Saturday, June 24, 2006
Well, another Harry Potter movie made it to DVD. Like everyone else in the free world, I did my civic duty and watched it, and yes, Maximus, I was entertained. This latest installment features Harry entering a tournament of wizards, and the kids finally start dating. Of course, Lord Voldemort makes an appearance.
My list of complaints about the Harry Potter films is long, so let’s get right to it. First, Harry is supposed to be this powerful wizard, but we hardly ever see him cast a spell that Hermione couldn’t have cast just as well. In the first Star Wars, Luke seems like a snotty, young hick, but when he suddenly blocks 3 laser blasts with that visor over his eyes, we start to realize that he might have something special. After 4 movies, I still haven’t gotten that feeling about Harry. Instead of someone who works magic, he just seems like a good-hearted bloke around whom magical things happen.
Second, why are all the spells in Latin? Rome was one of the world’s most logical, scientific, non-superstitious societies. The Romans were one of the least likely people to have been into magic, so why would all the spells be in their language? I would think it would be something like Sumerian, Hebrew, or one of the Celtic tongues. I realize this is a very nitpicky point to make, but for me it is just a reminder that while these films (and books) appeal to many adults, they are still kid’s fare.
With that in mind, I suppose I will shut up about the negative points. If adults are going to indulge in children’s tales, we shouldn’t complain that the story is immature. “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” the fourth Potter film, is at once the most engrossing of the stories so far, and the clunkiest. Throughout, the film benefits from acceptable dialogue, superb action, and excellent acting from stars Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Emma Watson (Hermione), and Rupert Grint (Ron), as well as a really creepy Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort. On the other hand, this two and a half hour movie probably would have been even better at three hours. There are several points where it seems key, or at least potentially entertaining, scenes were cut. These lead to incongruous scene changes, which makes the story lurch forward a bit.
The Harry Potter films are much like fast food, perfectly suited to younger tastes. As an adult, I can still totally devour a Macdonald’s burger, but at the end I am left feeling vaguely unsatisfied, and so it is with these movies. I guess if I really cared to fill in all those details, I would read the Harry Potter books, which would probably explain away a lot of my other complaints about the series. For now I am content to just enjoy the movies as the popcorn fare they are.
3 stars out of 5
Friday, June 23, 2006
We had Lesbian Chic, then Porno Chic. Now it's Bob Saget Chic. Check it.
Thursday, June 22, 2006
Whether I am watching a movie or reading a book, one thing I enjoy is for it to have a story. I know that sounds obvious, but let me define what I mean by “story.” A set of characters (or people, in the case of non-fiction) is introduced. The narrative then takes the characters through a series of events, usually involving an element of conflict and resolution. By the end of the story, the characters have been changed in some way by the events that occurred. If it is a good story, then I will have been changed, too.
Once again, I know, obvious stuff, but when I look at some of the movies that get tossed our way, I am amazed at how some of them are unable to meet even that basic definition of story. That would be understandable with documentary films, which purport to be non-fiction. Life does not always fall out into a neat story format. In fictional stories, however, the creator has the luxury of making everything up, so there is no excuse for a lack of story.
I started thinking about this while watching the movie “Junebug,” which was released last year after a well-received Sundance screening. Everyone else seemed to love this dreary piece of naturalism, but I didn’t grok it. It’s one of those stories about a son returning home, in this case with a new wife, and how that creates a bunch of family dysfunction. I’m not really a fan of this genre anyway, but I can tolerate one of these films if something interesting happens, some kind of STORY. In “Junebug,” not much happens, and the characters don’t change one bit. I wonder what was the point of that hour and a half?
As tedious as “Junebug” and other story-free movies are, they look even more pathetic when contrasted with the amazing stories woven together from real-life by some documentary filmmakers. Great recent examples include documentaries like “Daughter from Danang,” “Murderball,” and “Grizzly Man.” That brings me to “New York Doll,” one of “Junebug’s” classmates in the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, and another example of great storytelling using real-life events.
