Monday, May 28, 2007

Red Dawn

I don't like Red Dawn, nor do I think it's a very good movie. So there.

I Spit On Your Grave

This is the Millennium Edition, which I watched because it had audio commentary by Joe Bob Briggs, who was attempting to make the case that it is not a horrible movie that should never be seen by anyone. He takes exception to the claim (specifically by Siskel and Ebert) that it's "the most exploitative movie ever made". Joe Bob says it's practically a feminist tract. In fact, he claims that it's "the most feminist movie ever made", which is a bit of a stretch if you ask me.

Joe Bob makes a decent case, although he overstates things in a few spots. The really interesting thing to me is that this is a full-length film commentary that's really an essay intended to support a point. Most commentaries are, at best, "this is why this movie is good". And that's if you're lucky. A lot of commentaries are just dry recitations along the lines of "This shot was CGI. This shot was on the set. Oh, it was rainy this day. I don't remember this scene at all. But with this commentary, Joe Bob had a thesis ("This movie is feminist, not anti-feminist") and defended it with examples from the text. I'd like to see more of that.

He does lapse from "Joe Bob Briggs" back into his more respectable guise of John Bloom, Mild-Mannered Film Critic a couple of times.

Ocean's Twelve

By the way, did I mention how cool the opening credits sequence was in the Sinatra version of Ocean's Eleven? It reminded me of the credits for It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, which turns out to be because they were both by Saul Bass..

Anyway. Because the team got away with the money last movie, they had to spend a whole bunch of movie justifying the existence of the movie. And frankly, I didn't buy it anyway. These guys have, between them, something like 40-60 million left over; they can't borrow the rest to get Benedict off their backs? And what about all that Keyser Söze talk about Benedict, how he'll hunt you down and kill your whole family if you cross him? I don't believe he'd just tell them all they have a few weeks to pay him back and then everything's forgiven. And what's with the difficulty finding a job worth that much? Do you really have to go get an assignment? Can't you just go find something worth a lot of money and then steal it?

I think there's at least one too many motivations. If you want to make a movie about a team of ex-thieves who are being forced out of retirement by someone they owe money to, that's fine. Likewise, if you want to make a movie about a challenge between master thieves, that's also fine. But they're not the same movie.

Also, I'm not sure how any of these jobs are supposed to be profitable. Why not just keep the money they spend on house-lifting devices and hologrammatic Faberge eggs? Oh, and tiny, perfectly-crafted models of art galleries. Not to mention the full-size version of the Bellagio vault they made for the last movie.

This movie brings back some of the flaws from the 1960 version. In the 2001 Ocean's Eleven, they proceed fairly quickly: first they establish what the heist is going to be, then they spend most of the movie pulling it off. In both Ocean's Twelve and the 1960 Ocean's Eleven, the whole first hour of the movie is spent watching banter before we learn the actual plot.

They took the subplot I cared least about and made it the focus of the movie. I don't care about Matt Damon acting naive and out of his depth; the whole point of these movies is watching cool actors act cool and in-control. And not, say, spending a lot of camera time on a cop who coincidentally knows Brad Pitt's character.

You want a fun heist movie with a lot of scenes in Rome? Go watch Hudson Hawk.

I did kind of enjoy the idea Julia Roberts's character pretending to be Julia Roberts, because it reminded me of the lines in His Girl Friday that do that. However, the subsequent scenes with Bruce Willis went on forever and were not funny. Not like, say, Hudson Hawk, which is much more fun.

So, Ocean's Thirteen. Is there really buzz about it? The 2001 Ocean's Eleven was pleasant enough, I guess, but I would have thought that it was too insubstantial to generate a strong following. And Ocean's Twelve wasn't very good at all, so I'm surprised they're trying again. Heck, I'm surprised they can get everyone back together, even if they cheat on people's screen time the way they did on Bernie Mac and Carl Reiner this time.

Ocean's Eleven (the new one, with George Clooney)

It seems weird that it took so long for George Clooney to become a movie star, doesn't it? Just look at him! I agree with the Fametracker take (the first one, I mean -- I don't disagree with the second one, but it's not what I'm talking about right now), which is that he was probably just kidding around when he was doing things like Return of the Killer Tomatoes. In the commentary for From Dusk Till Dawn, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino actually laugh about how ridiculous it was that Clooney wasn't a recognized Leading Man yet. So it was inevitable that he'd eventually have the clout to make a movie where he hangs out with his buddies in Las Vegas.

Unusually for these big-budget slickified remakes, I actually like this one better than the original. The idea behind the caper in the 1960 movie was that instead of using criminals, they'd use a bunch of army buddies, who were trained as a commando unit in World War II, on the theory that using career criminals is an inherently risky idea. The remake discards that on the theory that career criminals are more likely to plausibly know how to steal things. And I'm impressed that they decided to get rid of the rule that charming criminals in caper movies aren't supposed to get away with it.

There are a few references to the first movie, but nothing that really gets in the way. Like "one character makes houses of cards. And where the first movie had a black demolitions expert (Sammy Davis Jr.) cutting the power to Las Vegas by knocking down a tower. The second movie has a black demolitions expert (Don Cheadle, with an extremely fake British accent) cutting the power in Las Vegas with a massive electromagnetic pulse. You can tell your plan has gotten out of hand when one of the steps is "Next, we steal a nuclear bomb".

