Monday, October 15, 2007

Miami Vice (2006)

Miami Vice (2006)
dir. Michael Mann
viewed on: 2007-10-13
rating: 3.5

I can't say I watched the TV series much, mostly because I wasn't really into cop dramas when I was ten years old. It seemed sort of cool, though, and fun in that it didn't seem to take itself too seriously. The movie is the opposite. It takes itself WAY too seriously-- or, at least the characters (good guys and bad guys alike) never smile and rarely crack a joke. I realize the drug trade and drug war are serious business, but does it commonly cause constipation? 'Cause that's what everyone looked like: constipated... which, come to think of it, is sort of ironic given the crappiness of the movie.

Though the plot is about Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) trying to infiltrate a major Columbian drug cartel, the focus is on the sort of forbidden romance between Crockett and the drug lord's top aide / concubine, played by Gong Li. But even then, the movie seems to be more about mood than about... anything. Stuff happens, there's a shoot-out, yada, yada, yada. I was so bored after about 45 minutes that I stopped paying attention and instead worked on setting up a wireless network in my apartment.

I have almost zero skill when it comes to computer networking, so after some fruitless tinkering on my own, I searched the web ad nauseum trying to figure out why my shiny new Apple Airport Extreme base station was not working with my AT&T DSL, beyond the obvious fact that AT&T is lame to begin with. (Would it kill them to write a decent guide to setting up a wireless network? Isn't writing a good set of instructions cheaper than hiring tech support staff?) It was night, so calling tech support was out of the question. I wasn't keen on it anyway, since not only do you have to wait on hold, but when you finally get through it seems to take forever for them to walk you through a problem. I tried lots of keyword search combinations on Google and got several near misses: every time, the potentially useful page ended up referring to a different DSL modem than I had, or a different Mac model, or a different Mac OS, or an older version of Airport, etc., etc. I thought Macs were supposed to be easy. Sheesh.

Anyway, finally, FINALLY... I threw in everything I could think of:

wireless networking at&t yahoo speedstream 4100 airport extreme

Third result on google:

Bingo! Someone in some forum had the exact problem I did. (Of course, it took a while to then follow this solution and change my DSL modem to PPPoE mode... whatever the hell that is.)

Out of curiosity (and because I still wasn't interested in watching Miami Vice, which by this point was nearly over), I tried some of my searches on and Yahoo. I got some similar hits to Google, but mostly crap. And for the final, prize-winning search, the link was nowhere to be found on either or Yahoo. Ask returned only three hits (plus a bunch of ads), and Yahoo essentially truncated the search to "wireless" which was about the most useless search ever. Oh good, 1 trillion hits. I'll just click through those now. So, at least in this instance, Google was the better search engine.

I'm not sure what the point of that digression into wireless networking and search mechanics was, but if it bored you, good. Now you know how boring Miami Vice is. I just saved you about two hours.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Summer Movie Splendor

I won't bother making excuses (although there are plenty of good ones — moonlighting, for example) for the lack of updates over the summer. Here's a rundown, roughly in chronological order, of every movie I watched from mid-June to late September.

Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) | rating: 4.0
Chinese actresses playing Japanese geishas. Strange that. Except for the hot Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh, and Ziyi Zhang, this movie is rather forgettable. I just wanted to mention the hotness of the actresses. Especially Gong Li.

American Splendor (2003) | rating: 9.0
I forgot how incredibly good this movie was. In fact, I liked it better on this my second viewing. Aside from Harvey's insistence that R. Crumb's depiction of him doesn't have stink lines ("No, those are motion lines. I'm an active guy!"), my favorite thing about the movie is its layers: There's the fictionalized true story which is narrated and commented upon by the real Harvey. There's the documentary-like portions with the real people--which, while good, are staged more than most documentaries and therefore aren't quite as “real.” There's the bits of TV footage of Harvey, Toby, David Letterman, etc. There’s the stage version of the story, which is represented in the movie. There’s the movie’s depiction of the creation of the comics, and, outside the movie, there’s the American Splendor comic book about the movie (Our Movie Year). Beyond telling this story of an existential everyman, the movie seems to make a general point about storytelling itself: it’s real and illusory and relative all at the same time.
Also great: Hope Davis as Joyce, and Judah Friedlander who played Toby the "nyerd."

The Graduate (1967) | rating: 10.0
One of my all-time favorites. The first time I saw it was in my 11th grade English class. My teacher Mr. Wallach used it as both a demonstration of existentialism and as a lesson in basic cinematography. That was my introduction to concepts like the rule of thirds, two-shots, etc., and how those things can convey meaning beyond the dialogue – i.e. how-to-read-a-film stuff. So not only is The Graduate a great movie, but it represents sort of a cornerstone for my appreciation of film. Anyway, Anne Bancroft is amazing, as is the soundtrack, which I bought recently.

