Friday, December 30, 2005

Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain will likely turn out to be the movie to beat when the Oscars roll around in March. A lot of people who wouldn't be caught dead in a screening of this movie might think this is pandering, simply because of the controversial subject matter. But I sat in one of only two theaters showing Brokeback Mountain in the capital city of my "red state" home, and both theaters were packed to the gills on a weekday afternoon. If this movie goes home with any Oscars, it will most certainly have earned them.

This is not a gay cowboy movie. I don't even think the protagonists are necessarily "gay" at all. This is a tragic love story in the tradition of Casablanca, Romeo and Juliet, and The English Patient. Two people love each other deeply, and for whatever reason cannot be together. There's nothing special or controversial about Ennis and Jack's love story except that the reason they can't be together just happens to be that they're both men. It's surprisingly tender, beautiful and almost unbearably sad.

You probably know the basic story by now so I won't rehash. The pace of the movie is very deliberate - we get to know the characters before romance even enters the picture. You might find yourself thinking "Wait, wasn't there supposed to be a love scene in here somewhere?" It's definitely there, but you don't see it until the movie has earned the right to show it to you. By the time Ennis and Jack have their first awkward encounter, you care immensely about them and the love scene carries a lot of weight and emotion.

I'm wondering if there's a genre or time period that Ang Lee can't do. He seems to always get at the heart of whatever place or time he's showing us (Hulk notwithstanding). I suppose it didn't hurt this time around to have Larry McMurtry as one of the writers and executive producers. I think one of Lee's gifts is surrounding himself with people who know what they're doing. This obviously extends to the cast, and everyone in this movie is remarkable. But none more so than Heath Ledger.

I've never been a big fan of Heath Ledger. To me he was always just a pretty boy (and not even that pretty) with attitude. But his work in Brokeback Mountain is absolutely fantastic. Ennis is the heart of the movie and that heart breaks a little more every time you see him on the screen. Ennis is uneducated and grew up in a rather indifferent family environment. He's dirt poor and lives his whole life just a step or two behind desperation. It's a hard life, but he's accepted it. You can see how much he loves Jack, but he also knows the facts. He can't make a life with Jack because that kind of thing is just not tolerated in the world he lives in. It hurts, but that's the way it is. "If you can't fix it, you've gotta stand it," he tells Jack. And Ennis spends the entire movie standing it.

One of the big accomplishments of his performance - as well as the other actors' work - is that he and Gyllenhaal have to age twenty years over the course of the story. There's only so much hair and makeup can do if your actors don't have the talent to bring that off. But it really works in this movie, and you totally buy it. And I love watching Anne Hathaway age into the 1980s, feathered hair and all. :)

There are some pretty standard "tragic love story" plot developments, so they won't come as much of a surprise. The emotion of the end, though, is what really sells it as a love story. Particularly the "shirt" scene. There's a bit of this scene in the trailer (where Heath Ledger holds a shirt on a hanger and ... caresses it, for lack of a better word), but put into context it just blew me away. And I was already on my way home from the theater before I realized that it was two shirts - Jack's and Ennis's. Kind of a symbolic wedding, if you will, in Jack's closet (no pun intended). Wonderfully profound and moving.

I think part of the film's power is that people will take away different things from it, depending on what they bring to it. This is a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful movie. Great love story, great western, great all-around film.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Producers

The Short Version:
If you like Mel Brooks' movies, you'll like this movie. Probably love it. I personally loved it (most of the time). It's a lot of fun, and is very humorous and entertaining. If Brooks is not your cup of tea, you probably won't like it.

The Longer Version:

The Good

* The classic Mel Brooks humor - the stuff that just makes you say "That is so RONG!" Bloom and his security blanket. Bialystock playing "The Virginal Milk Maid and the Well-Hung Stable Boy" with an 80-year-old woman. The pigeon named Adolf that does the Nazi salute.

* Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick - They know these parts backwards and inside out, and it still looks as if they love to play them. They have a great chemistry, and play off each other flawlessly.

* Will Ferrell - HILARIOUS (as always). The strange thing is that he doesn't seem like he's doing "another wacky Will Ferrell character." And that's a good thing.

* Uma Thurman - Wonderful. She's not really well known for comedy, but she does the screwball sex goddess role remarkably well.

* Jon Lovitz - Let me preface this by saying that I normally *hate* this guy. But he was gold in this movie. Only in a couple of scenes, but he steals the spotlight in both. And he delivers possibly the funniest line in the film ("I can smell the stench of self-esteem.")

* "I Wanna Be a Producer", "Along Came Bialy", "When You Got It, Flaunt It", "That Face", and "Keep It Gay" - great, great musical numbers.

* The entire Springtime For Hitler sequence - very well done and hysterically funny. "Heil Myself" ... *dies*

* I sort of enjoyed how the movie played like an old-school movie musical. They don't all have to have a clever cinematic hook like Chicago. Hitchcock once said (in answer to a question about Dial M For Murder) that when you're doing a film of a hit play, you shouldn't try to open it up and make it too cinematic, because all you're really adding to it is cars arriving at places, people getting out, and other similar trivialities. I think the same philosophy applies to this movie.

The Bad

* Opening number - Painfully bad, cardboard stiff, and it set the tone for the movie being little more than a filmed stage play. There's nothing really wrong with simply filming a stage play, but you should give the sets and numbers a little more depth. The opening number literally looks like all of the actors are merely on a stage, in front of a painted backdrop, singing the song. Awful.

* "Betrayed" - Gah. Also painfully bad. It's supposed to be a clever little recap of the movie up to that point, but it doesn't really work. Would probably have been better if Lane were actually directing this to another character instead of playing to the camera.

The Meh

* The movie is very funny, but I can't help wondering if the idea is a little dated. I suspect that the original film with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder was much more daring when it premiered in 1968. And making light of a sensitive subject (especially the Nazis) is not that original anymore. Since the original film came out, the world has seen "Hogan's Heroes", the Soup Nazi, and Eric Cartman dressed as Hitler for Halloween. The original gag has lost some of its punch.

* I said above that there's nothing really wrong with filming a stage play pretty much as-is. But if you do it, there should at least be a small attempt to camoflauge the fact that you're doing it. Susan Stroman, being a choreographer and having no directorial experience except for TV broadcasts of stage plays, doesn't seem to be able to do this. She is an amazing choreographer, to be sure, and I think she would have worked well as a co-director - in the way that Jerome Robbins was co-director of West Side Story. But there really needs to be someone in charge who knows how to make a movie look like a movie.

So, lots to like, and only a couple of truly weak spots. This one probably plays better on the big screen than it will on DVD, since it sort of gives you the experience of seeing the show on stage.


There's a reason why Steven Spielberg is one of the most respected directors in film, and anyone who's seen Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., or Schindler's List knows what that is. He's not a "do-no-wrong" director - who is, really? - but even his failures can be interesting. I don't think all of his well-received films are necessarily good - I can't stand Saving Private Ryan, for example - but when he shines, boy is it stunning. And I believe he shines best when there's some kind of pressure, be it in the form of time constraints or "the shark isn't working" or whatever.

Munich does not feel like a "Spielberg film." Gone is any of that Peter Pan sensibility that made E.T. and Close Encounters and even Schindler's List feel like safe moviegoing experiences. This is a taut (despite the nearly three-hour running time) suspense thriller and a symphony of paranoia that is wonderfully understated and feels absolutely real at every moment.

My father remarked recently that it's strange to see movies about things you clearly remember happening, such as the massacre at the Munich Olympics, which inspires this film. I suppose it's because those events - in however small a way - are a part of your life, if you were alive to witness them. Munich begins with a reenactment of the terrorists breaking into the Israeli athletes' hotel room. Before we get a chance to see much bloodshed, the news footage takes over, and we watch as people all over the globe witness the proceedings on their television sets. (Side note: It was somewhat poignant to hear the late Peter Jennings' voice as a prominent figure in the news coverage.) We see more of the massacre later on through Avner's dreams (or nightmares, rather).

If you've seen the trailers, you know the impetus of the mission. Avner (Eric Bana) is a family man who is called on by his government to help avenge the Munich attack. He is assigned a team of specialists - a gun man and driver (Daniel Craig), an explosives expert (Mathieu Kassovitz), a forger of papers (Hanns Zischler), and a "clean-up" guy (Ciaran Hinds). One of the things I really enjoyed about this film was the relationship between these five men. It starts very pleasantly, the five of them sharing a meal together or celebrating the success of their first assignment over drinks. Over the course of the movie, as things get more complicated, their relationship starts to crumble and fall apart, as they lose their trust in one another and start to be picked off by their enemies.

Even though these men are professionals, the reality of what they're doing intimidates them at first. And you can feel their fear when things don't go exactly as planned and they have to improvise. Their job is fairly delicate, because they're supposed to take out the targets without killing civilians. Of course, as time goes by they find reasons to bend this rule.