At first, I thought they had even less justification for the heist, like maybe Clooney's character was just bored. Unfortunately, it turns out to be an elaborate plan to get his ex-wife back. Well, and the 160 million bucks.

Ocean's Eleven (the 1960 one, with Frank Sinatra)

Frankly, I'm surprised that people are excited about Ocean's Thirteen. Not that I think people are in a crazy frenzy over it or anything, but isn't it just a lame sequel to a lame sequel to a remake of a movie that wasn't that good the first time? Or am I being unfair? To find out, I decided to watch some movies. That's a well-designed research project right there. Some people conduct investigations that require test subjects and computer analysis and years of data, but my plans involve a little less effort.

First up: The original Ocean's Eleven, starring Frank Sinatra and the rest of the rat pack. And a lot of other people, including Norman Fell. Norman Fell?

The plan in this one is to knock over five casinos at once, for no real reason. It reminds me of the original Gone in 60 Seconds, where somebody just arbitrarily demands an impossible task and the protagonist just shrugs and goes along with it.

Most of the movie is taken up with banter between people who are no longer pop-culture icons. The kids today, they don't know who Peter Lawford is. And by "the kids", I mean "me". All I know about him is that he was part of the Rat Pack. Back then, that's all you needed to be.

It's a pretty feeble movie, really. It's an hour before anyone mentions the plan to rob five casinos, and most of the time is taken up with drinking and smoking. There's so much smoking that someone even dies of lung cancer during the movie! Basically, your only hope is to be entertained by the cameos. If you don't think you'll get a thrill from seeing two minutes of Red Skelton, I'd say you should watch Robin and the Seven Hoods instead, as it is a much more entertaining Rat Pack movie. Heck, I'd almost recommend Cannonball Run first, since it has Dino and Sammy. And at least it was made for a reason other than "Frank's pals like to hang out in Vegas together and would like to get paid to do it."

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Satánico Pandemonium


This is the movie that lent its name to Salma Hayek's extremely hot vampire in From Dusk Till Dawn. Quentin Tarantino says he'd seen the poster back when he worked in a video store and it stuck with him. You can see why; this is a really exciting poster. Unfortunately for Tarantino, he never got to see the movie. However, I happen to live in the same city as Scarecrow Video, the finest video store in the world. And they have a whole Nunsploitation section! Plus, my girlfriend works there, so no sooner do I think "I should see Satánico Pandemonium!" than it's in front of my eyes.

It will come as no surprise that it's not as exciting as the poster. It's actually not as exciting as a nice long nap, thanks to the extremely slow pacing. It's actually surprising how dull it is, considering it features a nun who sees Satan, goes crazy, rapes a couple of people (a young boy and a fellow nun), kills a few more (the boy and his grandmother, the Mother Superior, and one that's just half-credit because all she did was help a suicide along) and generally freaks out. Toward the end she hallucinates a nun orgy that's mostly notable for the extremely poor quality of the frolicking, then she gets stabbed and we learn that it was all a fever-dream brought on by the plague.

It's really a good example of how foreign exploitation movies operated: first a fairly sleazy movie would be made in some other country, then a wild poster would be made, possibly along with a new name (besides "Satánico Pandemonium", it's also called "La Sexorcista"!) and it would be sold as an even wilder movie, leading to an inevitable sense of disappointment even though US movies hardly ever feature naked nuns raping each other. I mean, aside from the works of Ken Russell.

Incidentally, I wasn't paying a lot of attention, but I'm pretty sure that the opening credits claim that the Associate Producer was the Tourism Board of Whatever Mexican City They Shot This In. That would certainly explain the sweeping vistas.

Cocaine Cowboys

This is a really good documentary about the cocaine trade in Miami. One of the neat things about it is that it devotes some time to the good effects of having drug smugglers in your city; there are lots of new buildings, the economy's thriving, and lots of new construction is revitalizing the landscape. When car dealersships are selling four or five bulletproof Mercedes at a time, at a time when the rest of the country is in a recession, that's the sort of thing that turns your city from Miami 1970 (sleepy retirement town) to Miami 2000 (bustling metropolis and jet-setter destination!).

The editing is amazing. Most of the audio is Jon Roberts, Mickey Munday, or a guy called "Rivi", and if you look closely, you'll notice that they stitched together a lot of different interviews. Roberts's first couple sentences appear to be stitched together from at least three different interviews, held in different locations, at different times. And they fit together perfectly, even though they're cutting from something recorded outside to something recorded inside. I really don't think I've ever seen mid-sentence editing done so well to this degree.

I would also like to commend the director (Billy Corben) for not appearing on screen. I disapprove of documentaries that turn out to be mostly about the documentarian; in Cocaine Cowboys, there's hardly even a voiceover to get in the way.

Also, there should be a movie about Griselda Blanco. Maybe she'll turn up in Medellin, the movie they're trying to make in Entourage.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

I enjoyed the third Pirates movie a lot. I enjoy pirate movies in general (including Yellowbeard and Cutthroat Island, so you can see about where my standards are in this area), and this had a lot to entertain me. I didn't mind cutting back on Jack Sparrow as it meant lots more Captain Barbossa. I wasn't watching these movies just because they had Johnny Depp in them, you know.