Return of the Jedi (1983) | rating: 9.0
When it came out, it was my favorite Star Wars movie and therefore my favorite movie, period. It has since fallen from that perch (Episodes IV & V are better, Star Wars-wise), but I still have a great time watching it. For me, the whole Luke-Vader confrontation and reconciliation story makes the film, and makes up for its shortcomings (which I won’t get into here – a Star Wars discussion will have to happen eventually). I still get chills when Vader picks up the Emperor and tosses him down the pit. (Oops, spoiler alert!)

Live Free or Die Hard (2007) | rating: 8.5
Surprisingly excellent. Introducing a youthful, geeky sidekick (Justin “I’m a Mac” Long) was a good idea, as was the incorporation of John McLane’s estranged daughter Lucy, who turns out to be a lot like her dad. (Spin-off idea starring the daughter: Princess Die Hard). It maybe would have surpassed the first Die Hard had the villain been charismatic. Don’t get me wrong, I like Timothy Olyphant—his voice and intensity remind me of Clint Eastwood, and he was great on Deadwood—but he is no Alan Rickman. Of course, few actors are as good at being villainous as Alan Rickman.
btw - here are some other suggestions for future titles in the Die Hard franchise:

Die? Hardly!
20-sided Die Hard: Half-elf with a Vengeance
Get Rich or Die Hard Tryin’
Live and Let Die Hard

Hostile Waters (1997) | rating: 6.5
Once upon a time I hosted a submarine movie marathon. We watched Das Boot (the long-ass director’s cut), Run Silent, Run Deep, Crimson Tide and The Hunt for Red October. Hostile Waters, which turned out to be a made-for-HBO movie was decent, but would not have made the cut for the marathon, partly because of its made-for-TV-inherent-lack-of-epicness. Worth renting if you’re a fan of the genre, though.

Knocked Up (2007) | rating: 7.5
The feel-good movie of the summer! No, really, it was fun, if a bit far-fetched. Judd Apatow and his gang have a pretty good thing going.

Breach (2007) | rating: 7.0
Ryan Phillippe is wooden. The real-life FBI agent upon whom the story was based provides commentary on the DVD and he is way, way more interesting and lively than Phillippe is in the film. The plot and the other actors (mainly Chris Cooper) make it a decent spy thriller overall, though.

Transformers (2007) | rating: 8.0
Michael Bay and co. failed to develop Megatron or any of the Decepticons (except maybe Frenzy) as characters, but this was an appropriately action-packed, intense summer blockbuster. I especially liked how the transformers seemed much more alien than they ever did in the original cartoons, which mostly seemed to gloss over the fact that humans live on Earth.

Beerfest (2006) | rating: 4.5
As bad as this movie is, it is still somehow watchable in a 1980s midnight movie kind of way. I mean: it’s the 1980s, you’re a kid, you’re up way past your bedtime watching TV (either at a slumber party or at home while your parents are sound asleep), and this is the type of movie that’s on. And you watch it and somehow don’t regret wasting the time. By bizarre coincidence, Beerfest is the “movie of the day” on as I write this. Go figure.

Night at the Museum (2006) | rating 6.5
A mostly pointless movie with nice special effects. I love the American Museum of Natural History, so the setting and concept are kind of cool, too. A better story would have been nice, though – something like From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (which, apparently, was made into a movie -- twice.)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) | rating 6.5
Comments: The longest of the books was made into the shortest (so far) of the movies. Mistake. Too much character development was lost (for Harry and Snape in particular), and the glass prophecy orbs would have been completely inexplicable to viewers who hadn’t read the book. I was entertained by the action scenes, though, and the movie was mostly engaging.

The Simpsons Movie (2007) | rating 8.5
Not as good as the all-time classic episodes (circa seasons 4-6), but better than the recent vintage, and on par with some of the early years. In fact, the film’s writers were mostly the originals, so I guess it wasn’t surprising to see the plot focus primarily on the nuclear Simpsons family. Therefore, it was also not a surprise that it tried to warm our hearts like those early season episodes did. Still, assuming there’s a sequel, I hope it will feature more supporting characters, especially Krusty and Apu. And Mr. Burns.

Conga conga conga!
We love Monty Burns more!
Conga like you mean it.
Please don’t make me shock you!

Little Miss Sunshine (2006) | rating 7.0
I’ve said to several people that this was the Sideways of 2006: a good little indie movie that was overrated by critics and especially by the Oscar attention.

Dial M for Murder (1954) | rating 7.5
It’s hard to go wrong with a Hitchcock movie starring Grace Kelly. Too stagey to be a classic, but the trademark Hitcockian suspense is there. Also, a twist on the usual Hitchcock “wrong man” theme: this one has a “wrong woman.”

