December 27, 2004

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004, Wes Anderson) (f) 66

Like most people out there, I was less than impressed by Anderson's latest, despite being a fan of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums; but when critics who are smarter than the average bear see something in this half-baked ratatouille of a film, I'm forced to reconsider, even if it means coming up with the same result. (And no, ratatouille isn't baked; sue me.)

One thing to note is that, despite some claims to the contrary, this really isn't the same Wes Anderson. Sure, there are the usual Andersonisms: the childlike, closed-off, invented world, the deadpan acting style, the 60s and 70s music. But Anderson is expanding his style; the closed-off world now encompasses an ocean, his camera seems to move more, and he dips his foot into action conventions for the first time, with interesting and odd results. (This culminates in one of the most visually audacious moments in Anderson's oov-rah; I won't spoil it here, but it includes the line (paraphrased) "this is probably going to hurt".)

Unfortunately, the deadpan acting, while appropriate for a family of neurotics, is ill-fitting for a family of eccentric diver/filmmakers. It's supposed to represent their professionalism, their imperturbability, but it becomes stifling. Usually, there's one character that's allowed to break through this emotional wall (Mason Gamble in Rushmore, Gene Hackman in Tenenbaums), but no one's allowed here. (Unless you're counting Cate Blanchett, and I'm afraid I'm not.) As a result, the movie is always at arm's length, and Bill Murray just doesn't have the chops to find a way to let us in.

So what are über-cinephiles seeing here? Mike D'Angelo suggests elsewhere on the World Wide Web that the relationship between Murray and Owen Wilson (playing Ned, who may or may not be Zissou's son) is a red herring. I can go along with that; to me, it looks like Zissou is looking for someone to love, someone to complete him, like his now-dead friend Esteban (note the name) and former love Jacqueline, and he proceeds to "audition" others for the part, before realizing that his team is all that he needs. Yet, a lot of the film's meat is the Zissou/Ned relationship, and, as David Edelstein noted (I think), deadpan versus deadpan doesn't create any sparks. And thus, the half-bakedness, as the film violently shifts from wonderful bits (of production design, of wit, of virtuosity) to dramatic scenes of dead air and back again.

But all Wes Anderson movies deserve a second viewing -- most of their pleasures are derived from multiple viewings, once the plot is a given -- and this is no exception.

Posted by kza at 11:15 AM | Comments (1)

December 21, 2004

Sideways (2004, Alexander Payne) (f) 80

This is gonna be one of those get-it-the-hell-done-already posts, since I won't let myself watch another movie 'til I'm caught up and I'm not sure I can add a whole lot to the discourse on this here movie. Um, lessee: 1) great work from Giamatti, Church, Madsen and Oh (who would be deserving of an Oscar nom if her character had a little more to do; she makes a helluva an impression); 2) Good script that gets off to a bumpy start; the exposition isn't poorly handled so much as it feels a bit obvious. Not such a crime since other details, like Miles' alcoholism, are handled with some subtlety. 4) However, I'm going to be a bit contrarian and say that I ultimately prefer Payne's About Schmidt. It's true that here, Payne is definitely more "humanistic"; he's less judgmental, less detached, cares about the characters more. But I think that, in this case, it results in a blander movie, visually and emotionally. Odd that I would feel that; by the end, Schmidt is trapped, but Miles has the hope for a way out. But Schmidt's world is always defined by spaces that are both cavernous and claustrophobic (offices, the motor home, the wedding reception room), and that and Payne's distance from his characters gave the movie an, oh I don't know, an "edge". Sideways, by contrast, with its Kodak moments and funny-cute montages, feels like soggy bread. 5) Yet one of the more maligned sections of Sideways appears to be the retrieval of the wallet, or, as its known on Cinemarati, the "flapping wanger" scene. I guess some people object to the outrageousness of it, after ninety minutes of restrained realism, and I think some see misanthropy in the depiction of the lower-class married couple. I can't really speak to the first -- either you welcome the low comedy at that point or reject it -- but there's something interesting going on in the second. No one's seem to noticed that, after confronting his wife's infidelity, the man, who could potentially do a lot of things (yell, storm out, get physically abusive), turns it into a bedroom fantasy (with the wife on board, of course). They certainly seem to have a better handle on their relationship than Miles ever had on any of his. Maybe that's a patronizing, doing-Irish-jigs-on-the-lower-deck-of-the-Titanic kind of attitude, but it isn't misanthropic. 6) I may very well cry if Giamatti wins an Oscar for this; he really is a kind of hero to me, a normal-looking character actor with talent to burn who would've been in hundreds of movies had he worked in the 30s or 40s, but only seems to get loser-schlub roles in our still image-conscious era. If he wins, maybe, maybe he'll be able to drop the schlubs and get to play a winner for once.

