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.