High Anxiety (1977) | rating 6.5
A fitting follow-up to a Hitchcock movie: Mel Brooks’s spoof of Hitchcock movies. It seemed to be based mostly on Spellbound, but mocked many of the others, too. While there are some laughs, I didn’t think it was among the better Mel Brooks movies.

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) | rating 8.0
There were critics using the term “America’s James Bond” to describe the Bourne movies. I think that’s pretty apt. Americans like lone-wolf bad-asses who fight for freedom, so it follows that our version of a James Bond-superspy would be such a character. And while Bond is working for the bureaucracy, even if he rebels in certain situations, Bourne fights it. The plot can be difficult to follow if you haven’t seen The Bourne Supremacy recently (the time period of Ultimatum overlaps with Supremacy), but on the other hand there is so much action, the plot is not always important. All you really need to know is: “Jason Bourne” is not the character’s real name; he doesn’t know who he really is, and certain government elements want to keep it that way.

The Osterman Weekend (1983) | rating 6.0
The quickest way to describe this is: suburban Cold War spy thriller. In other words, it mixes family relationships and friendships with a conspiracy plot, which is about as weird as it sounds. It’s very dated and not terribly action-packed until the wacko, frenetic ending. Not bad, but not quite good either.

Zodiac (2006) | rating 7.0
Chop 20 minutes from the movie – or repurpose them in a much more productive way – and it would be much better. I guess David Fincher wanted to be very thorough in documenting the Zodiac killer story (without actually making a documentary), but the neverending search for the killer gets tedious after two hours. Also, Jake Gyllenhaal was maybe a bit too young for the role of the cartoonist Robert Graysmith, who independently investigated the case. Or maybe the writing could have done more to explore his obsessive need to crack the case. I don’t know, but the rest of the ensemble cast is good, and the facts of the case alone were enough to hold my interest.

Sunshine (2007) | rating 7.5
This may have slipped passed notice with all the commotion of the other summer blockbusters, but Sunshine is one of the more interesting sci-fi movies to come along in a while. A couple of big caveats, though: First, it is scientifically implausible. The space mission has a real feel, but doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. The crew is Earth’s last hope for re-igniting the dying sun. To do this, they must fly a spacecraft almost suicidally close to the sun so that they can detonate a super-nuke. Um, yeah. Anyway, the point really isn’t the science, though; it’s about species survival and the tremendous psychological weight that puts on the crew members. That aspect of the film is quite good, and though it sounds similar to the plot of Armageddon (which I haven’t seen), this is about as far from a Michael Bay movie as can be. It has much more in common with 2001, right down to the old-fashioned gold colored space-suits.
The second caveat is still a sore point with me. In fact it made me angry at the time. I was really loving this movie until it got to the last half hour, when a deus ex machina element was needlessly introduced. I’d rather not spoil the movie by explaining the ending because I think the film is worth seeing, but my criticism has to do with a “villain” who pops up from nowhere and turns the story into a generic horror movie. Until that point, a very nice psychological drama had been built up, which arguably could have produced some of the same consequences as the villain. The ending felt like it was hijacked by a focus group full of teenagers. While the movie basically ends up in the same logical place regardless, it’s annoying that it took the detour.

Superbad (2007) | rating 8.0
Pretty much the same creative team behind Knocked Up was responsible for Superbad. I look at it as the Porky's of the 2000's because of all the gross-out humor and the senselessness of the plot. Although, Superbad is more than a zany teen exploitation flick. It ultimately has a genuine respect for teens and, the trademark of Apatow Productions, male friendships.

Unknown (2006) | rating 4.5
A weird movie I’d never heard of (so the title was right-on) about a group of guys who wake up in a warehouse in the middle of nowhere and can’t remember who they are or why they’re there. It’s sort of a neo-noir, and had the potential to make some interesting points about identity, but it mostly falls flat. It actually had the feel of a straight-to-video release: some known, but not big-time, actors (James Caviezel, Greg Kinnear), a low-budget soundtrack, a very low budget set, and uneven pacing.

Mobsters (1991) | rating 4.5
A silly biopic about Lucky Luciano (played by Christian Slater of all people) and his rise to prominence with Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel. The set design is good, the writing is mediocre, but the casting is just unbelievably wrong. Michael Gambon as an old Sicilian? Anthony Quinn plays another old Sicilian, and is a little more believable, but he also seems to be doing an impression of Marlon Brando in the Godfather. I already mentioned Christian Slater, who seemed too twerpy to play one of the all time bad guys. Patrick Dempsey as Meyer Lansky was probably the worst casting error, though. His generic, stereotypical New York Jew accent / Hyman Roth impersonation felt very forced, and just… lame. It’s almost an intentionally campy take on mob movies, though, so I couldn’t hate it too much.