Let's see . . . I enjoyed the escalation of the set pieces (a wedding in mid-battle? And that's not the most over-the-top thing? Awesome.) and the constant betrayals and backstabbing. Hey, they're pirates, their whole lifestyle is built on mutinies, right? There are a lot of reviews complaining that they found the movie hard to follow, but I think those reviewers just don't have the right mindset to get into a big, ridiculous, swashbuckling epic. I also strongly approved of the inclusion of a scene in which a boat goes down a slope and lands in total darkness while hearing random snippets of audio. I was wondering if there was anything left from the ride that they hadn't worked into the series. And Elizabeth got to be Pirate King! Good for her!

I did find it odd that anyone would make a movie in which lots of people point two guns at once but decide that Chow Yun-Fat wasn't going to do that. That's just silly.

So I am pleased to say I greatly enjoyed all three Pirates of the Caribbean movies, making them the best "movies based on Disneyland rides" ever, ahead of Haunted Mansion (sort of enjoyable because Wallace Shawn is in it), The Country Bears (didn't see it and the ride isn't there anymore), and Mission to Mars (which may not have actually been based on the ride, which was a lousy ride anyway). I think it's interesting that Disneyland has a bunch of rides based on movies and now another set of rides with movies based on them. I keep expecting them to make a "Splash Mountain" movie and pretend the ride's based on that instead of Song of the South.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Switchblade Sisters

Now this is a sleazy movie. It has everything!

Well, it has switchblade-wielding lolita gangs, a scene in a women's prison with a big scary lesbian warden, a shower riot, attempted rapes about every ten minutes, a gang leader wearing bright plaid pants with two-inch thick leather suspenders, a shootout at a roller rink, a miscarriage, and of course . . . murder.

Lace, the leader of the Dagger Debs, is played by Robbie Lee, who cannot act at all. It's an interesting effect, actually, since her attempts at menace are just like her attempts at seduction (and nothing like actual menace or seduction), so she comes off as something totally alien. She later went on to do voices in Rainbow Brite cartoons, for some reason.

The actual protagonist is played by Joanne Nail, who later played "Juggs" in the TV pilot version of the Racquel Welch vehicle Mother, Juggs & Speed. Did that make sense? If not, too bad. No time! My actual point is that she looks too old to be in high school, and her weird hairdo makes her look a lot like Amy Sedaris in "Strangers With Candy".

Six Movies With a Skating Rink Scene

Switchblade Sisters
Roll Bounce
The Rink (1916, starring Charlie Chaplin!)
Skatetown, U.S.A.
Death Wish 4: The Crackdown
Xanadu

Monday, May 21, 2007

Once Upon a Time in Mexico

Well, after watching both "El Mariachi and Desperado" and "Once Upon a Time in the West" and "Once Upon a Time in China", it's pretty clear what movie was going to be coming up eventually, right?

Once Upon a Time in Mexico doesn't have much to do with the first two Mariachi movies. Not that the other two have much to do with each other, but this has even less. There's a great deal of Johnny Depp in outlandish outfits talking strangely, but it's not quite as entertaining here as it is in Pirates of the Caribbean. Antonio Banderas shows up to shoot things in slow motion, but there's not as much of him as you'd think.

In fact, most of Banderas's screen time is in flashbacks, which means that they don't have to be strung together in any sort of narrative. Instead, it appears that Robert Rodriguez had a number of action scenes he wanted to include, and just put them in as dream sequences for Banderas's character to remember.

I have to say, I strongly approve of the kid selling Chicle. Every time I've been to Tijuana, I've spent most of my time hearing young children shouting "Chicle! Chicle!" For me, that's one of the sounds that says "Mexico!" loud and clear. The others are "Poppers!" and "I am so drunk! Are you in the Navy?" although that last one's probably Tijuana-specific.

Once Upon a Time in China

I always have to remind myself which movie this is, because I confuse it with both Drunken Master 2 (which is also about Wong Fei Hung, except that it's got Jackie Chan instead of Jet Li) and Fong Sai Yuk (different Chinese hero, but also Jet Li). This confusion extends into other areas. For example, I always think the Shadowfist card for Fong Sai Yuk has a guy with an umbrella, but it's really Wong Fei Hong. That doesn't come up very often, but it's still there.

As with a lot of Hong Kong movies, the plot involves a historical conflict between the Chinese and white invaders. This time it's Americans, but it's basically all a metaphor for the British occupation of Hong Kong. I don't know what they've found to make movies about since China got Hong Kong back in 1997. My guess is "the evil Chinese occupiers who took us away from our beloved British" because there's no pleasing some people.

I couldn't help comparing this movie to Drunken Master 2. There's a natural debate about who would win in a fight between Jackie Chan in his prime and Jet Li in his. My guess, which is slightly weasely, is that Jet Li's better at actual martial arts, but Jackie's practically indestructible, so it would be pretty close. There are comedic elements in both movies, but in this one, they're mostly carried out by the sidekicks. Luckily for the plot, the sidekicks are also good at fighting, as opposed to the comedy sidekick in Drunken Master 2, who's mostly good for cringing and selling out Jackie. Here, the big fat guy, the little skinny guy -- even the guy with buck teeth come in handy. And the big fat guy is actually fat, unlike all the times when the "fat guy" is obviously Sammo Hung again.

This is an older Wong Fei Hung. He's got students of his own and he's really hard to fluster. This is probably because he's aware that he's Jet Freakin' Li. Even when he's faced with guns, which always seems like cheating in a movie like this, he continues his awesomeness.

There's also a great ladder-fight that I assume was the "inspiration" for the much, much lamer ladder-fight in The Musketeer. One of the problems with the one in The Musketeer was that you couldn't see what was going on, but I suspect it wouldn't have helped much.

