted.

Like Hanna, every main player is shouldered with the burden of his/her respective society--a sure sign of a movie's overblown sense of importance.

We're asked to buy the fact that Michael happens to be in a law school seminar that attends Hanna's trial. That the trial hinges on a single written piece of evidence. That Hanna refuses to admit her illiteracy, even though it means life in prison instead of four years in prison. And, most unbelievably, that nobody in contact with Hanna has noticed that she can't even read a menu or write her own name. Thanks to the string-pulling score and Winslet's overacting, this fact is conveyed in the first few seconds of the first dramatic reading scene.