On the Town (1949) | rating 7.0
Now I know that when Bart and Millhouse go on a Squishee bender and “go crazy Broadway-style,” their number is a direct reference to On the Town.
    Bart: OK, we're young, rich, and full of sugar.  What do we do?
Milhouse: [yelling] Let's go crazy, Broadway style!
[singing together]
Springfield, Springfield, it's a hell of a town:
the schoolyard's up and the shopping mall's down.
The stray dogs go to the animal pound,
Bart: Springfield, Springfield!
Milhouse: Springfield, Springfield!
Sailor: New York, New York!
Bart: New York is that-a-way, man!
Sailor: Thanks, kid!
Together: [singing] It's a hell of a...toooown!
Nothing much more to add to that, other than this was a good, yet below-average Gene Kelly musical (see Singin’ in the Rain or An American in Paris instead), that happened to feature Frank Sinatra, who I think cannot be overrated as one of the top three entertainers of the 20th Century.

The Exorcist (1973) | rating 9.5
I watched this at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery with a friend and thousands of other people. Compeletely awesome and scary -- both the setting and the movie. They really crank up the bass on the speakers, too, so the whole ground was rumbling, almost enough to wake the dead. But no, we were not sitting on gravestones. There’s a big field off to the side and the movies they show there are projected onto the side of a large building.

Shoot 'Em Up (2007) | rating 6.5
The title about sums it up: All shooting, all the time. There’s some pretty insane, fantastical shooting action that’s worth a look, but otherwise this is a throwaway action movie.

We Are Marshall (2006) | rating 6.0
Pretty much your typical underdog sports story, this just happened to be based on true events. Still, it felt like events and emotions were sensationalized and Disneyfied in order to appeal to a broad audience. That’s not surprising, but a better, albeit sadder, movie could’ve been made if it focused more on the loss of several dozen people (almost the whole football team and its coaching staff) from a small college community, and the grief of those left behind. I just got the impression that the recovery process would’ve been a lot tougher than the movie made it look.

3:10 to Yuma (2007) | rating 7.5
Not a classic, but thoroughly entertaining. Russell Crowe and Christian Bale are great actors, who, despite not being Americans, seem well-suited to Westerns, at least based on their performances. The movie, like most good Westerns, is a nice morality play, so it’s more of a mythical tale rather than something that would have happened in real life. Crowe plays a notorious train robber Ben Wade who is captured and must be escorted to the prison train to Yuma. The problem is, Wade is charming, devious, and powerful, and has a gang of loyal minions riding to his rescue. Dan Evans (Bale) takes the dangerous job of joining the escort posse because he’s almost penniless and the gig will save his ranch. As the story goes on, though, the odds stack up against Evans to the point where it would be safer and more lucrative if Evans were to let Wade go. So the story boils down to the contrast between Wade’s way of cheating and bullying to get ahead vs. Evans’s devotion to the principle that people should earn what they get.

Into the Wild (2007) | rating 7.0
Spectacular nature footage and some great supporting acting (especially from Katherine Keener) make this worth watching. However, I thought it could have been 20 minutes shorter, particularly the drawn-out, tragic ending. I also felt that I still didn’t quite get what made the main character abandon civilization like he did. And maybe that’s the point, we can’t know. But I guess what I would have liked the movie to better illustrate is whether he was simply in need of therapy from the whammy his parents put on him with their sham marriage, or... I don’t know… he was chemically imbalanced? Or maybe too stubborn/prideful/naïve. (Maybe the book does this and I should read it. But why read when you can watch movies?)

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Ratings (further) explained

Kerbot's comment on my previous post reminded me that I had been meaning to explain the numerical ratings I give each film. As I wrote in my very first post, the ratings are intentionally unreliable because they're relative to the movie itself and others like it. Therefore, you can't use them to create an overall ranked list of all the films rated, like Rotten Tomatoes has been doing with certain genres lately. What I didn't say, though, is that there is sort of an absolute quality scale at work, too.


10 = perfect, or, one of my all-time favorites
9 = extraordinary
8 = excellent
7 = good
6 = a little above average
5 = mediocre
4 = watch only on cable when there's not much else on and you can't sleep
3 = watch at your peril
2 = now playing in hell's cineplex
1 = an abomination

0...? Let's not contemplate a 0 rating.

Basically: take the rating, divide it by two, and you'll usually get the star rating I gave it on Netflix. Three stars on Netflix translates to "liked it" So, if I give it a 6 or above here, I thought it was worth watching. A 5 is not bad, but is totally inessential viewing--you might like it if you're a fan of the particular actors, creators, genre, etc. That means, for example, my 6.5 rating of Waitress is positive -- an upwardly-pointed thumb, if you will -- but other movies out there are better. But remember, the scale applies on a relative basis to each film.

Nutshell version: don't put much stock in the ratings!


The movies watched since my last entry are starting to pile up, so here's some brief commentary on the latest viewed.