This is not really a "message" movie. There is a message, but it doesn't drill itself into your gray matter in every scene. It isn't a political statement either. Its message is more of a warning about the consequences of killing for a cause, and it might just as well have been taken from a great speech by Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter:

It's 1183 and we're barbarians! How clear we make it. Oh, my piglets, we are the origins of war: not history's forces, nor the times, nor justice, nor the lack of it, nor causes, nor religions, nor ideas, nor kinds of government, nor any other thing. We are the killers. We breed wars. We carry it like syphilis inside. Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten.

Like syphilis, indeed, and it has slowly been killing us for thousands of years. There are no answers in Munich. No happy ending where we know Avner and his family will be alright. Even though he is assured by the only people he has reason to fear that he will not be harmed, he will never be alright again. He will never walk down the street without worrying if a car is tailing him. He will never have another good night's sleep. That is the price he pays for the decisions he has made.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Squid and the Whale

Jeff Daniels is Bernard, a novelist who has enjoyed great success in the past, but now finds it hard to sell his work. He is the textbook definition of an intellectual snob. His character is pretty much summed up in one of his first lines. After his son tells him that they're supposed to read Nicholas Nickleby in class, he responds with a flippant shrug, saying "Minor Dickens." He seems disappointed with almost everything, he's impressed by nothing, and he seems to think that his tastes are the only ones that matter.

Jesse Eisenberg is Walt, the son whose class is reading "minor Dickens." He's 17 (I think) and he's already becoming a clone of his father. During the Nickleby conversation, his mother tells him maybe he should read it himself and see what he thinks, he responds with "I don't want to waste my time." He criticizes his girlfriend for having too many freckles on her face, and believes he can "do better." It's fun to see him fumble, though, such as when he tries to impress his girlfriend by describing The Metamorphosis as "Kafka-esque."

Laura Linney is Joan, Bernard's wife and a fledgling author who is trying to step out from her husband's shadow. Naturally, Bernard being who he is, he tries to make her doubt herself, but thankfully living with him for almost twenty years has not made her lose her ability to think for herself. She has her foibles and has made a lot of mistakes, but she truly loves her sons and feels sorry for Bernard's self-inflicted misery.

Owen Kline (son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates) is Frank, a self-proclaimed "philistine" at 11 years old and Bernard and Joan's other son. He wants to become a pro tennis player, but Bernard wants him to realize that he'll never be a McEnroe so there's no point in trying. Frank is also discovering the joys of puberty and the nectar of beer and hard liquor.

The Squid and the Whale is very much a character mosaic - lots of richly detailed writing and multi-layered performances. It's apparently based on the writer/director's own experience with his parents' divorce, and I think that really comes through. These seem like real people. People we all know. Speaking for myself, I've met lots of Bernards and Walts just in the time I've spent in the Harry Potter fandom. This is one of those movies that focuses on relationships between the characters more than the plot. It ends fairly ambiguously, but you've met lots of interesting people along the way. All of the cast is superb, but I think perhaps especially Jesse Eisenberg. Laura Linney's Joan is my favorite character, though.

Monday, December 19, 2005

[BNAT] V For Vendetta (Bonus Short: "Der Feuhrer's Face")

This film required a second security check. So we went outside for roughly 20 minutes, during which some people took a smoke break and others tried to guess what the last film was. When we went back in, Harry told us that this screening almost didn't happen. He got a call from Warner Brothers a few weeks ago that he wasn't going to get it. But a few days before BNAT, he got another call from WB, saying that they had reconsidered. The film is supposed to open the Berlin Film Festival next year, so they had to get permission for it to be screened somewhere else. I get the giggles just thinking about some WB exec calling Berlin and saying "Can we send it to Butt-Numb-A-Thon first?" Anyway, we were told that we were going to see the only print of the film that exists right now, and that it flew from Melbourne, Australia to LAX, where it would go through customs and be handcuffed to a courier who delivered it just a few hours before we saw it.

Before the film started, though, we got a little treat. We had all been given kazoos in the shape of duck bills. These were for a short we were about to see, called "The Fuehrer's Face." It was a cartoon featuring Donald Duck, and he worked in a weapons factory in Nazi Germany. The soldiers marched around, singing the song "Fuehrer's Face", and all of us in the audience blew our duck bill kazoos during appropriate rests in the song. That will probably be my favorite BNAT memory from this year. Donald, of course, wearies of the experience of serving a Nazi regime. So it's a good thing that in the end he wakes up in America - it was all a dream. He goes over to his model Statue of Liberty in the window and hugs it, saying how glad he is to live in the USA. And this was a pretty good setup for our last feature...

Remember remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot...

I loved. this. film. This is based on a comic I never heard of, but it's incredibly gutsy, and it pulls no punches. It's set in a futuristic London, in a time where England has become a totalitarian society. Individuality has become a thing of the past, and the people live in fear of their government. But one man, known only as "V", wants to change all of that. By using terrorist tactics, he attempts to show the people that their government has imprisoned them. One night, he rescues Evie (Natalie Portman) from being taken captive by the secret police. He takes her to a roof where she watches him "conduct a symphony orchestra" (i.e., watch a government building being blown up).

This is a tricky film, but incredibly profound. It will, no doubt, be misunderstood and reviled by many, but those who hate it for its message are not understanding what the message is. This is very much a mind-opening film, and its object is to make people think, not incite them overthrow governments. It's meant not to encourage people to establish a new world order, but to preserve the world order that we have now and which seems for some to be slowly eroding.

This movie excels on all levels. It looks great and sounds great. The acting is superb and the cast is outstanding - Natalie Portman (her best work yet, IMO), Hugo Weaving (who has a tall order, trying to play a major role without the use of his own face), Stephen Fry, Stephen Rea, John Hurt, and many others whose names I've forgotten. I love the look of the film - how all the scenes with the government are in very stark colors and lighting. It is extremely well-written - Weaving's speech, full of almost all of the "v" entries in the dictionary, is a thing of beauty. And the action is very well done - particularly V's last battle - and doesn't overwhelm the movie at all.

It's very easy to see why this film was pushed back from its original November release date. When the climax of your film is the Houses of Parliament blowing up, it's probably not a good idea to release it just a few months after a real life terrorist attack on that same city. I'm amazed that this film is still going to be released at all. Heck, I wonder how it was made in the first place in a post-9/11 world. It's such a brave movie, and the filmmakers have basically said "screw it" to any fears they might have had about how the film will be received. Hehe, I got a kick out of several audience reactions to this movie. There's a line where V says "People should not be afraid of their governments; governments should be afraid of their people." This got applause from about half the audience. I also heard someone say as the credits started to roll, "Well, this film won't play well in the red states."

The film will have to be marketed very, very carefully - basically within an inch of its life. Partially because of the political element and partially because it's a "comic book" movie. If they try to market it HP-style with the lunchboxes and toys and such (which, considering we're dealing with WB, is very possible), I think they'll be making a mistake. This is not that kind of movie. And, um, kids should really not be playing with a doll that's wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. Just saying.

Anyway, I anxiously await the US release - partly to see it again and partly to watch how people react to it. I sincerely hope this film makes people talk - whatever their opinion of it - and that it gets the attention I believe it deserves. This is a brilliant, incendiary, and dangerous film. The kind they haven't often made since the 1970s.

[BNAT] Drum

Every year at BNAT there is an entry that's known as the "Family Fun Hour" film. One film that completely messes with everyone's heads and makes them question their sanity and the sanity of the filmmaker. That makes them sit there for two hours with a face full of "WTF?!" Last year it was Toys Are Not For Children. The year before it was Teenage Mother. And at my first BNAT it was Night Warning. This year, it was a film called Drum that, like Night Warning three years ago, had first shown at the Drafthouse as part of its "Weird Wednesday" series. In it's own way, it's awesome and a must-see. But it may just be the most offensive film ever made.

This film is blaxploitation meets slavery meets T&A. In a way, it's strangely fitting to have an exploitation movie about slavery. But I find it exceedingly ironic that this movie has been out there all this time - you can find it on VHS and DVD without too much trouble at all - and yet Song of the South was long considered offensive enough to have been banned and after about twenty years is finally going to be released next year. Maybe the fact that SotS was intended for children and made by Disney is the reason for that. But it's no less bizarre.

Drum is the eponymous hero of the film - the son of a slave and a white woman who doesn't know who his real mother is. The movie hits hard on the fact that sex between a white man and a black woman - while it had to be kept fairly quiet - was A-ok, but sex between a black man and a white woman was the height of taboo. In fact, that's pretty much the main point of the film.

