Sunday, July 11, 2010

8 ½ (1963) ****

Watching “8 ½” is a little like having sex for the first time. It takes a while to figure out how everything works. This classic by Federico Fellini uses a stream-of-consciousness style, interspersing and blending reality, memories, and fantasies. The story behind the movie is that Fellini wanted to make a film about a man suffering writer’s block. As he assembled his filmmaking team, including actors and financing, he found that the movie wasn’t coming together for him; he still hadn’t even decided what the protagonist’s profession would be. On the verge of cancelling the project, he hit upon the idea to just tell his own story of trying to make the film. Thus, “8 ½” is about a semi-fictitious director named Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) who finds himself creatively stumped while trying to make a movie. Fellini named it “8 ½” because it was his ninth film, but he didn’t think it counted as a fully realized movie. Little did he know that it would come to be seen by many as one of the great films.

The real-time part of the film is actually pretty mundane, as it follows Anselmi’s interactions with his film crew, his wife and his mistress. Blended into this narrative are bizarre and erotic elements from his memory as well as pure fantasy sequences, the best of which is a scene in which all the women he has loved or desired live together in a big house waiting to tend to all his needs. The movie is meant to reflect the actual mental processes that a person goes through on a daily basis as they shift their attention back and forth between reality and their inner life.

I can see why this is considered one of the great films. Fellini boldly uses the film medium in a completely new way. He doesn’t so much tell a story as expose his own soul frame by frame. I would absolutely recommend “8 ½” for anyone who is interested in art films, but be warned, this movie is long. Thinking about this film after the fact, I like it more and more, but while watching it, I found that it seemed to go on forever. Not only did I find myself bored at times, I found the frequent shifts between fantasy and reality to be off-putting. I once tried to read James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” I didn’t get very far, but I think there may be similarities between that book and “8 ½.”

In short, “8 ½” can be challenging to watch, but it is worth it if you are into this sort of thing.

4 stars

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Extract (2009) ****

How does this keep happening? Mike Judge will make a movie; hardly anyone sees it; it sneaks right past me in cinemas; and when I finally watch it, it’s brilliant. It happened with “Office Space,“ then “Idiocracy,“ and now it has happened with “Extract.“ Someone in Hollywood must be sabotaging this guy’s career. I don’t think any of his films has gotten a wide release or a decent promotional effort.

Conspiracy theories aside, “Extract” is excellent. It is not the classic that “Office Space” is, but in a way, it is a companion piece to “Office Space.” Where “Office Space” focused on the plight of employees, “Extract” comes from the perspective of an employer and all the headaches HE has to put up with. Jason Bateman is brilliant as Joel, the owner of a cooking extract factory. The role of businessman is an uncomfortable fit for Joel, who has a background in chemistry and actually invented the process used in his factory. He really wants to focus on research and development, but his long workdays are occupied with his idiot employees and their attitudes. He dreams of selling out and retiring. It seems his dream is about to come true when he gets an offer from a large food company, but things get sidetracked by an industrial accident. Meanwhile, things aren’t going so well at home for Joel, whose relationship with his wife Suzie (Kristen Wiig) has grown distant and sexless. He finally lets his bartender friend (Ben Afleck) convince him to pursue an affair with a gorgeous new temp worker at the factory (Mila Kunis), who is secretly a crook.

Good times, folks! Jason Bateman brilliantly plays the straight man in a crooked situation, not unlike his “Arrested Development“ role, actually. Mila Kunis is a convincing little con artist, not to mention a stone fox. Kristen Wiig is actually surprisingly foxy as well, and she brings a lot of humanity to a role that, in a lesser movie, would have been a 1-dimensional shrew. The rest of the supporting cast knocks it out of the park as well. Even Ben Affleck is funny as a drug-pushing, man-pimping, mop-hair-sporting bartender.

Hollywood has just got to start giving Mike Judge some respect. We’ve known the guy was a genius since “Beavis and Butthead,” and “Office Space” cleared up any questions about his ability to do a feature film. So why don’t people see his movies? I’d say it’s because no one knows about them. A studio will spend more promoting a film like “Sex and the City 2” than the entire budget for one of Judge’s films. I think it is because he makes fun of stupidity. Hollywood makes money pandering to the lowest common denominator, which is exactly the demographic that Mike Judge skewers in his films. The only solution I can think of is for smart people to make it a point to see his movies, preferably in cinemas, but on DVD if that fails. I’m doing my part; the rest is up to you.

4 stars out of 5