Frantic (1988)
dir. Roman Polanski
Viewed on: 2007-06-12
Rating: 7.5

An alternate title could be "Fuming." It's pretty amusing to hear Harrison Ford's dialogue devolve from normal to increasingly clench-jawed as his character, whose wife has been kidnapped for no apparent reason, becomes more desperate and angry. By the end, you half expect him to stop talking altogether and instead breathe fire out his nostrils. So... angry... Can't... open... mouth.

Actually, at some point I started to add one of Ford's lines from The Empire Strikes Back, "I'll see you in hell!," to whatever he said in Frantic. It's sorta like the game where you add "in bed" to the end of your fortune cookie fortune.

For example, in my favorite moment, Dr. Walker (Ford) is on the phone with the terrifically frustrating American Embassy, trying to explain his encounter with the men who are holding his wife captive. The embassy doesn't seem concerned with his wife, and keeps asking him mostly trivial questions. Finally:

Embassy bureaucrat (on phone): What number are you calling from?
Walker: How should I know? I... I'm in a cafe, the Paris Midi.
Bureaucrat: How do you spell that?
Walker: How do you...? With an "S"-- for shithead! [hangs up]
["And I'll see you in hell!"]

Anyway, despite the odd casting of Betty Buckley as Harrison Ford's wife (they make a strange couple; she'll always be Abby from "Eight is Enough" to me), Frantic is fun because it is essentially Polanski doing a Hitchcock movie--an ordinary man gets thrown into extraordinary circumstances, gets zero help from the authorities, and ends up chasing after a MacGuffin so
that he can get his wife back. Good stuff.

Ocean's Thirteen (2007)
dir. Steven Soderbergh
Viewed on: 2007-06-10
Rating: 7.0

Like my friend the Food Librarian said after we watched this, it was like seeing old friends. I didn't see Ocean's 12, but I'm not sure I needed to. This was essentially the same set-up as in Ocean's 11, but with less character development (actually, almost zero) and no Julia Roberts (not a huge loss, in my opinion). Still, the ensemble cast is enjoyable and the premise is still fun: a bunch of smart, cool guys banding together to stick it to the Man. It's like a comic book for adults. Avengers Assemble!

Internal Affairs (1990)
dir. Mike Figgis
Viewed on: 2007-06-09
Rating: 8.0

The great thing about the early '90s is that it was really an '80s hangover, so the contemporary movies all feature hair and clothes that are very '80s and cheesy. For instance, Nancy Travis with her linebacker shoulder pads and frizzy mega-'do is freakin' hilarious.

Beyond that, Internal Affairs tuned out to be one of the better cop movies I've seen. Richard Gere as Dennis Peck is SO evil in this movie. He goes from a sociopathic corrupt cop who is nevertheless partly sympathetic (he's a family man and looks after his friends--basically, law enforcement's version of Tony Soprano), to a raging, paranoid, megalomaniacal psychopath. That's highly entertaining in its own right, but add to that Andy Garcia's character Raymond, a new internal affairs detective who becomes so obsessed with bringing Peck down that he risks sinking into the same psychotic oblivion as his enemy -- and the tension goes to 11.

Waitress (2007)
dir. Adrienne ShellyV
iewed on: 2007-06-02
Rating: 6.5

This is a cute, but fairly typical indie romance movie. The acting is good, but I felt like I'd seen most of the characters in many other indie movies before, particularly the abusive husband, the quirky friends, and the gruff old man with a heart of gold. It's totally worth seeing, though, if (a) you're sick of summer blockbuster fare and want something lighthearted but grown-up, or if (b) you love homemade pie. Half the movie is food porn.

Don't see it on an empty stomach, though, or you could end up on a desperate search for food afterwards, made worse by the fact that everything nearby is way crappier than you're willing to settle for, lacking in baked goods, or too damn crowded.

Another warning: Waitress has a sad background story involving its director. If you don't know about it already, you may not want to read it until after seeing the movie. It could ruin the lighthearted mood.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Bande à part = Band of Outsiders (1964)

dir. Jean-Luc Godard
Viewed on 2007-05-30
Rating: 7.0

Although I'm not sure what to make of what I saw, I liked it. It helped a bit to watch the "visual dictionary" featurette on the DVD afterwards, which pointed out a number of film and literary references that were lost on me and probably anyone else who wasn't a film student or a member of the original audiences. Not to suggest the film is in any way irrelevant. Au contraire! For one thing, the title is the source of Tarantino and co's production company, A Band Apart, and it's obvious the movie itself influenced Tarantino's movies.*

I guess that in addition to the weird references, I was also put off by the narration, which I found out later is done by Godard himself. It seems mostly a pointless distraction, other than to occasionally provide some necessary exposition. So I kept wondering if in fact the narration was just supposed to be a joke, making fun of other crime movies with narration. But even if so, I think it spoils some moments that would have played better in silence. It's basically a show-don't-tell thing, but accusing a director like Godard of getting something as simple as that wrong seems ludicrous, and it's much more likely that I'm missing something. So given my confusion, I will allow for the possibility of liking it a lot more if I watch it again someday.