This movie is like nothing I have ever seen about slavery in the South. And I have absolutely no idea whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. Maybe this stuff is at least partly true, and we were just never taught about it in school. While I know it was probably fairly common for some slave traders to buy slaves for the express purpose of breeding, the way it's emphasized in this movie - the way sexuality is emphasized in this movie - just seems perverse to me (perverse in the literary sense, not the literal one). One of the party scenes in the film reminded me of a "key party" of the 1970s. People pairing off with the nearest body, girls with their antebellum ball gowns hanging down so as to expose their breasts, etc. It just seemed a little too much to me. But I'm sure that was the idea of the filmmakers in the first place. There is a pretty significant homoerotic theme in the film as well.

The whole world of the film just seems ... hypersexual. Which I found odd, but I suppose that's the point of an exploitation film, after all. I don't hate the movie; in fact, I found it quite enjoyable, for the most part. It was just kind of weird to see it portrayed that way - as if sexual abuse was the only abuse that slaves suffered. Also, I think I've heard my quota of the n-word for the next several years. Hearing that word (unless it's Quentin Tarantino saying it in Pulp Fiction) has always made me tense up. I really hate it like no other English word. And perhaps hearing it spoken again and again hampered my enjoyment of this film.

Being an exploitation film, though, it certainly had it's (probably intentionally) funny moments. The biggest audience laugh came when one of the slave traders says to the woman who runs his house: "You ain't gonna meddle with my poon-tang, are you?" *DIESDIESDIES* As a funny movie, I guess it works quite well. I just boggle that this film hasn't yet fallen prey to our super-sensitive culture.

[BNAT] Stunt Rock


*ahem* Okay, that's out of my system. On with the post.

Every year but my first BNAT we have seen the trailer for this movie. It is simply the most awesome movie trailer ever made and always gets huge cheers from the audience. I bought this movie over a year ago, but I had never sat down and watched it, because I was afraid it would never live up to the trailer. When the title came on, the crowd went wild. After years of delayed gratification, we would finally consummate our love for Stunt Rock.

Is this movie filmmaking at its finest? Hell no. But the movie is awesome for what it is. It features a band called Sorcery and a stunt man named Grant Page. There's very little story. Okay, there's like no story. But there's lots of cool stunts and several theatrical concert numbers. The highlight has to be the duel between the "King of Wizards" and the "Prince of Darkness." AWESOME!

[BNAT] The Descent

One of my complaints with this movie is that it takes longer than it should to really get going. But part of that is a bit of misdirection. You think this is going to be about Sarah and her overwhelming grief at losing her husband and daughter in a car crash. Then you think it's going to be a standard cabin-in-the-woods movie. But when these chicks drive out to a cave and the guidebook gets left in the car, then you know where it's going. In part. :)

The first part of the cave adventure - before the really good part - kind of infuriated me. One person does something really stupid - leaving the guidebook in the car to make the trip more exciting - that risks everyone else's lives. It was like Mike in the Blair Witch Project throwing the map away because it was frustrating him and he couldn't see the use of it. I mean, DUH!

This would still have been a fairly effective movie if it had just been about these women going spelunking and getting lost and hurt in the dark, possibly with no way out. But this movie kicks it up a notch. There's something out there in the darkness, hunting them and eventually killing most of them in a spectacularly gruesome fashion. You see them panic, turn on each other, figure out how to outsmart the creatures, and make unthinkable decisions. It's incredibly tense, and I spent much of the movie with my fingers in my ears, like a little girl.

The ending is somewhat confusing. Did Sarah dream the part where she gets out and just decide to stay down there in the cave? WTF? But the ending aside, this is a pretty amazing horror movie.

[BNAT] Masters of Horror: "Cigarette Burns"

This is essentially a film about film geeks. It's written by a couple of guys from Ain't It Cool News - Drew "Moriarty" McWeeny and Scott "Obi" Swan. The main character runs a theater that screens obscure classics. He moonlights as a finder of highly rare film prints. He is hired by a creepily obsessive cinephile to find a print of a film called La Fin Absoleu du Monde ("the absolute end of the world". The film has only been screened once, and it is supposedly so powerful and terrifying that it incited horrific scenes of real violence in the theater. Our hero is under the impression that the only print of the film that ever existed has been destroyed. But the cinephile assures him that it is somewhere out there. Our hero takes the job, because it will pay him enough to get out of the debt he owes the father of his now-dead girlfriend.

So he goes on this journey to find the film, every step making him more nervous and yet more intrigued and curious. Along the way he meets a film critic who is working on an article about the film - an article which appears to be several thousand pages long. It seems that everyone who has ever seen the film has been forced to face their own personal demons and usually end up hurting either themselves or others. I was fascinated by the idea that the images on a film reel could be so powerful and moving that you might be persuaded to take your own life in response to it. That is a great concept for a horror film - that the celluloid itself houses an unspeakable evil. And the fact that people can be simultaneously repulsed by it and drawn to it is more interesting still. Great job, Drew and Scott! Just incredible.

The film is fairly restrained in the gore department, until the end. At the climax, the creepy cinephile, after watching the movie, disembowels himself and threads his intestines through the reels of the film projector. Yeeckh!

[BNAT] District 13

This movie will inevitably be compared to Ong-Bak, and deservedly so. This movie has the same extreme high energy, but it has a *little* more story. It's kind of a cross between Ong-Bak and Escape From New York. It's set five years in the future, in the Paris ghettos. The government has put up a huge wall around District 13, a particularly problematic section of town due to gang violence and drugs, and the gate is guarded by police 24 hours a day. The philosophy being, I suppose, just to lock the deviants up together and hope they just kill each other off. And to hell with the innocent people who just happen to also live there.

The police discover that a neutron bomb has been put somewhere in that district and set to go off in 24 hours, so they pair up a cop who is capable of deactiviting it and an ex-thug who knows the streets of that district. There's a bit of a twist, which is kind of interesting. But the real juice of the movie comes from the action. A great, fun, machismo kind of movie - ain't nothin' wrong with that. :)

[BNAT] The Professionals

The overture to this film is on one of my favorite CDs, "The Wild West Essentials". So if this is an obscure western, it was one that I had at least heard of. It stars Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan and Woody Strode as four guys who are hired by Ralph Bellamy's character to go and get back his wife (Claudia Cardinale) who has been kidnapped by a Mexican revolutionary (Jack Palance). Yes, you read that right - Jack Palance plays a Mexican. And it's pretty much the most awesome thing ever.

I *loved* this movie. From the great title sequence to the gorgeous setting to Burt Lancaster foiling Claudia Cardinale's attempt to seduce him to Lancaster talking with Palance about revolution to the heroes' moral decision at the end, this is just amazing. And Lee Marvin gives Ralph Bellamy one of the Great Disses of All Time. Bellamy calls him a bastard, and Lee Marvin says "Yes, sir. In my case an accident of birth. But you ... you're a self-made man." Wow.

[BNAT] Sympathy For Lady Vengeance

Chan Wook Park has made three movies now that deal with revenge of some sort. They're not your basic "you done me wrong and I'm gonna get you" movies. They're very complex and painful and brilliant. The first was Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, which I caught for the first time this year. The next was Oldboy, which played at BNAT 5 and was a huge favorite. Now he's capped off his trilogy with Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, and I think this is the best one of all.

The story centers on a woman who, when she was 19, was imprisoned for kidnapping and murdering a five-year-old boy. She did kidnap the boy, but the murder was done by someone else. During her time in prison, she makes lots of allies, and this helps her exact her revenge when she gets out. The manner in which she gets her revenge is profound and disturbing and immensely satisfying. And her relationship with her own daughter - especially a scene where she gives the young girl some important advice - is quite touching.

This film hurts. It's an incredible portrait of revenge gained and redemption sought. Absolutely wonderful.

[BNAT] Masters of Horror: "Sick Girl"

There are lots of reasons why I don't have premium cable. But I hate that not having those channels means I'm missing a lot of good stuff. Like Showtime's Masters of Horror series, in which great horror directors like Tobe Hooper and Dario Argento (and 11 others) have been invited to each make an hour-long movie to air on the network. We got to see two of these movies at BNAT this year, and "Sick Girl" was the first of them.

Lucky McKee (the amazing director of May, which played at BNAT 4) described this film as a "romantic comedy". Hee! That's kind of right. Angela Bettis (the amazingly talented star of May) plays Ida, an entymologist whose girlfriend just broke up with her because "the bug thing creeps [her] out". She decides to make the moves on a girl who's been hanging around the lobby of her lab building. Meanwhile, she gets a strange package containing a large, aggressive insect of a species she's never seen before. And all kinds of wackiness and grossness ensue. It's your basic girl-meets-girl, girl-dates-girl, girl-gets-bitten-by-huge-bug-and-becomes-impreganated story. :P

Some of my favorite horror films have a great comedic element. This film has some really great funny moments. One of my favorites is when Ida and her colleague are eating at a Chinese place. Ida finds a roach in her food, and instead of freaking out, she and the colleague very calmly examine it to see what kind it is. They discover that it's a species from China, and are thrilled to find that they're eating at a Chinese restaurant that serves actual Chinese food.