The New York Dolls were one of the seminal bands of the early-70’s punk scene. With their cross-dressing and outrageous antics, they never quite achieved mainstream success, but they helped kick-start the punk movement before splitting up in the late 70’s. In his first film, director Greg Whitely documents the reunion of the Dolls for a London music festival hosted by mope-rock singer Morrissey. Two of the original members had succumbed to the rock-n-roll lifestyle, leaving three original Dolls, Sylvain Sylvain, David Johansen (who enjoyed some 1980’s success with his bizarre lounge-singer character Buster Poindexter), and Arthur “Killer” Kane. Of these, bassist Arthur Kane’s post-Dolls life had been perhaps the most intriguing. He had burned out on booze, attempted suicide, and finally become a Latter Day Saint (That’s Mormon, for you Easterners.) Despite finding some peace and sobriety in his new religion and his job at the Mormon geneology library in L.A., Arthur clearly nurtured bitterness and regret over his lost rock-n-roll dreams.
“New York Doll” picks up at this point, following the band members as they gear up for the Dolls reunion and concert. The film focuses on Arthur Kane, who really achieves some redemption as he makes up with his old band-mates and relishes his return to the stage. Arthur annoyed me at first with his nebbishy whining, but his wry sense of humor ultimately won me over. I also really dug Arthur’s Mormon co-workers and fellow church members, who look straight-laced but are really cool! I can imagine that the filmmaker started out following all of the Dolls, but by the end of filming, it must have been clear that the real STORY here was Arthur’s journey. Greg Whitely recognized that and used it to make “New York Doll” a story in the best sense.
4 out of 5 stars.
Monday, June 19, 2006
The career arc for comedians like Bill Murray has become monotonously predictable. They start with light comedies (Caddyshack), then after a few years move on to more refined comedies (Rushmore), and next thing you know they’re hustling for an Oscar (Lost in Translation.) I guess if you can do good comedy, you can do anything. At this rate, that Stifler guy from “American Pie” will be the next Robert De Niro. Meanwhile, as our comedians gradually get more serious, a supposedly serious actor like Tom Cruise just gets funnier and funnier (albeit unintentionally.)
“Quick Change” is one of those movies from the slapstick phase of Murray’s career, but traces of the Bill Murray that was to come are evident. The film starts with a close-up of Murray’s character Grimm in clown makeup, with that trademark sad sack Murray expression and those eyes that never really smile. As Grimm proceeds to rob a bank, an outraged bank guard asks, “What the hell kind of clown are you?” Grimm responds, “The crying-on-the-inside kind.” That’s gold, Jerry! As the tale progresses, we learn that Grimm is a disgruntled civil servant from the city planning department. He only robbed the bank so that he could escape New York City, because “I’ve seen how this city degrades the individual.” Unfortunately, the robbery turns out to be the easy part for Grimm and his gang. Negotiating the urban wasteland of New York proves much harder, and hilarity ensues.
One thing I have noticed is that movie and TV portrayals of New York City have changed over the years. Nowadays everything is about what a great, vibrant city New York is. Back in the 70’s to early 90’s, though, New York was always painted as a dirty, seedy place full of assholes, perverts, and muggers. What happened? Did the city change, or did the movies just start showing a different side? Whatever the case, “Quick Change” (1990) is definitely part of the old, New-York-as-hell-hole school.
My only complaint is that this is one of those Comedies of Frustration. You know the type. Circumstances and other characters conspire to make a simple task extremely frustrating for the main character, and we are free to hoot wildly at him. (See “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” “The Money Pit,” “Funny Farm,” etc.) The problem is that if a movie has halfway decent characters (which “Quick Change” does), I identify with them. So then I wind up feeling really frustrated, too. For example, Randy Quaid does a great job as Grimm’s friend Loomis, but I wound up wanting to kill the guy. It’s like, “Just leave him behind! Go! You idiots!”
Other than the frustration factor, “Quick Change” is good fun and classic Bill Murray. It’s worth watching if you have nothing better to do some night.
3 out of 5.
Sunday, June 18, 2006
I’m sure there are movies about modern-day street warriors that are better than “Repo Man,” movies with better punk soundtracks and more bizarre, dark humor. I’m sure Emilio Estevez has probably made better movies. The problem is, after watching “Repo Man” last night, I can’t think of any. This movie totally blew my mind, and I’m lovin’ it!