As a side note, I loved the little scene of the main characters running through the Louvre. According to the narration, they were trying to break the record held by a "Jimmy Johnson of San Francsico, USA" who ran through the whole building in 9 min. 46 sec. I did something similar there on my visit. I'd been walking around, dutifully looking at the art for maybe an hour and 45 minutes. I hadn't gone very far (the place is inconceivably big), until I had suddenly had enough. Not wanting to say I had come all the way to Paris and only saw a small portion of the Louvre, I decided to fast-forward through the rest in about 15 minutes. I pulled a similar stunt later that trip at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. USA! USA!

* Some examples: the conversations about trivial matters, which often evolve into philosophical discussions; the focus on the criminal mind; the ubiquitous pop culture references (whether you recognize them or not).

Bury my heart...

I decided back when I started this blog that made-for-tv movies and miniseries would be beyond the scope of this blog. So, there have been movies in between the movies covered in this space. The latest is HBO's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. I just wanted to make a brief mention of it because I thought it was well made and would recommend it to HBO subscribers, or for that matter, eventually to Netflix subscribers. Provided you are willing to get your liberal guilt on, Bury My Heart... is actually an interesting presentation of not only the cultural differences between the United States and the Indian tribes that led to Wounded Knee, but the fundamental philosophical differences. So, leaving aside for a moment the obviously significant atrocities and lying by our government, there was, as the movie shows, a clash of incompatible philosophies, with neither side really able to comprehend the other. Capititalist democracy didn't "get" the native American way of life, and vice-versa. Probably somewhere in there is a lesson about the Middle East.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Sixteen Candles (1984)

dir. John Hughes
Viewed on 2007-05-27
Rating: 8.0

Somehow, this slipped through the cracks. I don't know why I never saw Sixteen Candles when I was younger, as it is basically required viewing if you grew up in the 80s. It's not like I consciously avoided it, either. Just one of those flukey holes in my pop culture education, I guess. I suspect all pop culture junkies have them, whether they want to admit it or not.

For the record, I had seen parts of Sixteen Candles, but only when flipping through channels, and it always seemed to be more than half way through the movie. I can't stand coming into a movie late unless it's something I've seen before. It's like a sin.

Besides wondering why I'd never seen Sixteen Candles, I was also thinking that Molly Ringwald seems to be in the same category of actor as Mark Hamill--a young star of generational touchstone movies, but too-closely associated with the role (or type of role) to end up in a different type of movie that will match that success. It makes me wonder who else will join that class. Elijah Wood seems like a good candidate, but somehow I don't think of Lord of the Rings movies as having the same generational or pan-cultural significance as Star Wars or John Hughes's teen movies. (Don't get me wrong, the LOTR movies are among my favorites.) Could be that the LOTR movies are the Star Wars of a younger generation, though.

Anyway, getting back to Sixteen Candles: the movie is great, as I am no doubt the very first to discover. It's completely crazy and hilarious like a teen comedy should be. As much as I love The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles and Ferris Bueller are more fun to watch, and that always counts more for me. That is, my favorite movies tend to have re-watchability, and there's a difference between "favorites" and those that I think are the best made. It's like the difference between everyday food that you love and rich food that you love but would get sick of if you ate it more than rarely. But I digress. What I was getting at is that Sixteen Candles and Ferris Bueller illustrate some of the problems and tensions of adolescence, but present them in absurd ways, while Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink* emphasize the drama. The thing about a lot of teenage drama--the real-life drama, I mean--is that it feels like the most vital thing in the world at that age, but at a distance it starts to seem more and more silly. (It's the inverse-square law of teen films: dramatic intensity drops off exponentially with distance.) I think that's partly why the comedies seem more relevant to me now. There's only so long you can remain serious about something. You either have to laugh it off or sink into a bitter hole.

So, maybe the serious teen movies should now be laughed at and can therefore be viewed in the same way as the comedies.

* I don't care for Pretty in Pink much at all. I suspect it might fall into the inverse-square theory I described above: if I'd seen it at a more relevant age, it would've been better. Yes, another admission, I only saw Pretty in Pink six months ago, but I think I did purposely avoid that one: "Meh, it's a chick flick."