Incidentally, I would like to indulge myself in a brief complain about These Kids Today, who Don't Know How Good They Got It. I watched this movie on DVD, naturally, which means that I had the option of Dubbed, Subtitled, Both, or Neither. I chose to watch the subtitled version, which involved completely legible subtitles. These Kids Today don't know how lucky they are to have the expectation of reasonably accurate translations. And the subtitles were all on the black part of the screen below the letterboxing. Why, back in my day, we had to put up with a fourth-generation videotape with unreadable half-English subtitles if we were lucky.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Once Upon a Time in the West

Because my grounding in Westerns is a little lacking, I'd never seen Once Upon a Time in the West. However, I am very familiar with the Negativland song "Guns", which uses several audio clips from the movie (along with part of an episode of "Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok" and a cereal commercial), so parts of it were weirdly familiar to me.

It's a great movie, of course. Sergio Leone must have been one of the most patient directors ever; I can't imagine anyone else lingering so long on almost totally impassive faces. But when you've got Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, and especially Charles Bronson, it just seems natural. I wish I'd seen this on a giant screen, because there were shots where Bronson's eyes would have been sixty feet high.

Incidentally, did you know that the story was by Sergio Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Dario Argento? Isn't that insane?

Fight Club: Members Only

Not "Fight Club". "Fight Club: Members Only". From 2006? Directed by Vikram Chopra? Starring Zayed Khan, Dino Morea, and a bunch of other Bollywood actors. This is the Bollywood Fight Club.

Okay! The first question I had was, naturally, "What the?" This was followed by "Is this really a Bollywood remake of Fight Club?" and "Really?"

First of all, check out the trailer:



So it's clearly Bollywood (I wanted to make some sort of joke about how instead of "Bollywood", it should really be called "Mumblywood" on the theory that we don't call it "Bombay" anymore. It's now "Mumbai". Unfortunately for me, William Safire beat me to it. Curse you, Safire!), but the logo looks just like the US movie. And today I finally got to see it.

Unfortunately, it's not a remake. There is a "Fight Club", but it's something set up for people to settle their differences, and there's a bunch of spectators who pay to watch. There's no heavyhanded philosophy. There's a list of rules, and the first one is "There is no Fight Club", which is kind of close to "Do not talk about Fight Club" if you squint. Frankly, what I think happened was that somebody in India saw the trailer for Fight Club, or possibly just a clip of the trailer, and came up with something different that "fight club" could mean. Even if that's not what happened, I think it would be an interesting filmmaking challenge to take a single trailer and have a bunch of different screenwriters and directors make movies to match it.

Anyway! I've never seen any Bollywood, although I've wanted to, so this was a pretty weird experience. For one thing, although it's theoretically in Hindi, about 20% of the dialogue is in English. They just jump back and forth, sometimes midsentence. It's weird.

There are, as expected, enormous dance sequences and a million subplots, including a scene in which the personal-trainer guy hits on the woman by acting real sexy and standing real close as he . . . helps her with her squats. How often do you see that in an American movie? I mean, one with women in it?

Basically, it was a big crazy movie, but it wasn't nearly as crazy as I was hoping.

From Dusk Till Dawn

Here's what I love about From Dusk Till Dawn: it has a complete shift in tone halfway through. You're going along watching a movie about these two criminals and their hostages and then suddenly Bang! it's a crazy action movie about hyperviolent vampires! Look out! It's Fred Williamson and Tom Savini! Whee!

I like that because it's just not something you see in movies. Normally, the pace of the first scene is more or less the pace they shoot for for the whole thing. Wouldn't it be great if you were watching a slow, suspenseful movie (like, say, The Haunting) where it gets more and more tense waiting for something to happen, and then suddenly it turns into 28 Days Later? Wouldn't that come as a bigger shock?

I also, obviously, enjoy Salma Hayek's performance. Rhias says that Ms. Hayek claims to have been mocked as a child and called a "hideous dwarf". I can't see it, myself.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Desperado

Okay, having seen El Mariachi and become thoroughly familiar with the story of its making, I felt like it was time to rewatch Desperado. I guess it's technically a sequel, although it's a lot closer to a remake. It's not quite Evil Dead 2, but it's in the neighborhood. Like, the first scene takes place in the same bar that got shot up in El Mariachi, except that there's a lot more money for lighting, special effects, squibs, and actors.

The actors make the main difference. It turns out that putting Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek in a movie dramatically raises the attractiveness level of a movie. Also, I strongly suspect Robert Rodriguez of having watched a couple of John Woo films right before choreographing the gunfights. Naturally, I approve of this.

Ball of Fire

Gary Cooper plays a professor studying slang and Barbara Stanwyck plays a slang-talking stripper. I mean "dancer". It sounds great already, doesn't it?

Stanwyck is mostly against type, playing a cheerful, friendly good-time girl. She has depths, but she's usually just whooping it up and enlivening the lives of the stuffy professors, who are not really all that stuffy even in the beginning. Cooper is young and stuffy, but the others (awesome character actors like S.Z. Sakall and Richard Haydn) all seem perfectly willing to run around in the park all day and ignore their duties.

I liked this movie a lot.

The General

I like Alpha Video as much as the next guy. In fact, probably more, since a lot of people don't dig on totally forgotten serials the way I do.