Displaying the baby-faced punk attitude that made him great in “The Breakfast Club” and “Men at Work,” Estevez plays 18-year-old Otto, a broke, bored underachiever with a bad attitude and no prospects. He falls in with a colorful bunch of characters at a car repossession business. Under the mentorship of Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), Otto learns the Repo Man Code and, oddly enough, finds meaning and purpose in his new job. Meanwhile, an apparently insane guy in a ’64 Chevy Malibu has made his way from Los Alamos, NM to Los Angeles with a trunk full of deadly government secrets. The government puts out a fat bounty on the Malibu, which sets Otto and every other Repo Man in L.A. hunting for it. This is all set against a backdrop of seedy, low-rent L.A. suburbs, with a killer punk soundtrack including Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies, Iggy Pop, and a live performance by the Circle Jerks.
“Repo Man” is a cult classic in the best sense because it consistently holds onto its sense of the absurd without having to wink at the camera. It reminds me of the movie “Tremors.” Both are bizarro, sci-fi fun-fests that stand up well to repeat viewings.
In a lesser film, where the characters and dialog would be merely vehicles to forward the plot, we would be unlikely to suspend our disbelief enough to follow such an unlikely story. Certain other films go ahead and acknowledge their absurdity, so we don’t have to bother with suspension of disbelief, but they bend over backwards to let us know how clever they are, with their tongue-in-cheek and all (The “Austin Powers” movies come to mind). “Repo Man” doesn’t suffer from any of that crap. The characters are intriguing, and time is taken to develop them with scenes that simmer with fun dialog and action.
In a lesser movie, Otto would get the girl, or save the day, or come to some great realization. In “Repo Man,” the only revelation is something we have already figured out for ourselves: “This Repo Man thing is intense!”
Tuesday, June 13, 2006
My wife checked out a Roger Ebert book called The Great Films. This is, of course, only Ebert’s own opinion of the greatest movies ever, but it proved really useful in suggesting movies we might never have thought to watch. The book recommended “Days of Heaven,” which ranks as one of the most beautifully photographed films I have seen. In fact, I think this movie is mainly known for the beautiful imagery created by director Terrence Malick (Badlands, The Thin Red Line) and cinematographer Nestor Almendros (Goin' South, Places in the heart).
The story follows angry-young-man Bill (Richard Gere), his sister Linda, and his girlfriend Abby. Born into poverty, Bill is too intelligent to resign himself to drudgery and abusive bosses, but not quite sharp enough to find a way out. In the heat of an argument, he kills his boss in
In this film, Richard Gere really demonstrated that he was not just a pretty-boy, but a decent actor, even if his range is somewhat limited. He lends great humanity to Bill, who is prickly and proud, but not a bad man. He encourages Abby to marry the farmer because it is known that the man is sick and expected to die soon. Bill is too young and callow to suspect that his and Abby’s love is unlikely to outlive her husband. He tries to follow his mind, but in the end is betrayed by his heart, which is neither pure enough nor completely mercenary enough to carry him through.
The best character in the film is Bill’s preteen sister, Linda (Linda Manz). While Bill, Abby, and the farmer pursue their love triangle, Linda is basically left to grow up on her own, providing heartbreaking voice-over narration. She provides the majority of the pathos in the film with lines like, “I've been thinking what to do wit' my future. I could be a mud doctor. Checkin' out the eart'. Underneat'.” She also passes perfect judgment on her elders with a line that pretty much sums up the movie, “Nobody's perfect. There was never a perfect person around. You just have half-angel and half-devil in you.”
Really, the main characters are all sympathetic in their own way. These people are easy to root for, which just makes it more of a downer when things don’t go well. I’ve never been a big fan of naturalistic fiction. Watching the doomed, pitiful protagonists of Ethan Fromme or The Grapes of Wrath struggle and fail to escape from their miserable lives is just a big bummer. That’s why, despite the beauty of “Days of Heaven,” I was left feeling a little disappointed. Still, I was thinking about the movie days later, which speaks well for it. Other than that one hitch, which is a matter of my personal taste, this is a good story, well-acted, and stunningly filmed.
4 out of 5 stars.
