Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Movie Reviews

No links, just a lot of quick thoughts on some movies I've seen recently.

Spielberg's AI was pretentious twaddle. Simplistic and as slap-dash in its future world as Minority Report. Plus, the anti-robot people were deeply offensive rural Southern stereotypes. I can't believe I wasted a Saturday night on this crap.

On the other hand, Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West was brilliant. I haven't seen it in many, many years and was pleasantly surprised at how well it's held up. Leone captures the power of a landscape like few others. His love of people is evident in how his close-ups of faces make them landscapes of experience and time. The shot composition is constantly iconic, whether it's faces, people, interiors or landscapes.

Crisp characters bound by relationships that doom them to collide, set loose in one of the most realistic looking Wests you'll ever see. Long and slowly paced, but that's part of the point: time is a relative concept in the vastness of the West. As the characters slowly come together and resolve their conflicts, the tension builds and the central story engine is eventually revealed in a stunner conclusion. The ending is sad, but exactly perfect. Very highly recommended.

I also just saw Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark, another movie I haven't seen in many years. This is a singular vampire Western set in the contemporary Midwest. It shares some elements and style with Terminator and Aliens, but watching the DVD extras will explain that.

It's an imperfect movie in some ways, mostly narrative holes, but making the pack a "family" surrogate was an inspired choice that, along with the perfect casting, elevates the film way above any problems. It is also worth noting that the word "vampire" never once comes up. The movie is also careful to securely ground the story in the modern, working class American Midwest. Both help with making the action more believable and realistic.

All the actors really have a blast with their characters. Watch the featurette included in the DVD to hear the lengths they went to in inhabiting them. Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton and Adrian Pasdar especially are great.

I'd forgotten that Near Dark stars one of my great movie actress crushes: Jenny Wright. She was pretty active through the Eighties, falling into a loose "Brat Pack" orbit that worried her; Wright counter-reacted, leading her into some odd roles. She then drifted out of acting in the early Nineties. Wright had these large, expressive, sad dark eyes; thin, tremulous lips; and the creamiest, smoothest skin. She had a sort of waif-like vulnerability and a hesitant intelligence.

She was a better actress than she got credit for, as Near Dark shows. In one scene where she has to choose between two men, you can see her yearn for one, but the way she ducks her head as she chooses the other make it clear she's only acquiescing. The way she plays her attraction to Pasdar's character is all glances, fluttery hands, and caution.

Man, she was hot. She also looked a lot like a real life woman I was having a disastrous relationship with, but I never connected the two. Or I polarised them, maybe, because Wright is pretty clearly a crush, a wish, in my mind. The real life woman had huge life-changing effects on me, in the "survived a traumatic car-crash" kind of way.

Anyway, Near Dark is a uniquely styled movie, filled with vampire violence, family dynamics and fabled young love. Very highly recommended.

Last is Rushmore. I've always hesitated to watch this because it carries that "cult movie" whiff. The kind of movie people praise but few watch, or rewatch. You know, "it's really funny if you get it." For the past fifteen years or so, I haven't been getting it. I'm less patient with pointed artifice and self-conscious style, with knowing nods and winks, than I used to be. I like straight-forward narrative drive now; I like a good story about people I care about clearly told.

Rushmore turns out to be better than I expected, if not quite as good as I'd hoped. It's not a "laugh out loud" funny movie, though there are moments. It's a boy's coming of age movie with a fairy tale setting. The movie depends way too much on things that just don't make sense when you think about them. The central character is presented as one kind of person, but we really don't see a lot of the work that would be involved in being him.

Jason Schwartzmann, Bill Murray, Seymour Cassel, Mason Gamble, and Olivia Williams all shine, but great performances alone don't cut it. The cinemaphotography is beautiful and colorful, well set up. But there's a necessary fundamental connection between many of the characters that's just not there. Characters don't seem to be together by choice or circumstance, but by directorial fiat; what's more clear is a deep-seated alienation that surrounds them all. It's the same thing that made Wes Anderson's (the director) Punch Drunk Love another not-quite success for me.

I'm glad I saw Rushmore; it was fine. But having seen it, I don't care much about it and have no real desire to see it again. It's a kind of movie that critics love, for the reasons I noted above, because you have to "get it." I just no longer care about art (movies, books, paintings, poetry, etc.) that I cannot appreciate without having the theory explained to me first. Or, where I must acknowledge the director's hand while enjoying the experience, in an inseparable way. That's not craft in service of telling the story; it's craft that assumes a place alongside the story and demands attention from the story. Sorry, that's no longer my cup of tea.