[BNAT] Footlight Parade

This movie is about when sound pictures were starting to take over and people weren't going to live theater anymore. They used to put on "prologues" before movies - short musicals that were connected to the story of the movie in some way. James Cagney (*LOVES*) plays the guy who has to come up with all of the ideas for musicals. The "cat" number is hilarious.

This is a great, great musical, and one of those typical 1930s musicals where the characters have to put on a show and manage to put together an incredibly complex number or set of numbers in a ridiculously short amount of time. There are a couple of cute romances in it, especially the love triangle with Cagney's character. Joan Blondell is gold, and has some of the best lines ("I know Miss Bi-- I mean, Rich" - PWND!).

Oh, and speaking of impossibly complex musical numbers, I have two words for you - Busby Berkley. He designed all of the numbers, and if that name means anything to you, you know what I'm talking about. The whole idea is that these are "prologues" that happen before the movie, right? So this is all taking place on the little stage in front of the screen, right? There's no frickin' way that some of those sets would be happening on a stage. Especially the extensive waterfalls and built-in swimming pools. A very fun movie, though. This is going on my to-buy list.

Friday, December 16, 2005

[BNAT] King Kong (2005)

I almost hesitate to say this, but in a lot of ways, as a film, it's even better than Lord of the Rings. Of course, those two stories are vastly different. But, even more so than with LOTR, I think, you can really ... really ... see Jackson's love for the source material bleeding all over the screen. It wouldn't be fair to compare it to the original - after all, if there were no 1933 King Kong, this new one would never have been made. It's as if the original Kong is one of the greatest songs ever written. And while it's the acoustic version, Jackson's film is a full orchestral "cover" of the song with dancers and light effects, but it still manages to stick to the heart of its inspiration.

The movie is three hours long, but Jackson uses the time wisely, and it never feels that long. There's lots more characterization, exploring of the relationships, and - most significantly - interaction between Ann and Kong. This movie is far far more sympathetic to Kong and he's much more layered than the original creature. But then all the characters are. Ann Darrow, in this film, is a vaudeville performer. She's reluctant to take Carl Denham's movie offer because it's a sad role and she's used to making people laugh. That's a huge part of her interaction with Kong. There's a great scene where Kong watches her do a little of her pratfall act, and she actually makes him laugh (and ook).

The action scenes are absolutely breathtaking. Two of them really stand out and got huge cheers from the audience. At one point, the crew of the Venture is being chased by dinosaurs. Just ... I can't even describe it, it's so incredible. And it finishes with them falling all over one another like dominoes, and crushing several of the men in the process. And the other action scene that stood out was when Kong is fighting the dinosaurs. He's kicking ass, taking names, and the whole time he's holding Ann and never once drops her.

The romance between Jack and Ann is well done. They have a nice meet cute and Adrien Brody (mmmmmm...) and Naomi Watts have great chemistry. And there's a line about "subtext" that made me fight not to laugh out loud. But the main love story, of course, is between Ann and Kong. Naomi Watts is really outstanding in this. It would have been so easy for her to just be the screaming, trembling victim, but she expresses so much and so many layers just with her face. Someone - can't remember who right now - compared her performance in this to a particular scene she did in Mulholland Drive where she was auditioning for a part, and I couldn't help thinking of that while I was watching her.

Favorite scene ever: Kong has just escaped from the theater in New York. He's found Ann and is carrying her through the streets. He steps into Central Park and reaches a pond that has frozen. There are a few cute moments when he slips around on the ice, and finally he falls on his bottom, still holding Ann. The next couple of minutes is one of the most magical things I've ever seen. Kong sliding around on the ice. Ann leaning her head back and enjoying the cold breeze. Gah! *cries*

There's great funny stuff, too. Jackson has a great sense of fun with all of the New York stuff. There's a reference to The Most Dangerous Game, too, which we saw just before this. When the original actress for the film backs out, they consider Fay Wray, but she's busy filming ... the film we just got done watching. Hee! Oh, and I laughed so loud when Denham is pitching the movie, and one of the studio execs asks if there will be footage of the naked tribal women. *dies* You couldn't have done that in a 1933 script.

[BNAT] The Most Dangerous Game

This was produced by Merian C. Cooper - who produced the 1933 King Kong - and featured Fay Wray - who played Ann Darrow in that film. It stars Joel McCrea and tells the story of the lone survivor of a shipwreck who conveniently happens upon the castle of an eccentric count, who is also hosting a few survivors of another shipwreck. The count, like the movie's protagonist, is an avid hunter. But he has grown weary of hunting deer and tigers. So, as it transpires, he is now hunting humans instead, since they offer the most challenging hunting experience.

This is, pretty clearly, a B-movie, but that's not a putdown. It's highly enjoyable. Some of the sets are the exact ones that were used in King Kong, which is interesting for a geek, at any rate, and the count's "trophy" room is truly creepy. The shipwreck scene may be accidentally funny (especially a guy yelling "He got me!" when a shark bites him) and there are some weird and unintentional cultural insults. But for what it is, the film works really well.

Butt-Numb-A-Thon, Introduction

For four years now, I've been attending an event every December called Butt-Numb-A-Thon. It's a 24-hour film marathon held in Austin, TX at the Alamo Drafthouse theater. On the outside it looks like a hole-in-the-wall, smushed in between a couple of nightclubs at the corner of 4th and Colorado. Inside, it's a real, honest-to-goodness old-school movie theater. Every other row of seats has been removed and replaced with row-length tables, and you can order some pretty great food while you watch your movie.

BNAT is a special event held there every year, an excuse for Harry Knowles to get a bunch of people together around his birthday and celebrate everyone's love of film. Tickets for the event used to be first come first served, but as BNAT has increased in notoriety, Harry has resorted to taking e-mail submissions and selecting the attendees personally. This means a couple of things - 1)It's pretty hard to get in, since around 9000 people are vying for a couple hundred seats, and 2)It's the absolute BEST movie audience anywhere in the world.

Every BNAT has a good mix of the old and the new - forgotten classics to freaky grindhouse fare to premieres of yet-to-be-released films that are sometimes so hush-hush that we're told not to talk about them. Everyone who attends has their suspicions about what will play, but not one of them knows what they'll see until they see it. The whole 24 hours is surprise programming. We all pay to get in - a certain amount for the expense of throwing the party and a little more to help fund a film club Harry runs for kids at the Alamo. It's a good cause, and it's a great party - if you're a film freak.

BNAT (a.k.a. Geek Christmas) seems to go in cycles for me, I think. BNATs 4 and 6 really stand out as years when I very much loved the chosen films, had several favorites, and couldn't wait to get home, go online, and buy several of them. But BNATs 5 and 7 seem to have been more about the experience as a whole and the joy of being a part of that audience. A list of fond memories of the even-numbered BNATs is likely to start with titles like Night Warning and The Black Swan. But a similar list for the odd-numbered BNATs is more likely to start with "the absolute reverence that even non-believers had for the screening of The Passion of the Christ" or "everyone playing their duck-bill kazoos along with the song in the Donald Duck short".

This is not to say that I didn't enjoy the programming this year. I enjoyed all of the films (in different ways) very much. But this was less a year about "what I got to see" and more a year of "who I got to see it with." We saw 12 films this year - 7 of them brand new - and in the next several posts I'll see what I can come up with about the films themselves and the experience in general.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Walk the Line

Despite growing up in the home of country music, I've had to learn to love it. Johnny Cash was another acquired taste for me, but like other acquired tastes (e.g., my favorite musician ever, Bob Dylan), Cash is a taste worth acquiring. I knew very little about Cash's life, save the fact that he was married to June Carter and the two of them died within months of each other.

This film will inevitably be compared to Ray, and yeah, it's another biopic of a music legend that will probably get some Academy recognition. But Walk the Line is quite a different movie, I think, and is more internal.

The movie starts with Johnny about to take the stage at Folsom Prison for his famous live recording. But we get sidetracked for about 90 minutes while we see what led to this moment.

J.R. Cash was a second son in more than just age, and one of his many personal demons is born when his older brother dies and he overhears his father wishing it had been him instead. Suddenly John is grown up and heading for the army. He soon becomes engaged to a girl he barely knows, and after a failed attempt to be a salesman auditions for a record label.

The main thrust of the story is Cash's relationship and stormy courtship of June Carter, and it is played wonderfully by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. The two of them really, really make the movie work. They have such a great chemistry, and you get so frustrated for them as they dance around their feelings for each other.

Perhaps the most emotional scene was seeing how June was initially inspired to write "Ring of Fire." I used to hate this song - it seemed cheesy and I loathed the trumpet thing. But I felt very differently once I heard the story about her writing it about her feelings for Cash. So I actually sat down and listened to it, and darned if it isn't one of the great songs ever.