Sunday, June 11, 2006
Russell Crowe plays Braddock in “Cinderella Man,” an agile telling of this comeback story. Natural performances by Crowe, Renee Zellweger as the wife, and Paul Giamatti as Braddock’s manager make the film heartfelt without being overly sentimental. “Cinderella Man” is what “Seabiscuit” would have been if it had been a little less sugary. It is so much better than the syrupy glop that was 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby” that I won’t even bother comparing them further.
The film is supposedly pretty historically accurate except for the pro-wrestling-bad-guy portrayal of Max Baer. Baer was something of a roguish clown, and he did kill Frankie Campbell in the ring. “Cinderella Man” portrays him as being flippant about it and bragging that he would do the same to Braddock, but historical accounts describe Baer as deeply shaken by
Braddock’s boxing comeback would have made a remarkable story at any time, but coming as it did during the Great Depression, it made him a national hero. It is not surprising that he was a source of hope and inspiration for a country full of people who felt like washed-up fighters themselves. What is surprising is that such an agile telling of this tale did so poorly in theaters today. Despite Russell Crowe’s draw, a fantastic trailer, and a theatrical re-release that included a money-back guarantee, the film has been considered a financial disappointment. It seems that the movie-going public’s brief, post-9/11 love affair with genuine, heartwarming, American stories is over. Now we are back to the irony and cynicism of movies like “Crash.” No matter, I’m willing to bet that in 20 years, “Crash” (which won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2005.) will be forgotten, while “Cinderella Man” will stand alongside “Rocky” and “Raging Bull” as one of our greatest boxing movies.
4.5/ 5 stars
Saturday, June 10, 2006
Repeat after me: “Wal-Mart Bad; Family Business Good. Wal-Mart Bad; Family Business Good. 2 Legs Bad; 4 Legs Good.” Continue for the next 90 minutes and you will pretty much recreate the experience of watching Robert Greenwald’s diatribe “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.” This clunky documentary exposes various reasons why Wal-Mart is evil, including: 1) They drive small-town stores out of business (often intentionally). 2) Misguided local governments often bribe Wal-Mart to come to town by giving them tax breaks. Since Wal-Mart then drives the existing, tax-paying stores out of business, the result is a loss of tax dollars for schools, etc. 3) Wal-Mart has crappy wages and minimal health insurance. Their managers have to keep a list of public programs like food stamps and Medicaid that they encourage their employees to pursue. Full-time employees on welfare! 4) Wal-Mart forces employees to work off the clock, hires illegal aliens, and discriminates against women. 5) Their stores have some bad environmental practices, like keeping bags of pesticide sitting out in the parking lot where they contaminate nearby water. 6) Wal-Mart factories are almost all overseas, where they can exploit the workers even more than they do here in the
My problem with this documentary is not that I disagree with it; I am actually very much in favor of shopping at local stores and buying American instead of supporting China-mart. I just think Robert Greenwald took a ham-handed, one-sided approach that reduces his work to the level of propaganda, and weak propaganda at that. At least when Michael Moore tells half-truths, he makes it entertaining. “The High Cost of Low Price” is to entertainment what Wal-Mart is to small businesses. In many cases, Greenwald’s attempts to show the human side of Wal-Mart’s evils just wound up being people crying on camera. Dude, there’s nothing entertaining about someone crying! The segment about high crime in Wal-Mart parking lots is just un-watchable. I think the point was supposed to be that Wal-Mart spends a lot on cameras and security guards inside the store, but they don’t bother with security in the parking lot, even though more violent crimes occur there. It was hard for me to get that message, because the segment is mostly people giving tearful descriptions of crimes they or a loved suffered in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Apparently, people have moved from expecting the government to look after their personal safety to expecting businesses to do so. Also, no effort is made to allow a rebuttal or present Wal-Mart’s side of the story. There are archival clips of Wal-Mart president Lee Scott making various statements, but they are just used to show what a hypocrite he supposedly is. Almost all of the interviews are with disgruntled former Wal-Mart employees; they do not interview anyone who has a satisfying Wal-Mart career. Finally, as crazy as it sounds, I have this theory that the reason Wal-Mart is able to move into so many towns and take over is that people shop there. This film doesn’t have a single interview with a regular Wal-Mart customer to see why they shop there and explore how shopper’s values affect their buying decisions (if at all).