Unfortunately, I don't care for their version of Buster Keaton's classic. It's partly the transfer -- I've gotten spoiled and am no longer used to seeing completely unrestored prints. But it's mostly the music. They just slopped on any old public domain stuff they could find, so the train chases are saddled with the Blue Danube, which makes everyone think of either spaceships or ice skating. We tried turning the music off, but then it was hard to pay attention to the movie, what with our laptops being right there, chock-full of Internetty goodness.

It's a fine movie, of course, although I personally rate it a bit below City Lights.

Friday, May 18, 2007

El Mariachi

I just read Robert Rodriguez's book Rebel without a Crew: Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker With $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player, which is a lot of fun. It's a really detailed description of the process of making El Mariachi, and when I say "really detailed", I mean there are pages full of the decision of whether to edit on 3/4" video and how to do the soundtrack. There are also entertaining "behind the scenes" anecdotes about the process of making a movie for $7,000 along the lines of "whenever anyone gets shot, it's in the chest because the only way we had to mount squibs was using a weightlifting belt around people's chests".

So naturally, after reading the book I wanted to watch the movie. The only DVD I could find was the widescreen special edition, which I learned from the book is wrong. The whole movie was shot to be on video (for the Spanish Video market), so it really ought to just be full-frame. But I guess they re-edited the whole thing for the DVD. It's still weird that it's letterboxed, since this is the one time that teh black bars actually are covering up part of the picture. Also, Rodriguez edited the whole movie twice already (once for his video demo and once when Columbia decided to put it on 35mm) and it sounds like it took a lot of effort.

Anyway, the movie itself: I like it. It doesn't feel like a $7,000 movie. I think the acting feels better than it really is because it's in a foreign language. I can understand some of the Spanish (the benefit of a San Diego upbringing!), but I always find that when you're not really interacting with the language the actors are using, you're more willing to suspend disbelief and assume a good performance. It's even more true if you turn off the subtitles, although it's a little more confusing.

The Blues Brothers

The Blues Brothers is many things. A great car-chase movie. A comedy. A musical. My second-favorite movie based on a sketch from "Saturday Night Live", after Wayne's World, which I don't care how you feel about. Third, if you count Office Space. Today, I was mostly watching it for the ludicrous-car-chase aspect, although I was reminded again how good the band is. Sure, it's mostly a goofy vanity project for Aykroyd and Belushi, but they got some awesome guys to go along with it.

On the car-chase scenes, even though it involves some of the least realistic driving ever (non-CGI division), at least you know what's going on. The brothers have to get from Point A to Point B by a certain time. It's surprising how many car chase movies skip that part. And then they often skip the part about having a hundred police cars loaded into a catapult just off screen. It's a shame, really.

Smokin' Aces

This was as stupid as I expected, but it wasn't stupid enough. I knew from the trailer that it wouldn't make any sense, but it wasn't enthusiastic about it the way I was hoping. Instead, scene after boring scene rolled by while plot laboriously unfolded itself without, I suspect, the benefit of a script.

The only entertainment came from wondering how they got real actors in this thing. Ryan Reynolds and Jeremy Piven I can understand. Ben Affleck, well, he doesn't have any sense to begin with. Curtis "Booger" Armstrong knows better than to turn down movies. But Ray Liotta? Andy Garcia? What's going on here?

I did like that the movie was willing to kill people off suddenly; I just wanted it to happen sooner, and to a larger percentage of the cast.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Children of Men

I didn't think this was as much of a downer as I'd heard it was going to be, if that makes sense. I also didn't think the plot held together all that well -- I was kind of hoping for some sort of explanation on what happened to the fertility rates, and why animals seemed to still be being born. I did like the implication that there were more animals around because people wanted to fill the void left by the lack of children. But it bothers me that I might just be making that up because the backstory was left out.

I was worried about the cinematography because the movie uses that "dystopian future" color palette that usually accompanies artificially sped-up action scenes that have a lot of frames taken out so people flip around and kind of strobe, but it turned out they were just using the palette without the other gimmicks. In fact, I loved the camerawork, although it was so flashy that I spent some time trying to figure out how on earth they shot certain scenes. There was also one scene that felt a lot like a videogame, specifically Half-Life 2 or possibly this one X-Box 360 game where you run down a city street while things blow up around you. I don't remember its name, but the demo was pretty good.

It wouldn't have been my favorite movie of 2006, but it probably would have been fifth or sixth on the list.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Broadway Melody of 1940

I like the early film musicals a lot, when they weren't sure what to do with sound. They had a tendency to just throw random vaudeville acts together and call it a movie, which is pretty much how you get the original Broadway Melody. But that's back in 1929. By 1940, film had become more or less mature. After all, that's the year after Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, and the year before Citizen Kane. By this point, people had a tendency to expect actual plots.

But there was still a market for movies that consisted of nothing but fancy dancing, and this movie did what it could to make that market happy. The famous dance is the Begin the Beguine number with Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell, but my favorite was the one at the beginning with Astaire and George Murphy, in which they perform an entire swordfighting duel while tapdancing. It's pretty silly.

The stage productions in movies like this are always ridiculous. The sets are three stories high and the stages are the size of a football field. If you want to see a really crazy one, I recommend Footlight Parade from 1933. James Cagney plays a Broadway producer who starts producing stage productions for movie theaters to show between films, and Busby Berkeley choreographs these insane set pieces that the audience would never be able to see. The waterfall number in particular seems like it would be difficult to stage in a regular theater, let alone in a movie house.