Monday, May 21, 2007

Spider-Man 3 (2007)

dir. Sam Raimi
Viewed on 2007-05-12
Rating: 5.5

The subtitle for Spider-Man 3 should've been "Spidey Sells Out" because it's applicable to both the character in the movie and to the movie itself. While I didn't have high expectations, I wanted to like Spidey 3, and I hoped it would be close to as good as the first two. Now I'm hoping it doesn't match the overall box office success of the first two films so that the franchise (which is pretty damn likely to continue) will undergo some necessary revision. Still, the $282M it has so far grossed domestically (at the time of this writing) isn't chump change, $258M budget or no. So, I guess I'm hoping for a steep drop-off once the other blockbusters come out (Shrek 3, Pirates 3).

Reminiscent of Batmans 2, 3, and especially 4, Spidey 3 suffers from surplus-villain syndrome and character-developmentophobia, both of which are common symptoms of sequelitis.(1) Here we get Green Goblin, Jr., Sandman, and Venom, whose main functions are to distract us from the mish-mashed plot, which in turn seems only held together by the action. I don't want to sound like the typical whiny, unsatisfied fanboy, but the movie probably should have paid more attention to the comics, in which the Goblin (first father, then son) and Venom are arguably at the top of Spidey's all-time enemy list, not the annoying villains du jour.

Instead, the film focuses more on the Peter-Parker-as-his-own-worst-enemy theme which could have worked had more time been spent building it up. But with all the villains buzzing around, the writers had to move things along and chose to make Peter Parker almost instantly turn into the Spectacular Spider-Jerk so that he can first confront himself, then take care of business with the external villains. In a nutshell, Peter starts acting like a self-absorbed, fame-seeking creep, happens to come in contact with an alien symbiont that enjoys being bad, and presto: becomes the Unfriendly Neighborhood Spider-Man. The dark Parker scenes were mostly physical humor and sight gags, and actually worked on a humor level--even when he's a badass, Peter Parker is still a dork. But this took away any chance that the movie was going to be anything more than another spectacle-driven comic book movie. That's exactly the kind of thing the first two Spider-Man movies, which had more emotional hooks and less epic action, seemed to rebel against -- in as much as a big-budget summer blockbuster can "rebel" against anything. (I'll leave it to Slate to explain more of the problems with Emo Spider-Man.)

At least if the villains were going to be a distraction, they could have been tougher or scarier. The Goblin story had the makings of a pure tragedy, but ends up as a tragically heroic redemption story. Same with the Sandman story, but to a lesser extent on both points. Also, a lot of money was, in my opinion, wasted on the Sandman special effects which, despite their novelty, were way overused. I liked Thomas Hayden Church's performance, but he had to cede too much of his screen time to the repetitive Sandman effects.(2) Finally, Venom was too easy to dispatch, and for a villain of his stature in the printed Spidey universe, the ridiculously compacted storyline for him turned the character into mostly a joke. It didn't help that Topher Grace isn't the least bit scary, either.
Tobey Maguire put the franchise into perspective in a recent USA Today article: "'s hard to imagine continuously coming up with stories that deserve to be told. I'm not sure if there are more stories for this character that are interesting enough to be excited about doing more." Not with the current creative team, anyway. If there's any truth in this source, it looks like more of the same for future films.

Great. Spin us a new web, Spidey.

'Nuff said.

(1) Characterized perfectly by the line in Spaceballs: "God willing we'll all meet in Spaceballs 2: The Search for More Money."

(2) Of course the whole thing is far-fetched, but the Sandman is one of those characters that seems to belong solely to the realm of comic books. The science behind him is absurdly implausible when you take even a second to think about it. How could every molecule of a man be turned into sand? And, even if that were achieved, how could those grains of sand then re-coalesce and have any intelligence whatsoever, let alone the memories of the man?

Monday, May 14, 2007

Defence of the Realm (1985)

dir. David Drury
Viewed on: 2007-04-29
Rating: 6

I saw Defence of the Realm over two weeks ago and couldn't really be bothered to write about it. That might say enough, but I don't want to give the impression that it was bad. But basically, if you've seen one 1980s conspiracy thriller, you've seen 'em all. A journalist, played by Gabriel Byrne, discovers that a British MP is a spy for the Soviets, and then learns there is much more to the story. I'm sure the film was quite suspenseful and timely for its day, but despite some generally good writing and acting, it's kind of dated now. In particular, the intensity is at least a couple of notches lower than what you see today in TV shows ("MI5,"* "Alias," "24") let alone in movies. The lack of intensity is probably due to the fact that Defence is heavy on plot and lacking in character development. For example, there is an opportunity to develop a romance between Byrne's character and Greta Scacchi's, but nothing happens. ...Or maybe it did and I fell asleep? Geez, I'm not doing this movie any favors.

Seriously, you could do so much worse. I mean, it's worth checking out if you ever come across it on cable and are in the mood for a conspiracy movie. I suppose a couple of other highlights were seeing Denholm Elliott (Marcus Brody in the Indiana Jones movies) and the young Robbie Coltrane (now mostly known as Hagrid) in different contexts.