All of that is a shame, because the topic of this film is very timely and worthwhile. How much are we willing to sacrifice to get rock-bottom retail prices? How much are we really saving if store prices are low, but taxes have to be raised to support the families of people who work at the stores? How long can a nation remain strong once all of its manufacturing jobs have been moved overseas? There are a number of pointed questions that need to be asked about Wal-Mart and our consumer culture, and maybe someday a better documentarian will ask them (Morgan Spurlock, are you listening?). In the meantime, “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price” is too lazy to preach to anyone but the choir.
1 star for the film. 5 stars for the topic.
Tuesday, June 06, 2006
Every now and then I need a reminder of why we all put up with Jack Nicholson and his obnoxious sunglasses. Seeing “The Last Detail” was a good reminder that this guy can wear whatever he wants. Actually, all three lead actors give amazing performances in this film by Hal Ashby, director of dark classics like “Harold and Maude” and “Being There.” My initial take on this film is that it would be a typical road-trip film, with lots of laughs and hijinks. Instead, it is pretty much a downer, although paradoxically it is not depressing, and there are plenty of laughs to be had. In that respect it reminds me of other Jack Nicholson films like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Easy Rider.”
In “The Last Detail,” sailors “Bad Ass” Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young) are detailed to transport a young seaman to military prison. Seaman Meadows (Randy Quaid) is set to serve an 8-year sentence for a petty crime that pissed off a petty base commander. As the trip north begins, he is understandably quiet and downcast, but he seems surprisingly resigned to his fate for a man who is about to spend his early twenties behind bars. Buddusky even points out, “He’s probably secretly glad. In the outside world there’s all this bad stuff that can happen to you. Now he doesn’t have to worry, cause the worst thing has already happened.” For their part, Buddusky and Mulhall are delighted to have an easy detail, with a whole week off-base to do a job that should only take two days. They start the trip looking forward to the fun they will have after they drop off their charge, but it isn’t long before they are moved by the pathos of Meadows’ unjust situation. Bit by bit the straightforward train trip degenerates into a series of side trips as the two guards try to show Meadows as much fun as possible before he goes to prison. The three get drunk, chase skirts, scrap with Marines, and visit a brothel. They even walk in on a Japanese chanting ritual, which seems to impress Meadows more than all the rest. By the trip’s end, Meadows is no longer resigned to his fate; he now understands what he is giving up for the next 8 years, and we are left wondering if his new friends’ gift of a few days’ partying will help him or cause him more pain.
Throughout the story, scenes of humor and camaraderie are occasionally balanced with the sobering reality of what waits for Meadows at the trip’s end. As their time runs out, the mood gradually grows darker, as summed up in Mulhall’s declaration, “I hate this detail. I hate this mother-fucking, chicken-shit detail!”
Just as “Cuckoo’s Nest” explores the frustration of people caught up in the machinery of a mental institution, “The Last Detail” is a great story about basically good men facing the senseless injustice of the military machine. What sets the film apart from many other modern military movies is that it doesn’t take the lazy approach of demonizing the military. It recognizes that injustices occur not because the military is evil, but because it is a large machine in which there is no mechanism to ensure that general decency will win out over personal pettiness.
“The Last Detail” also breaks down well as an allegory for our lives. We are all on a trip to someplace we’d rather not think about, which is death. To cheer ourselves up along the way we make some friends, get drunk, get laid, and seek solace in religion. But no matter how much fun we have, there’s a major buzzkill waiting at the end of the line.
4 out of 5 stars.
Sunday, June 04, 2006
"Brick" was in theaters earlier this year, and I would expect it to be on DVD soon. I saw it a year and a half ago at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was widely praised. Here's what I though of it then.