One note on my movie reviews before we close out. Regular readers will note that I never review movies I don't like. There are a couple of very good reasons for this. First and foremost, I don't rent or watch movies without a selection process to screen out bad experiences. I know a lot of folks who will just rent whatever, to have something to fill out an evening or kill a weekend. That, to me, is sad. I choose to watch and I'm careful how I choose. It's my money and my time, so you'd better be worth it.

That's not to say I won't experiment, but even then I'll do my research first. That's how I found the really strange and mesmerising Song From the Second Floor or the soft-core sillyfest Preaching to the Perverted. But when it comes to movies, I'm not a "throw it at the wall and see what sticks" kind of person. So, I rarely choose movies I don't have some chance of at least liking a bit.

I also don't write up reviews of the few movies I do watch that fail. There's only so much time, so I just point you to the good stuff. I don't have the time, nor the inclination, to warn you from the stuff you should avoid. Figure that out for yourself. It's just that I tend to watch and like films that missed the public light, so I like telling you why they're good and why you should seek them out. Nine times out of ten, if you like my blog overall, you'll probably like movies that I recommend that intrigue you.

I'm careful to warn about things that really annoy the general public, like subtitles and dubbing, or art-film weirdness, or low budget production. For me, none of those things is a deal breaker. I'm a fast reader, so I can keep up with subtitles for the most part. Lately, there's been a whole new approach to dubbing of Asian films that really makes them easier to watch. Matching lip movements to words, using quality voices and trained actors, taking care with the translation, having all improved that to a surprising degree. Sometimes, like in Hong Kong women's action film So Close, it's almost invisible and can be appealing in its own right.

Strangeness and weird directing are fine, in service to the story. Sometimes it's necessary and integral, like in David Lynch or Guy Madden movies. Films like Pi and Memento wouldn't be as compelling or as powerful as they are if told in "normal" ways. Then there's the occasional movie, like Takashi Miike's Japanese horror-musical Happiness of the Katakuris or Wong Kar Wai's glaring, gritty Hong Kong street story Fallen Angels, or Mamoro Ishii's hallucinatory virtual-reality puzzler Avalon, that are delightful simply because they come from so far out in left field. All five of the movies I've just mentioned are difficult in various ways, but will reward you with experiences you'll take with you for hours and days afterwards, turning them over in your minds and thinking about them. All available locally and well worth your time. Highly recommended!

The same goes for low budgets and tight productions. Six String Samurai was made on a miniscule budget over a couple of years -- filming resumed as more money was raised. But it was the lack of money that led to creativity in achieving their goals. Samurai is witty, fresh and different. It is bright and colorful where so many movies these days are dark, because they couldn't afford the lighting rigs required and had to rely on the good ol' Sun. That ends up serving the movie's day-glo premise and reinforces the movie's message of moral duty. The producers couldn't afford music clearances, so they put a friend's band in the movie and let them score it. That made the music timeless, since it "sounded like" era-appropriate music, and wasn't the actual songs, which would have stood out otherwise and distracted. Sometimes, the budget is a constraint, even with hundred-million dollar films; sometimes, it's a springboard to solutions that are better than what money would have bought.

I still have some reviews I keep meaning to write up. I even have the notes ready! Films like Six String Samurai (Fifties post-apocalypse samurai rock-and-roll), Volcano High (Korean Harry Potter in a corrupt, competitive martial arts school), Songs From the Second Floor (Swedish collapsing-society political weirdness), Shaolin Soccer (Hong Kong wire-fu magical soccer team movie), Donnie Darko (patriotic, time travel or mental illness, God-is-a-bunny film) are all in the pipeline, I promise.

I'll even do the rare negative review, of Robert Altman's astonishingly awful and unfunny O.C. and Stiggs. The source material, from the Seventies National Lampoon, was scabrously funny in a way you can't do any more: two high-schoolers devote their days to torturing the locals for their own amusement. Rolling drunks, shooting up weddings, driving a family to the brink of insanity, getting sloppy drunk and blowing things up. Sounds like any teen movie, right? Altman managed to be faithful to this material to a fault, a literal fault. The movie is the most laugh-free funny film you'll ever wish you hadn't seen. You can see his film as the unfunny outline for what should have been a funny movie. Every joke is right there, in place, and yet you don't laugh. At all. I don't think Altman even lists this in his filmography any more and it's very hard to find. For good reason. I'll show you why.

One day.

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