Fong Sai Yuk

Jet Li as Fong Sai Yuk equals Good Times. I wonder whether Fong Sai Yuk's mother here is tougher than Wong Fei Hong's mother in Drunken Master 2.

Everything is Illuminated

I knew nothing about this movie other than that it was based on a book that may have had some religious content. I think it may have blurred together in my mind with The Celestine Prophecy.

So I was pleased to see that a good 80% of the movie consists of Eugene Hutz (the lead singer of Gogol Bordello) acting like a freak while Elijah Wood looks uncomfortable. That, to me, is good solid entertainment. And then the movie itself has an emotional impact when it turns out it's actually about something besides entertainment.

I like it when I'm seeing a movie I don't know anything about and it turns out to be both really good and something I wouldn't normally watch.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Touch of Evil

Okay, I realize this is a classic. And I freely acknowledge that the cinematography is amazing. That legendary opening shot absolutely earns its legendary status, and there are many times throughout the movie that the camerawork dazzles.

However, the acting is frequently either wooden or silly or, in the case of Charlton Heston, both. And the story plods along at a glacial pace, possibly because Orson Welles wanted to fit in as many fancy shots as he could between the dialogue.

So I found it pretty boring, frankly. Sorry.

Grindhouse, again

I'm awfully fond of seeing the last showing of a movie before it leaves a theater. Back when I worked in movie theaters (in San Diego, as an usher, assistant manager, projectionist, and theater manager, in that order), the last showing always seemed different. There are a couple I remember in particular.

When Dazed and Confused had its last showing, one of the ushers who had watched it five or six times (when you work at a theater, you tend to attach yourself randomly to movies; I knew one girl who watched Wayne's World every day for a month) took a six-pack into the theater to wish the movie goodbye. And I particularly remember the last showing of Jurassic Park because I was the manager of a two-dollar double-feature house (come to think of it, it was essentially a Grindhouse, except that you were more likely to see Car 54, Where Are You? and Cabin Boy than a couple of horror flicks) and we'd had the movie for nine months straight. It came out on video before it left our theater, and you'd be surprised how repetitious that movie can sound when it's airing six feet from you for that long.

So I wanted to see Grindhouse before it left the Cinerama, the classiest movie palace in Seattle. Rhias and I went to the last showing on Thursday night, right before it got replaced by 28 Weeks Later. Luckily, the movie's so long that the last showing was at 8:00; it wasn't one of those deals where the last showing gets out at 2:00 am.

Now, the Cinerama is a great place to see a movie. It's got a screen that looks as big as the Drive-In's. And it was relatively empty, although we inevitably had a loud drunk person sitting near us until we moved. So this time, I was able to concentrate on the movie. I mean, the Drive-In was awesome, but I had to keep running the windshield wipers because it was raining, and that kind of broke the movie-watching mood.

I enjoy the way that Robert Rodriguez seems to use the "bad film" effects in Death Proof to emphasize the exciting moments. Whenever the violence goes crazy, the film stock magically gets all scratched and bubbly, too. The effect is like the shower scene in Psycho, where it seems more violent than it actually is because of what isn't shown.

My goal while watching Planet Terror this time was to figure out what the scientist wanted with all those testicles. I have considered the matter carefully, and I have come to the conclusion that he's just a Ball Freak.

I was also trying to reconcile the overall timeline of the two movies. Planet Terror obviously takes place after Death Proof, both because of the Dakota Black character and because the radio in Planet Terror mentions Jungle Julia's death from Death Proof. But then when does the second part of Death Proof take place? Stuntman Mike must have taken some time to heal his broken bones and probably get a new car before going all the way out to Tennesee to harass the second set of victims, but it seems like the Bubo Gas must have happened before that. My suspicion is that the second part of Death Proof and the whole of Planet Terror are just incompatible and can't both happen.

I enjoyed Death Proof more this time, now that I've seen most of the classic driving movies it references and watched Double Dare, the great stuntwoman documentary that's about 50% Zoe Bell footage. I still think the first half is pretty boring (and Tarantino says that this is the version without all the fat!), but if it were cut, we'd lose some great Kurt Russell stuff. Maybe the secret message is that you shouldn't go out, drink everything in sight, get stoned, and drive around without a seatbelt. Unless you're a stuntwoman, in which case you'll be fine.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Hustle & Flow

I enjoyed Hustle & Flow a lot. I always enjoy the character actors in the background of scenes, and Taryn Manning, Taraji P. Henson, and Paula Jai Parker did a great job back there, staying out of the way of the leads until it was time to get a scene of their own, but always doing something that made them feel like real people and not just window-dressing. I also like movies that don't just take the easy way out, and when Key's wife showed up with sandwiches, having decided to try to make the best of things, I was very pleased.

Ludacris continues to entertain me whenever he's on screen.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

I like movies that arbitrarily mix genres (or invent entire genres out of whole cloth like Six String Samurai), because a lot of the time, they point up the underlying similarities. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai takes a samurai and puts him in a mob film and sees what happens. It also makes the samurai a homeless black guy, but Forrest Whitaker is too good to be nailed down to a stereotype like that.

The plot is pretty basic, and I choose to ignore it. As far as I'm concerned, the real conflict is Ghost Dog's quest to live his life as a samurai in a world without honor. His "master" is a venal little creep, a sub-boss in a pretty anemic mafia. But the masters of the real samurai were probably much the same, right?