*I highly recommend MI5, "Spooks" in its native UK, for a very realistic and dramatic spy show. One of the reasons I gave up on "24" and "Alias" several years ago was that I saw "MI5" and had a hard time going back to the sheer fantasy of the other shows.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Grindhouse (2007)

viewed on: 2007-04-29
overall rating: 8.0

Planet Terror
dir. Robert Rodriguez
rating: 8.0

Planet Terror could possibly be my favorite zombie movie after Shaun of the Dead. Whereas the latter is a comedy with action, Planet Terror is an action movie with tongue-in-cheek comedy. For example, Cherry Darling's (Rose McGowan's) gun-leg is simultaneously super-badass and super-cheesy.

The plot is irrelevant and utterly uncomplicated--zombies, mayhem, explosions--so I'll just list things I loved, in addition to the "leg."

-Freddy Rodriguez and his character El Wray. Although El Wray was mostly played for laughs, Freddy could definitely carry his own action movie. He's a good actor.
-Michael Biehn, who really should be cast in every action movie made. His steely gaze and somewhat gravelly voice were made for the genre. And he's been in some of the best examples of action movies (good and bad): Terminator, Aliens, Navy Seals, The Rock... Inspired casting here.
-The return of Earl McGraw (Michael Parks), a recurring Tarantino/Rodriguez character. He originated in From Dusk Till Dawn, showed up in Kill Bill, and appears in both parts of Grindhouse.
-Bruce Willis. Fit his (essentially cameo) role like a glove.
-Rose McGowan, it turns out, is a good actress, and was a wasted talent on the very crappy tv show "Charmed." She does almost a 180 between her two roles in Grindhouse, and is believable in both. Hopefully she'll start getting more good roles.

One thing I wish got paid off more were the specially-made car and motorcycle. The movie made a big deal of revealing them, but they didn't figure into the plot much after that. I was expecting them to be tricked out with weapons or something, but they were basically only for show--helping the good guys look cool. The chopper was used a bit in one or two stunts, but the car wasn't really.

I could've done without Quentin Tarantino, limited screen time though he had. As a writer and director he is high-quality; as an actor, not so much. I think my dislike of him on screen has to do with his perpetual smirking sneer, or sneering smirk, whatever you want to call it--I can't take him seriously as an actor at all.

The trailers
dir. (various)
rating: 9.5

Before the main features there were fake trailers for other "grind house" type films. These were each directed by buddies of Rodriguez and Tarantino, and they were awesome--completely flippin' hilarious. The titles actually do them a lot of justice:
"Werewolf Women of the SS"
but the trailers themselves are a treat. I could've watched an hour or more of these, especially if it meant taking time away from the next feature...

Death Proof
dir. Quentin Tarantino
rating: 6.5

While I don't have any idea of what makes a movie a "grind house" film, my impression after seeing Grindhouse was that Planet Terror was "it," the trailers for the fake films were "it," and Death Proof was "not it." If not for the ending, an extended car chase sequence that joins the one in Bullitt among the best ever, there wouldn't be much to recommend Death Proof.

The film's structure goes like this:
Action sequence
Very long action sequence

Now, this being a Tarantino movie, you'd expect witty dialogue with cultural references and observations. But there's just... So. Damn. Much. I have no doubt that had I watched the movie at home, or after 9:00 at night I would have fallen asleep through much of it. Sure all the conversation is interesting and well-written when taken in small parts, but it gets freaking boring if it goes on and on without much point. Essentially, Death Proof would have worked a lot better if it were only an hour long rather than 1:30. The acting was good, the climactic action sequence, though, was excellent, and somewhat cathartic given the slow pace of most of the rest of the movie. Also, if you imagine Quentin Tarantino in the place of Kurt Russell's character in the very last scene before the credits, it's even more cathartic. (I can't say more without spoiling it.) To me, the film was mostly a self-indulgent outlet for its writer-director, and aside from the action sequences, it wasn't clear that it belonged as part of a "grind house" program.

The whole Grindhouse experience was highly original and entertaining--original, that is, in the sense that it's totally unique to the present-day moviegoing experience. We simply do not have double features of first-run films anymore, and rarely (it seems) do we get movies made just for the hell of it. Everything, and especially the popcorn movies, is marketed and audience-targeted to death.

So, in spite of my "issues" with Death Proof, the whole thing gets bonus points for originality of concept and for the side-splitting fake trailers whose full film versions I would pay to see if they ever got made. (How about more "Grindhouses" featuring those movies? Or at least "Machete" and "Werewolf Women of the SS"?)

Oh, and I should mention that I paid only $3 for my ticket. That's the matinee price at the Culver Plaza Theater where I saw it. Sweet! The only way to get more retro than a $3 double feature would be to see it at a drive-in.