Love is a burning thing
and it makes a firery ring
bound by wild desire
I fell in to a ring of fire...

I fell in to a burning ring of fire
I went down,down,down
and the flames went higher.
And it burns,burns,burns
the ring of fire
the ring of fire.

The taste of love is sweet
when hearts like our's meet
I fell for you like a child
oh, but the fire went wild.

In the film, June has left the tour because she gave in to her feelings for John one night. She goes home to her daughters and she stops the car halfway down the drive and starts crying, saying to herself "It burns, it burns..." Amazing.

Perhaps the greatest thing about the movie, though, is all the performance scenes. Phoenix and Witherspoon do their own singing, and it's incredible how much they sound like Cash and Carter. You can close your eyes and it's almost like listening to the real thing. And the energy is so real. Especially in the Folsom Prison scene. You can really see what made Cash a star and why people identified with him so much.

There have apparently been complaints about the portrayal of Cash's first wife, but I think the film handled this pretty well. I think the movie wants you to be a little conflicted about Cash falling for June. But you get the subtle hints about why things were not right between them - that basically Vivian didn't like the idea of sharing John with his music and his fans.

Wonderful, wonderful movie. It's getting all kinds of Oscar talk. I don't know about Best Picture, but I think Phoenix and Witherspoon are pretty solid bets for acting categories.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Cinema Pet Peeves

A friend of mine made a post on her blog about the decline of movie theaters. I've also seen several entertainment magazines, most notable Entertainment Weekly a few months ago, tackle this, and it's gotten me thinking about what's wrong with The Movies.

The problem is, in my opinion, most certainly not the movies themselves. It's the moviegoing experience in general. A lot of this has to do with accepted behavior in moviegoers, but some of it is the fault of the theater managers. So, while seeing a movie in a theater is an important and mostly enjoyable experience, here are some small things that take me out of a film.

Talking. Number one pet peeve ever. GAH! Don't talk. If you weren't so busy talking to your neighbor about what's going on, you wouldn't have missed that thing and you wouldn't have to lean over to said neighbor and ask what happened or what Character X just said. (Notable exception: Rocky Horror Picture Show)

Cell phones. If you're so busy and important that you can't withdraw yourself from contact with people for two hours, you're too busy to spend $10 to see a movie. Turn. the phone. off. And, for heaven's sake, do NOT pick it up to call someone. No one cares that you're sitting in the movie theater. It's not newsworthy. Really.

Kids. I have nothing against people bringing their children to see movies. However, if you haven't got them trained to not kick the seats and ask 87,000 questions during the movie, then please find a sitter. The exception to this, of course, is movies for kids, where you expect a certain energy and distraction level (and occasionally desire it). But please. Don't bring your kid to see The Passion of the Christ unless they are trained to behave like the adults around them.

Lateness. It's really not that hard to check showtimes and plan when to leave home in order to get to the movie on time. I personally feel that there should be a "late charge" at the cinema - if you come late, you have to pay 50 cents more. Or summat. If this were live theater or a symphony concert, you wouldn't be allowed in if you were late. Unless you were going to the Lord of the Rings Symphony. :P

Adverts. Oh. My. God. It didn't bother me so much at first. I actually quite liked the Coca-Cola commercials with "DeLuxe347" ("It's De-Luxe, son! DE-LUXE! Superstar Extraordinaire, get it right!") But for the most part, they're dead annoying. Would I like to buy the world a Coke? No thanks. Do I care about the insignificant comings and goings of the lives of Elementary Paper Bag Crafts? Nope. Do I Wanna Fanta? Not even if hell froze over. And TNT? I'm actually less likely to tune into your next movie-of-the-month if I see a behind-the-scenes featurette in front of my movie. What happened to the days of just playing some music softly over the speakers as people were sitting down?

Trailers. Okay, I understand that the studios want to pimp the other movies they're releasing. But could we please have trailers for movies that the audience of the film that's playing might be interested in? And, um, it's really annoying to see a cool trailer and then find out that the film doesn't come out for another year.

Bad movies on half a dozen screens. Yeah, this one probably won't ever change. But it galls me to look at the showtime page, see ZERO times for Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang and a bajillion showtimes for Doom.

Of course, all this won't stop me going to the movies. But I think it has stunted many people's interest in leaving their homes to go see them. People just don't have respect for the experience, which is a shame because movies take a lot of money and a lot of work to make, and even more money and hard work to actually get on screens across the country.

Movies To See List - November

(4th) Jarhead - From the British director who made the incredible films American Beauty AND Road to Perdition comes a look at American military life. I'm hoping this film will be every bit the work of art the other two were.

(4th) The Matador - This sounds a bit like Brosnan's other major departure from James Bond, The Tailor of Panama (where he played alongside a very young Daniel Radcliffe, for, errrr, those of you who care about that kind of thing). But I think that's a good thing.

(9th) The New World - Terrence Malick has been making films for almost 40 years, but this is only his fifth film to direct. Why? Because when he makes films he's really saying something and that takes time. His last film, The Thin Red Line, was a masterpiece, and I expect The New World to be the same.

(11th) Get Rich or Die Tryin' - So, okay, a biopic of 50 Cent wouldn't normally be on my to-see list. But if Jim Sheridan thinks it's a film-worthy story, it must be. I'm interested to see how this turns out.

(11th) Rent - "Live in my house...I'll be your shelter..." One of my three favorite stage musicals of all time, and they've got almost all of the original cast back. I never got to see the original cast live, but I've worn the CD out. I can't wait to see this thing.

(11th) Zathura - Pretty much Jumanji in space. But Jon Favreau is directing, so it should be good.

(18th) Breakfast on Pluto - Neil Jordan movies have to be seen on the big screen. As do movies featuring Liam Neeson and Cillian Murphy.

(18th) Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - Um, yeah. This is pretty much a "duh" choice.

(18th) Walk the Line - *sigh* This will have to be the second fiddle movie of the weekend. I'm seeing it, regardless. Joaquin Phoenix is an incredible actor, and it looks like he's nailed Cash - even down to doing his own singing. I'm SO there.

(23rd) Syriana - I remember reading an article not long after 9/11 where screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (who wrote and directed this) said he wanted to do a political movie that dealt with terrorism, and I guess this turned out to be it. And George Clooney pulled a "Raging Bull", putting on 35 pounds in a month to play the main character. I think that ever since Batman Forever Clooney has been pouring all of his energies into getting away from that bad decision. And I can't help but be thankful, because he's made a LOT of great stuff since. I'm anxious to see this.

(23rd) The White Countess - Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, her mother Vanessa Redgrave, Vanessa's sister Lynn Redgrave, John Wood, and Alan Corudner in the last Merchant-Ivory film that will ever be made. How could I stay away?

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Movies To See List - October

Better late than never. :)

(7th) Good Night, and Good Luck - He may be a pretty boy, but there's an impressive brain and artistic vision beneath George Clooney's salt-and-pepper locks. This is his second directing effort, and it's another true story. Black and white, this time. With Robert Downey, Jr.

(7th) In Her Shoes - Curtis Hanson directing a "chick-flick"? *strokes chin thoughtfully*

(7th) Waiting... - Okay, my better judgement tells me this is not a film worth seeing. However, having worked a long time in food service, I feel dutybound to watch it, just to see if they got anything right about that experience.

(7th) Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit: Doesn't the title just draw you in immediately, like a guy in a dark alley asking if you want some crack?

(14th) Domino - I really hated the trailer for this. ("My name is Domino Harvey. I am a bounty hunter.") But it still looks interesting.

(14th) Elizabethtown - Cameron Crowe *fangirlsOMG*!!!!1!one Ahem, okay. So, even if it didn't star Orlando "I'm too beautiful to be allowed" Bloom, I would still be dying to see this. Crowe has a way of characterization and storytelling that makes you feel like you know his characters. He's like the new Billy Wilder. I'll see anything he makes.

(14th) The Fog - I'm wary about remakes, especially horror remakes and most especially horror remakes where the original is something by a legend like John Carpenter. The filmmakers claim they're going for more story with this one, which can be a good or a bad thing. Here's hoping the title sequence is shorter than the original, at least.

(14th) Where the Truth Lies - It's directed by Atom Egoyan, who is a genius, and it stars Colin Firth and Kevin Bacon. The novel on which it is based was written by that guy who wrote and sang the "Pina Colada" song, but I'll forgive him that, since the novel itself is great. And if that doesn't sell you a ticket, I have three words for you. Colin. Firth. Three-way.

(21st) Stay - Trailer is supa-creepy. It's an interesting change of pace for Marc "Finding Neverland" Forster, too. Also, Ewan McGregor - mmmmmmm...