I think I enjoyed the world of the movie more than the movie itself, if that makes sense. I wish I lived in a world full of homeless samurai and French-speaking ice cream men and people building boats on top of buildings.

Matt Damon and The Bourne Identity

Frankly, I don't know why people think Matt Damon is a good actor. At first I thought that I'd only seen him in Kevin Smith movies, but upon closer examination I've also seen him in School Ties, Rounders, Saving Private Ryan, and The Brothers Grimm. Oh, and The Departed. So surely that's enough to base an opinion on, right? I've seen Matt Damon in a reasonable range of movies and while I've never thought he was terrible, he's never wowed me either. I mean, I came out of The Departed very impressed with Mark Wahlberg, who had a lot less to work with.

However, I have to admit that aside from Rounders, none of the movies I've seen are the ones that people point to as evidence of good acting; you have to go to the Bourne movies, Good Will Hunting, and The Talented Mister Ripley. I think. So I'm going with The Bourne Identity on the grounds that if I like it, I'll have more of the same to watch.

...

Okay, after watching it . . . I still don't think Damon is that great of an actor. To me, he's still a guy who shows up, hits the same one or two notes, and gets out without leaving much of an impression. Luckily, the movie doesn't require his character to actually do a great deal of emoting, so it winds up being pretty entertaining. Damon looks befuddled, then something happens, so he snaps into Action Mode (like when Gir becomes efficient on Invader Zim, we have an action scene, and then he runs off. I enjoyed the early scenes where his character was relearning what skills he knew; the scene where he realizes he can speak German was well-played. I did kind of wish he'd assume he had a skill he didn't really know, but I guess it would have ruined the pace of the movie for him to fall off a building or not know how to drive a stick.

It's certainly a serviceable action film.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Spider-Man 3

So. Spider-Man 3. I hear it's got the biggest opening day gross ever. I did not care for it a bit.

Mostly, it was just forgettable. If I hadn't been taking notes, all I'd be able to say is that this movie used the word "love" too many times for a superhero movie. Also, Spider-Man should consider keeping his mask on more often, partly because the mask is more expressive than Tobey Maguire can achieve on his own.

However, I did take notes, because Rhias and I were watching the movie from the special soundproof viewing area reserved for families with infants. There weren't any infants in the theater, so we snuck in instead. Then we got to snicker at the movie and whisper things to each other the whole time. It was great, because there was a lot to snicker and whisper about. Before I get into this, I should mention that in the process of talking about a movie, I have a tendency to talk about things that happened in the movie. If you haven't seen it, you might consider these things "spoilers". If that's the sort of thing that bothers you, I would encourage you to not read comments about it.

Mostly what I objected to was Emo Spider-Man moping around and whining about his love life and taking his mask off all the time. It's 45 minutes into the movie before we see Spider-Man, as opposed to Peter Parker. Frankly, I don't think it looks as good when the CGI body flailing around is a guy in a three-piece suit. It looked wonky to me. The Sandman effect also looked wonky, but that might just be because it reminded me a lot of this one very similar shot in Lawnmower Man.

There were a lot of plot elements that seemed to be either completely ignored (the people running that conveniently-placed Physics lab never checked on the results of their experiment, did they?) or puttied over crudely (Mary Jane went directly from "on the marquee of a Broadway show" to "singing waitress at a jazz club"?). Some of the story seemed to do actual harm to the characters; it seems to me that Spider-Man's origin makes more sense if the guy who killed Uncle Ben is the same one he let get away. And some things just didn't make sense: we saw Peter leaving messages on MJ's answering machine, but we also saw her talking on a cellphone. Hey, Pete! If you're such a freakin' genius, maybe you should call the phone she carries around wherever she goes! I mean, unless that phone stops existing the moment the scene involving it is over.

I got tired of seeing women dangle from things, slipping a little, and then grabbing something else to dangle from until the next time they're required to be in a tiny bit more peril. I imagine Spider-Man's New York is a pretty safe place to dangle from things, overall; it's not every city that has a superhero so well suited to saving danglers. Incidentally, speaking of dangling women, shouldn't Spidey have done something about that runaway crane that was demolishing an entire building? Or did he figure, "Hey, I saved a model; I've done my part for the day. Maybe later I'll kiss her for no reason other than to tick off my girlfriend."

There was a lot of product placement, which you obviously expect these days, but I was surprised to see that the police scanner was bought at Radio Shack (it was a "Realistic", which makes it the only "realistic" thing about this movie. Zing!). Radio Shack can afford product placement in a $250 million movie?

And speaking of huge sums of money, I wonder what Harry did with his inheritance. He probably didn't have time to write a new will leaving everything to Peter, but how about Mary Jane? Harry's house looked pretty nice, and I'm sure MJ wouldn't mind living there for awhile. I'm not sure she could affor the Butler With Incredibly Convenient Plot Details That Could Have Been Mentioned A Movie Earlier, Or At Least Before Harry Got Disfigured, though.

There were some things I liked: I enjoyed Sandman, although the character could have been completely taken out and improved the movie. I also enjoyed Rhias pointing out that Sandman visited a child as it slept. Very thematic! And J.K. Simmons was as much fun as always. I was pleased to see that when the Bugle had to publish a correction, it went on the front page in big letters with an apology to Spider-Man. That's actually pretty classy.

Mostly, though, it was 2:20 of filler. Blah.