Opening shot: A young man squats next to a stream, his head in his hands. What is he looking at? The body of a young woman, lying half in the stream. Next we jump to 2 days before, to follow Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an intelligent, cynical high school student, self-exiled from the cliquish world of jocks, stoners, and socialites. He is stoically heart-broken 2 months after being dumped by his girlfriend Emily (Emilie DeRavin), who left him to pursue that world. A frightened phone call from the missing Emily asking for help and filled with incoherent references to a “brick” and “the pin” prompts Brendan to launch back into high school society. He does this in the movie detective style of Sam Spade (“The Maltese Falcon”), shaking things up with a relentless directness punctuated by well-timed acts of cunning. Once found, Emily recants and asks Brendan to forget everything she said. Of course, we know from the opening scene that things aren’t going to go well for Emily, and by this point we also know that Brendan isn’t likely to back off from anything.
After Emily’s death, Brendan starts looking for answers in earnest, slicing through high school society and the underbelly of suburban California like a weedwacker. Much like the detectives played by Humphrey Bogart in “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Sleep” this battered tough-guy keeps shaking the tree until the answers he wants fall out. His search leads him to the rich femme fatale Laura Dannon (Nora Zehetner), an underworld kingpin (Lukas Haas), and a handful of assorted thugs in a completely amoral teenage world. Battered physically and emotionally, he maintains his cool while playing all sides against each other in an effort to achieve some justice for the girl he loved.
In “Brick,” writer/director Rian Johnson pays homage in wonderful style to the classics of noir fiction. Setting the story in the world of high-schoolers allows him to make use of classic detective story characters without seeming redundant. We have a beautiful seductress with ambiguous motives, a dangerous vamp (played brilliantly by Meagan Good, which sounds like a porno name for some reason), a crime boss and his hired muscle, and even a Vice Principal who fills the role of the police captain. Of course, Brendan is the classic loner private eye, moving through a world of scum but never allowing the dirt to get under his skin.
Language is both the strength and weakness of “Brick.” Johnson drew heavily from the fiction of Dashiell Hammet (creator of Sam Spade) when writing the film, and that spare, 1940’s style permeates the dialog. Suffice to say that these kids do not talk like high-schoolers. That’s fine, because a stylized manner of speech suits these extremely cool, stylized characters and sets the proper mood. On the other hand, while the story of “Brick” is not wildly original, it is an excellent, riveting piece of noir fiction which deserves to be appreciated on its own merits and not just in reference to old Bogart movies. The Bogartesque lingo is entertaining, but it occasionally distracts from the story. Also, the linguistic style may simply be confusing and off-putting to audiences not familiar with the older films on which it is based.
Interestingly, none of the principal cast members were familiar with the literary and film sources from which their characters were drawn. This is remarkable, because their characterizations are so dead on, and given without a trace of the self-conscious irony that so often passes for wit. Joe Gordon-Levitt in particular deserves to be a star after this performance. He appears in every scene of the film, channeling the best of Humphrey Bogart.
“Brick” won a special Jury Prize at Sundance, and my understanding is that it has, in fact, been picked up for distribution. I suspect that despite its quality, it may have difficulty finding an audience. I hope I am wrong, because it was by far the best film I have seen this year. 5 out of 5 stars.
Saturday, June 03, 2006
Voltaire famously said that while he himself had lost his religion, he hoped that his butcher was a Christian. The assumption is that a religious man would be more honest in his dealings. I have always found, however, that there are just as many scoundrels on church pews as there are sleeping in on Sunday mornings. For those who doubt it, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” is a great introduction to the kind of rationalization that allows supposedly morally upright, Christian Conservative types to lie, cheat, and steal while maintaining the bland smile of a Baptist minister.
Unless you spent the last few years under a rock, you are at least vaguely aware of the Enron scandal. Ken Lay, an Enron top executive, lobbied hard in
“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” is Alex Gibney’s crisp, riveting documentary about how Enron fooled all of the people for some of the time. Based on a book by reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, the film graphically depicts the greed and hypocrisy on which the company ran. The film is rated R for nudity (one of the Enron execs frequented strip bars), language, and one violent scene, but the part I really wouldn’t want a child to see is the recorded phone calls in which Enron traders laugh about shutting down power plants in order to manufacture the
With “Enron,” Alex Gibney has managed to take the potentially bone-dry subject of financial fraud and make a riveting tale. I was on the edge of my seat for this one! With the recent convictions of Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, this is the perfect time to watch it.
4.5 stars out of 5.