(28th) Prime - I like the premise. I love Meryl Streep and Uma Thurman. And how cool is it that the actor who plays the love interest was cast while on a reality show about a struggling actor?

(28th) The Weather Man - Okay, Nicholas Cage annoys me. But I think this will be one of those cool, quirky family dramedies.

Monday, October 17, 2005


This is not really a movie for everyone. I'm not even sure it's a movie for me. But I'm sure it's a cinematic work of art. Critics who are into structure and formula will tell you that the movie is too long, that it drags in a lot of places and has several scenes that have no apparent point. But that's incidental, I think. Crowe's films - the great ones - are like symphonies, with various melodic themes, not all of which have to be connected to each other. They're celebrations of life and interpersonal relationships. And my, oh my, is there some wonderful music (literally) to be heard.

Ultimately, Elizabethtown is not as good as what I think is Crowe's masterpiece, Almost Famous. But it really doesn't matter. This isn't the kind of movie you can go through with a red Sharpie, saying "story doesn't make sense here", "acting's bad here", "I don't buy Bloom as a guy with problems this big", and "what the heck is Susan Sarandon doing tap-dancing at her husband's funeral?" The experience of the film is pretty much summed up in the climax scene - the road trip that Drew finally takes with his father (or what's left of him, anyway), with a very detailed and planned map from his Love Interest, complete with programming on CDs. This "very unique map" is the film in a nutshell. It tells you where to go, what to do, and pushes your buttons with specific music to tell you what to feel about it. You're along for the ride. Some people might find that kind of film experience unacceptable, but when the ride is as good as Elizabethtown, you really should just sit back, roll the window down, and let it blow your hair all around. And don't forget to crank up the stereo.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Oliver Twist

I haven't seen the musical "Oliver!" in quite some time, and I've never read Dickens' novel, but I really enjoyed this movie. It has one of my favorite credit sequences - not that flashy, but it really makes you feel like you're walking into the pages of a Dickens novel. And Rachel Portman is one of my all-time favorite film composers. Her score for this film is not quite up there with Emma and Cider House Rules, but it has an excellent main theme that very much represents Oliver's character.

The film is a bit bleaker than I remember "Oliver!" being, and it feels much more Dickensian. And it does the smart thing by not actually making Oliver the main character - at least that's the way I saw it. Oliver, of course, is not a very interesting hero, per se. The real star of the film is 19th Century London herself. And the characters revolve around her. But Oliver, and perhaps Nancy even more, give the film its heart. While Barney Clark is a cute Oliver, I think the real gem of the piece is Leanne Rowe as Nancy. That's as it's meant to be, I suppose, from what I've heard of the novel.

Perhaps the highest praise I can give the film is that it never felt like an adaptation. I can't remember once thinking that maybe I'd understand something better if I had read the book. It was an excellent story in and of itself, and nothing felt tacked on or stuck in just because it was in the original work. This movie is probably out of the theaters by now, but if you can still catch it, it's quite good.

A History of Violence

I had high hopes for this movie, which is perhaps why I was so disappointed in it. The good part of it is that it makes you care about the main characters enough that you're really gutted by the way things turn out. But in a way it feels like a big cheat. Because from the moment of revelation onward, it feels like a completely different movie. There's no satisfying reversal or even a decent explanation as to why or how Tom came to be where he is at that point.

The movie does, however, have the only instance of the infamous "69" that I can ever remember seeing in a movie. So, um, yay for that, I guess.

Oh! I did like one thing about it. I thought the subplot with Tom's son was pretty great. And Ashton Holmes played it really well. Great tension between he and Viggo, and I enjoyed the stuff between him and the letter jacket jerks. That was the only part that I felt made me think as much as the film wanted me to.

The worst part, though? William Hurt as the mafia boss. Seriously, it's baaaaaaad. Like Hermione-howling-like-a-werewolf bad. Perhaps worse. My face was in a perpetual cringe the entire time he was on screen. It was like watching James Lipton try to be a gangsta. GAH! He's a talented actor, but everyone has roles they just should not be allowed to play because it's just not right.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Ph34r the Power of the Editor and Composer

The writer builds the framework, the director sets up the shots, and the actors bring the story to life. But the people who quite possibly wield the most influence over the finished film are the editor and the film's composer/music supervisor. Just look at these three entries in a recent competition a post-production house organized in which assistant editors were challenged to "re-cut" trailers from different movies to make them seem like different movies.

West Side Story
The Shining (*winner*)

The West Side Story one is a bit of a cheat, because the editor has added things to the film clips, but The Shining one is AWESOME!

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Battle Royale

This is not a new film. The first I ever heard of it was when Harry Knowles listed it second only to Fellowship of the Ring as his favorite film of 2001. And this ten months after having seen it. Battle Royale is one of the most amazing, disturbing, and profound pieces of film you're ever likely to see.

The premise alone is deeply unsettling. A group of 42 junior high students are taken to an island and forced to kill each other off, one by one, until only one of them is left. They are each given a bag with rations and a weapon - weapons ranging in usefulness from a pair of binoculars to a machine gun (too bad if you get the short end of the stick). They are fashioned with special collars around their necks that keep track of their vital signs and location. If anyone tries to remove their collar, it explodes. If, at the end of three days, there is more than one child left alive, all of the collars explode.

There is very little set-up as to who the children are or what they've done to deserve this. We're only left to guess about that. But we get to know the children over the course of the battle. They're not all problem cases - they were chosen by lot to go to the island. They seem to be a fairly random sampling of the various personalities at their school. There are some flashbacks to several characters' lives at home and/or school. But we get to know who they are through their actions on the island. Some of them resort to suicide rather than participate in the game, some ruthlessly kill the other children (even their friends) in order to stay alive, and others band together to try and figure a way out of the situation.

Something that I feel adds to the horror of the film is that the children are all played by children. These aren't twentysomethings playing 12 and 13 year olds. These are actual kids. And seeing them dropped into this nightmare, as well as seeing them fight it out in true Darwinist fashion, is absolutely terrifying.

This film was never released in the US, for reasons that are fairly obvious, but you can catch it on DVD if you feel up to it. This is a specific kind of satire, in the manner of Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal. Nothing in the movie plays for laughs. It's all very real and serious. The deaths are shocking and you really feel something for all of the kids - not only when they are killed, but for the survivors who have to hear the names of their schoolmates who have died announced on loudspeakers and who are left to deal with unspeakable choices. Definitely not a film for everyone, but it's certainly worth checking out if you think you can stand it.

Thursday, September 29, 2005


I was lucky enough to catch a screening of Joss Whedon's Serenity last night. I'm definitely seeing it again this weekend, and I'll probably do another post about it then. But here are my initial thoughts. I'm not bothering to spare people for spoilers, but I'll try not to give anything too huge away (yes, there are huge things to be given away). Almost all of it is from the first few minutes of the film, if that makes a difference.


I've heard some pretty bold statements about this movie, like "It's what Star Wars should have been" and whatnot, and while I wouldn't go that far, I do believe that Serenity is right up there with the original Star Wars trilogy in awesomeness and strong storytelling. And I will say that some aspects - such as the action and battle scenes - are (in my opinion) better than those of the Star Wars franchise.

If you're not a "Browncoat" (i.e., you're not so deeply invested in this film and the original series Firefly that you know this already), I'll give you the basics. The setting is 500 years in the future. The concept is a mix of Western and Sci-Fi. The culture is a mix of American and Chinese. "The Establishment" is represented by The Alliance - a core group of central planets whose mission in life is to create a kind of Utopia. Our heroes - the crew of the spaceship Serenity, led by Capt. Mal Reynolds - are part of the other folk, those who refuse allegiance to The Alliance and who fought a losing war against it. Gosh, this is sounding boring. :P I promise it gets better.

Aboard Serenity are Mal (the captain), Zoe (first mate), Wash (pilot and husband to Zoe), Kaylee (mechanic and resident sweetheart), Jayne (ambiguous badass), Simon (a doctor), and River (his sister with special needs who he smuggled aboard). River is quite gifted and her mind has been meddled with by The Alliance. There is quite a bit of tension between Mal and Simon because River is a handful, and Simon doesn't like that she's constantly in danger (he thinks). It turns out that, as part of her brainwashing, River has been conditioned and trained against her will as a skilled assassin. Think Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. To further complicate matters, The Alliance has hired an assassin of their own to collect River and keep her from telling Alliance secrets.

All of this is set up rather brilliantly in the first few minutes. I was concerned about how they would introduce all the characters without seeming like they were, you know, introducing all the characters. I think the movie probably could have done without some of the exposition - particularly the voice over at the very beginning - but it's not too distracting, and things get interesting soon enough. The film's first major sequence is a (sort of) flashback to Simon rescuing River from The Alliance, and it was great to see Simon be the Hero for a change.