Vanishing Point: The Ill-Conceived 1997 Remake

Sure enough, watching the wretched 1997 made-for-TV remake of Vanishing Point (starring Viggo Mortensen!) made me appreciate the original much more. It's just a series of ill-conceived changes that obliterate everything good or interesting about the movie.

For example, and this is really the basic problem, the new movie has people explaining that "a 1970 Hemi Challenger is not 'just' a car. It is the apotheosis of American muscle car technology." Yeah, I guess you could give your characters long speeches about how cool a car is. Or you could just make your entire movie a love note to the car, like the original Vanishing Point. Having your characters go around saying "mopar" is not the way of it.

Also, the whole movie, by its nature, is already an infomercial for Dodge. There's no reason for a bumper sticker (on a Dodge Charger) that says "My Wife Yes. My Dog Maybe. My Dodge?... NEVER!" If you're doing your job with the rest of the movie, people will want a Dodge without the explicit advertising. The Dukes of Hazzard made Chargers cool without even trying, so now your movie isn't as slick as Bo and Luke. Nice going.

The whole point of the first movie is that you have a guy who decides for no reason that he's not stopping for the police, for other motorists, or for anything. We get glimpses of his life, but nothing that really explains why he insists on another run at the beginning of the movie even though he needs pills to stay awake. The new version of the character has a backstory and reasons for his actions and even stops for the police the first time.

And yet, by getting more of a backstory, Viggo Mortensen comes off like a bigger jerk than Barry Newman (the guy in the first movie). The original Kowalski stopped when it looked like he might have injured someone; Viggo just drives off. And since we don't know what's going on in the original Kowalski's head, it's easier to see the whole things as some kind of existential meltdown. Since we know Viggo's motivations, it's easier to say that he's overreacting when he freaks out and starts getting chased by police. I think the police in the original movie probably went too far (although Kowalski did almost kill that guy in the sports car that went off the bridge), but Viggo's Kowalski does need to be gotten off the road. He's a menace! He has grenades! I realize they're just smoke grenades, but I don't think it's crazy for the police to object to some guy driving around with a suitcase full of grenades that he plans on throwing at them.

Anyway, in the new movie, Kowalski only has to go 1200 miles. If he'd just gone the speed limit, he'd have gotten there in an easy 24 hours and nobody would have minded. Whatta dope. I mean, in the final crash, the guy from Kowalski's garage is already there. And I bet he did it without getting the FBI's attention, either. He probably just caught that 3:30 flight Kowalski turned down at the beginning of the movie. This is the problem with giving Kowalski a teimtable and trying to make his actions make sense.

I mean, until the new-version cops start shooting at him and attacking Greyhounds full of innocent people. Then I think both sides are crazy.

And another great thing about the original movie is that Kowalski doesn't have a plan of any sort past "drive". Viggo goes around buying police scanners and night-vision goggles and extra gas cans. He's premeditating this, so from the start of the chase, it's "a guy doing everything he can to get around the police" instead of "a guy driving, whom the cops have started chasing". Original Recipe Kowalski just drove, and that singleness of purpose is what makes him fascinating. The 1997 version has so many flashbacks and scenes of the police that there aren't nearly enough super-wide-angle scenes of the car driving down endless highways. I mean, I got a little tired of them in the original movie, but when they're not there, you really don't get the feeling of the endless driving. It's a movie about driving! Show more driving!

Frankly, it felt a lot more like Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry than Vanishing Point, although that might just be because of the dialogue about getting the police chopper in the air as soon as it was ready. Also because the guy driving the car was kind of a dope but had a police scanner.

One last comment on the new movie: instead of being set from "Friday" to "Sunday", which is nicely vague and adds to the existentialism of the setting, the new movie is set from "Good Friday" to "Easter Sunday", because when you're trying to make your movie sound meaningful, it always helps to throw in random religious references. I'm not sure it makes sense to line up Kowalski's death (unless he "bailed out" at 185 mph, which sounds almost as risky as just staying in the car when it blows up) with Easter, though.

A Brief Comment on the winner of the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture of 2005

Crash is a stupid, unpleasant movie full of stupid, unpleasant people doing stupid, unpleasant things. Apparently, and I'm not sure I have this right because it's only the point of every single line of dialogue in every scene in the movie, racism . . . is bad.

The only scene I liked was the one between Terrence Howard and Ludacris. I should probably just watch Hustle and Flow instead.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Vanishing Point

I'm going to level with you: I'm not sure I "get" Vanishing Point. I like a lot of the individual shots, but I didn't really lock in to the movie as a whole. I mean, I understand the principle behind a blank-slate main character and a nihilistic ending (incidentally, between this and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, I'm starting to think it's a bad idea to go on an endless drive while chased by the cops), but I think the real issue is that I'm not much of a "car guy". I mean, my car was made in Korea, so I don't really identify with the whole 1970-Challenger ethos.

I did enjoy the long-shots of cars driving, because they actually shot the movie where it was set, so although it sort of looks like a whole lot of desert, it's different desert. I've driven along those deserts! Well, I did it when they had proper highways, but the principle's the same. I'm not a car guy, but I've done my share of driving twelve-plus hours. And I approve, in theory, of the audacity involved in shots of a tiny little car almost obscured by heat-waves coming off a desert. But I don't know if I'll be watching the movie again.

I will, however, be watching the terrible 1997 remake. The way I figure it, that'll show me the good things about the original by leaving them out.