Soon after this, we meet a man we only know as The Operative. This guy was my one major complaint with the movie. He seemed like a fairly boring villain, and one of those bad guys that has to tell you why they're bad, which is just a copout to me. But by the end of the movie I had changed my mind about him, because the real villain of the piece is The Alliance. They control The Operative just like they control River. So if The Operative seems like he's playing a "bad guy" character it's because, well, he is playing a character of sorts.

The plot with River and The Operative is certainly the major arc in the film, but I was amazed at how much of the other relationships among the crew Whedon was able to cram into the rest of it. One of the things I loved best about the show was the sense of family among all of them, and I think that absolutely translates into the film. There were a lot of great emotional moments. As it was in the show, I think the greatest relationship in the story is that between Simon and River. I mean, there's some great stuff with Simon and Kaylee, too (and Mal and Inara), but that fraternal love is just so pure and heart-grabbing.

I won't go into specifics, but the reveal of the big mystery is probably my favorite thing about the movie. Just outstanding. And you can completely buy that this is the kind of thing that Mal would stand up and fight for. It just really, really works. There are so many good things about the movie. I was worried about the action sequences - River's fighting in the trailer seemed a tad Patrick-Swayze-in-Road-House to me - but it's very exciting, edge-of-your-seat stuff. The flying and battle sequences leave Star Wars in the dust, as far as I'm concerned. And any qualms I had about the fight scenes with River were more than allayed by the time she went Black Mamba on a room full of Reavers.

Above all, I think the film really succeeds at being much more than just a longer episode of the show. The show could afford to take it's time, but the movie has no problem moving the story along a good little clip. It is very much a film, and doesn't for a moment get swallowed by the big screen.

I realize a couple of things as I type this. One, that I'm preaching to the choir with any Firefly fans that read this. You guys love the show, and you will no doubt love this movie. And two, that for the rest of you, I'm probably not the best person to be trying to give you an objective point of view about this movie. I'm head over heels in love with this story and the characters, and my opinion is severely biased. But I've really tried to look at it as a film and not just an extension of the fandom experience.

Monday, September 26, 2005


Jodie Foster is my favorite living actress. Period. She starred in my favorite movie of all time and she's had a very interesting career. She only does projects she really wants to do, because she values spending time with her kids much more highly. This is frustrating for a fan, though, because it means she only does a movie every once in a while.

The plot is pretty solid thriller stuff. Woman loses her daughter on a plane, which means there's a very finite number of places she could be. The problem is, she's nowhere to be found, and the crew and passengers - and ultimately the woman herself - start to question whether the girl was ever on the plane. I won't say anymore about it, because the surprises are what keep the movie exciting. Well, that and the sheer cinematic force of Foster. There are several great actors in supporting roles - Sean Bean as the captain, Peter Sarsgaard as an air marshall, and Erika Christenson as a sympathetic flight attendant - but the film's impact rests squarely on Foster's shoulders. She plays the duality of her character well, and until about two-thirds of the way through the movie you're really not sure whether she's insane or not.

There's only one tiny cheat in the film, but I can forgive it because the plot works so well and is so involving. This is a really engaging movie and truly an edge-of-your-seat experience. "Inside the Actors' Studio" had Jodie Foster on last night and she talked a bit about it. Apparently, the character she played was originally supposed to be a man, and she convinced the filmmakers to make it a woman instead. Foster's reasoning for this was the scene where Kyle doubts his sanity and believes that the daughter is dead - that she has hallucinated this whole thing in the anguish of losing his wife and daughter. Foster said that a man would not do that. Men blame outward, while women blame inward. That it's why men are the serial killers and women kill their children. I think that's the key to that character and what makes her vulnerability so believable.

I think one of the best things I could say about Flightplan is that it's always a step ahead of you. Foster's character, Kyle, is an engineer who designed the very plane she's flying on. So she knows every inch of the plane, and is always a little smarter than the audience. This makes her neither a trembling victim nor an impossibly knowledgable hero. Not to mention the perfect action movie protagonist.

Corpse Bride

This movie was delightful. This is the kind of story that stop-motion animation was meant for. I didn't enjoy it as much as I should have, though, and I don't think that's the movie's fault. I think all my years of debating fictional romances and overanalyzing made me think way to much about how the marriage plot was going to be resolved. Then again, I think it's Burton's intention to make the Corpse Bride a sympathetic character and to therefore make it a bit ambiguous as to who we're supposed to root for.

I loved the look of the movie. I loved that the World of the Living is painted in very drab colors - blacks, grays, browns, whites - and that the World of the Dead is very vibrant and colorful, like a tropical getaway. It would be easy to associate this film with Burton's other stop-motion hit, The Nightmare Before Christmas, but I think it's a lot more reminiscent of what I think might be his masterpiece (at least visually), Sleepy Hollow. There are a lot of little details in Corpse Bride that filled me with geekish glee. Most notably the scene where Victor sits down to play a piano with a brand name of "Harryhausen" (20 extra geek points if you know why that's so cool). Also, the Bride's veil is just about the most remarkable bit of animation in the movie. I could watch it for hours, like that plastic bag in American Beauty.

The story was a bit predictable, and I guessed the little plot twist very early on. But it's charming nonetheless. The best part of the movie, I think, is the last 20 minutes or so when the Dead walk among the Living. It's horrifying at first for the Living characters until they start to recognize their dearly departed loved ones among the Dead. And Pastor Galswells trying to fend off the Dead from the church is perhaps the funniest thing in the movie.

There's LOTS of great voice talent in the movie. Besides Depp and Bonham-Carter, there's Emily Watson, Christopher Lee, Joanna Lumley, Richard E. Grant, Tracey Ullman, Albert Finney, and the amazing Jane Horrocks.

This is, as you may have surmised from the advertising, a characteristic Tim Burton movie, in the manner of Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Sleepy Hollow, and The Nightmare Before Christmas. There's a real sense of play and humor amid all the gothic imagery that is so uniquely his. Not everyone likes these kinds of movies, and I confess that I sometimes have a problem with the afterlife elements. But for those who love his movies and have a semi-morbid sense of humor, Corpse Bride is a real jewel.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Official Dancing-For-the-Man Post

Having been consumed with the desire to see Joss Whedon's Serenity and observing an opportunity to see it a couple of days early and at a remarkable discount (read: free), I now find myself having to do a bit of singing for my supper. I had every intention of writing about this film after seeing it, but apparently my chances for seeing it early and freely will be significantly increased by posting the text below.

Joss Whedon, the Oscar® - and Emmy - nominated writer/director responsible for the worldwide television phenomena of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE [SLAYER], ANGEL and FIREFLY, now applies his trademark compassion and wit to a small band of galactic outcasts 500 years in the future in his feature film directorial debut, Serenity. The film centers around Captain Malcolm Reynolds, a hardened veteran (on the losing side) of a galactic civil war, who now ekes out a living pulling off small crimes and transport-for-hire aboard his ship, Serenity. He leads a small, eclectic crew who are the closest thing he has left to family –squabbling, insubordinate and undyingly loyal.

Hm. Well, that doesn't make me want to see it anymore than I did before. But if you're one of the roughly two people that read this blog on a regular basis and you need convincing, I'll add that if this movie is anything like the short-lived television show that inspired it, it's going to be well-written, funny, smart, poignant, sexy, exciting, and fun with lots of good eye candy for everyone. (hooray for Captain Tightpants!). (ETA: And yes, the bracketed word "Slayer" was missing from the official summary.)

Serenity opens this Friday (September 30).

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Highly Overrated Movies

A few so-called great films that I don't think are all that great:

Saving Private Ryan
I do think this is mostly a good film, but it's status as a masterpiece is puzzling to me and I was pretty disapointed when I saw it. The main reason for this, I think, is that there's a pretty huge plot hole at the end. We find out that the man who's visiting Captain Miller's grave is, in fact, the eponymous Private Ryan. Which is bull, because he's flashing back to Charlie Company's experiences at Normandy, and he wasn't with Charlie Company at Normandy. Heck, we don't know if he even was at Normandy. So that whole breathtaking first 20 minutes is a con. That ticked me off. Also, I felt Spielberg pulled a little too hard on the heartstrings at the end, and it came off very forced. Obviously, it's a great tribute to the veterans of WW2, but as a film it's kind of underwhelming.

I don't get what's so great about this movie. And I certainly don't get why people think this is Hitchcock's greatest work. I think Psycho and Rear Window are much more involving and cinematic. A lot of the effects seem cheesy to me and take me right out of the story, and it feels like it drags on and on and on. I do think that Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak have some pretty smokin' chemistry - and Barbara Bel Geddes is too cute to be allowed - but it seems like they're wasted here.

Maybe I was born too late to appreciate it. Or maybe it's that I don't understand why the world of boxing has inspired so many movies. Or maybe I simply can't get over being annoyed by Stallone. But I'm not that fond of this movie at all. I think this is one of those movies that was very much a product of its time. When it was released in 1976, there must have been something in the water that made it such a culturally significant work. But I was one year old back then, and I'm afraid whatever it was is lost on me. Also, I can't believe that this flick won Best Picture when it was up against Taxi Driver, Network, and All the President's Men. I mean, come ON!

Monday, September 19, 2005

Splendor in the Grass

When you think of Elia Kazan movies, there are a few landmarks - On the Waterfront, Streetcar Named Desire, Gentleman's Agreement, etc. But my favorites of his are some of the less heralded films, especially Splendor in the Grass and A Face in the Crowd. There's some really great eye candy in Splendor in the Grass (for guys and gals) in the persons of Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood. And it's supposedly the first US film to show French kissing.

The movie at first seems to be a generic story about young love, but that's really not the point. It's really about two young people struggling to escape the fate their oppressive parents have carved out for them. Deanie and Budd each have one overbearing parental figure and one fairly supportive (though far less vocal) parental figure. Budd's father pushes him to excel at football and won't even listen when Budd says he wants to be a rancher. It's so sad when Budd sits down with his father to talk about the future and has to listen to a pep talk where his father tells him what he's going to do after graduation. Poor Budd keeps trying to interject, and all he can get out is "I want--" before his father butts in again and again and again.

Deanie's situation is barely more tolerable. She has some rather intense feelings for Budd, and being a female in Iowa in the 1920s just doesn't allow for that kind of thing. Early in the film her mother tells her that "no nice girl" has *those* kinds of feelings about a boy, and that a woman doesn't enjoy those things the way a man does ("She just lets her husband ... come near her ... in order to have children.") So not only is Deanie not allowed to entertain any of these feelings, but she's also being told it's wrong to *have* those feelings in the first place.

But Deanie's and Budd's relationship progresses fairly normally, until Budd decides he wants to marry her. He tells his father and does his best effort yet at speaking his mind, but unfortunately the father wins out again and persuades Budd to go to Yale instead, with a promise that if he still wants to marry Deanie after graduation he'll have Dad's blessing. Now real life is officially in the way of Budd's and Deanie's romance.

Budd and Deanie each hit rock bottom and spend the rest of the movie learning life's lessons apart from one another. When Deanie comes home at the end, the romantic viewer will be expecting a passionate reunion. But Wordsworth's lines about "splendor in the grass" are just as true in 20th century Iowa as they were in 19th century England. Life just doesn't work that way.

Natalie Wood was nominated for an Oscar for this movie (this was the same year she played Maria in West Side Story), and for good reason. She's far more than just an attractive young woman. The scene in the bathtub where she finally snaps is almost scary. And Warren Beatty does an excellent job as well, especially in the scene where he tells his father he wants to go to an agricultural school. He's so desperate to be heard that he's almost crying when he says "I'd really like to do that, Dad!" Of course, having a director like Kazan didn't do Wood or Beatty any harm.

There's a great supporting cast as well, and all of them have great moments. Pat Hingle plays Budd's father with all the necessary self-loathing. Joanna Roos is my hero as Budd's mother and utters my favorite randomly funny line in the movie ("Oh dear. Neither of my children gets any real nourishment."). Audrey Christie plays Deanie's mother to puritanical perfection, and Fred Stewart is wonderfully understated as Deanie's common sense dad. And Barbara Loden eats up every scene she's in as Budd's wayward sister.

It's just a heart-breakingly real and profound movie, and I check it out four or five times a year. Good, good stuff.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut

I enjoy the South Park television show... when I get a chance to watch it, which is rarely. But it's not one of my favorites. Some of the early episodes were iconic for myself and my friends in college - the "pink eye" episode, the one with Starvin' Marvin', the first one with Mr. Hanky. I loved that there was actually a show on television that pushed the boundaries of what you could and couldn't say, what you could and couldn't talk about and who you could and couldn't make fun of.

South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut was released in the middle of a huge brouhaha with the MPAA Ratings Board over more than just this one movie. The original title was "South Park: All Hell Breaks Loose", but the ratings board told creators Parker and Stone that movie titles were required to be G-rated, not matter what the movie was rated. Bullpoo, obviously, since a couple of years later no one had any problems releasing a movie called "Hellboy." Of course, South Park has long been the whipping boy of the MPAA, and there's been no love lost on either side. And, after being smacked down by the MPAA, Parker and Stone sort of had the last laugh with the new title.

And that's basically what the South Park movie is about. It's the story of a popular TV show (in the movie, "Terrence and Philip") which gets made into a feature film. The fictional film draws a lot of children - despite the R rating - and causes a huge controversy over what kids can be exposed to with regard to violence and obscenity. This should sound vaguely familiar. The South Park television show deals with current issues on a weekly basis, but the movie has a broader scope and is actually quite a significant bit of writing. It tackles the touchy issue of censorship in a way that doesn't evoke images of soap-boxes.

As much as I love the movie, there are things I don't like about it. It's an interesting social commentary, but there's no real message. A lot of it is funny, but some of it is offensive. And I don't care for the idea that Satan is a hero, of sorts. But there's enough I like about it to make repeated viewings worthwhile.

And the music! I love the soundtrack - "Mountain Town", "Uncle F***a", "Blame Canada", "What Would Brian Boitano Do?", "It's Easy, Mmmmkay" and the CLASSIC "Kyle's Mom's a B***h". You can't walk out of this film and not be humming the songs.

The movie may not be your cup of tea, but if you haven't seen it, don't discount it just based on the TV show. The movie is another animal altogether. But I'm not going to lie to you - there's quite a bit of foul language.

Oh, and this movie has the most hilarious portrayal of a young man's quest for the clitoris you will EVER see.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Exorcism of Emily Rose

This movie is not The Exorcist. That is neither a criticism nor a compliment. Just a fact. Having said that, I think The Exorcist is superior to The Exorcism of Emily Rose. I wanted to like Emily Rose, and parts of it were good, but it was ultimately unsatisfying.

The story goes thusly. Emily dies after an ill-fated exorcism. Father Moore, who performed the ritual, is put on trial for negligent homicide. Up-and-coming defense attorney, Erin Bruner, is assigned to the case against her protestations. The prosecution claims that Emily suffered from a psychotic-epileptic disorder, which doctors were treating with medicine, and that Father Moore urged her to stop taking the medicine, thus leading to her death. Father Moore's version of the story is that Emily was possessed by the devil. Not the best scenario for a defense, but the movie makes it work.

The thing I really like about this movie is that it doesn't take sides. It presents both sides equally, so that each version of the story is convincing. Or rather, that either is believable, depending on what you bring to the movie yourself. Emily could have been possessed. Or she could have been just a very sick girl. I think the trial portion of the film and the eventual outcome are well-done. Good performances, good and plausible situations, good good good.

Where the film fails, though, is when it forgets that it's a courtroom drama and tries to be scary. I'm not talking about the circumstances of Emily's possession/sickness. That, too, is well-done - at least from an acting standpoint (though I feel very sorry for Jennifer Carpenter's throat nodes). What annoyed me was the arbitrary, pasted-on suspense. The overdone "scary" music. The concept of demons surrounding the trial and the whole superstition about 3am being the "Witching Hour." To me, the idea of an innocent girl like Emily being possessed by Lucifer is quite frightening enough, thanks. There's really no need for all the bells and whistles, as if the movie is asking you "Oooooh, aren't you scared?". I don't like movies that tell me what to feel. The scariness just seemed so fake, and when a movie pushes so hard to make you scared, it's usually working against itself.

Something I like about The Exorcist is that it never goes for the cheap, conventional scare. No chair-jumper moments, no villain hiding behind a door, no plot twist. And everything - even the absurd head-spinning - is played for realism. It's so rooted in reality that you actually buy what happens in the climax. As much as Emily Rose was trying to distance itself from The Exorcist, there were some lessons that could have been learned from the prior film.

But perhaps the thing that ticked me off the most about the film is how it tries to pass as a "true story." Yes, it's based on a true story - one that happened 30 years ago in Germany - but Emily Rose and the other characters in the film are complete works of fiction. Yet the film closes with a few "where are they now" credits, as if these people are real. And the film's website has a bunch of fake news clippings and pictures to try and add authenticity. I realize this kind of thing worked for The Blair Witch Project, but surely there are only so many times people will allow themselves to be duped by such a thing. A similar thing happened with the re-release of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a couple of years ago. I heard people talking about "the real Leatherface", and theaters were actually handing out copies of the fake news article that appeared in the film. I mean, I know these are movies and they want to sell tickets, but this casual approach to the truth is just sickening. And it's a ridiculous way to promote a movie.

Anyway, all that was basically to say that, while The Exorcism of Emily Rose has its good points, overall it left me with a bad taste in my mouth. And a desire to see The Exorcist again.