3) I have no idea how this supposed "get-it-the-hell-done-already post" is any different from my usual posts.

Posted by kza at 09:13 PM | Comments (0)

December 20, 2004

Secret Window (2004, David Koepp) (v) 42

Since it was adapted from a Stephen King story, I suppose it had to be an in-your-face horror film -- that was the selling point -- but it's a real shame no one had the guts to ditch the tired psycho stuff, since the material (divorced writer, still angry at his ex, who's getting remarried) was juicy enough as is, especially with Johnny Depp's lived-in performance and good dialogue from Koepp ("You okay? You look pale." "Yeah, thanks."), assuming that Depp isn't improvising a lot of it . Pretty obvious from the dead dog where this one is going; it has to go there, otherwise, dramatically, it doesn't make a lick of sense. (I'd beat the living fucking shit out of anyone who so much as laid a finger on my pet.) So it's pretty much an exercise in waiting for no beer and no TV to make Johnny something something... but damn if Depp doesn't do everything in his power to make the wait as painless as possible. He's always giving us something to watch: cracking his jaw, swatting at flies, hiding cigarette smoke. This performance is almost as good as the one in Pirates -- some, I suspect, might even say better, since it's less showy and more about minute gestures that reveal the character's hidden rage. Also, gets points for accurately detailing the life of a blocked-up writer (sleeping on the couch, consuming copious amounts of Doritos and Mountain Dew, talking to oneself). A shame, then, that even with a plot this dumb, the ending (with the Sheriff) goes the extra mile for stupidity.

Posted by kza at 11:07 AM | Comments (8)

December 11, 2004

Scary Movie 3 (2003, David Zucker) (v) 50

It's no Airplane! or Naked Gun -- hell, it isn't even Hot Shots! Part Deux -- but it had me pressing the pause button several times to catch my breath, usually in any scene ripping into the godawful Signs. Narratively, Anna Faris is the protagonist, but Charlie Sheen is the real hero here. He really knows how to do this kind of movie, so well that he can turn his rather humdrum opening gag into something hilarious. The big gags are rarely funny, admittedly (except for the excellent Teleprompter bit), but there's always a minor bit of business that kills (Sheen singing along to the Mexican Hat Dance is my favorite moment). Not sure why anyone would care that non-horror films get spoofed here; I haven't seen the first two (and I can't imagine I need to), but I'm sure most of the horror material was exhausted there. As disposable as you might expect for a film that tries to have a joke every 1.5 seconds, but not without charm.

Posted by kza at 11:07 PM | Comments (0)

December 09, 2004

Twentynine Palms (2004, Bruno Dumont) (v) 57

I'm sorry, but the corner of Eros Street and Thanatos Boulevard is getting to be a real tired place to visit in my opinion, especially when the Thanatos seems to be taken for granted. Irréversible is the most obvious referent, but Noe's film creates a universe (quite literally, come to think about it) that provides a context (right or wrong) for its violence; for Dumont, there's no need for context, no need to examine, just a simple declaration that humans are animals who fuck and kill. Frankly, that's stupid. (You'd think a former philosophy professor would feel the need to prod and examine rather than declare, but here we are.) Not that there's anything inherently wrong with the idea of a loving, destructive couple; but if you're looking for insight, then listen to The Mountain Goat's Tallahassee album.

Yet, until we get to Dumont's foregone conclusion, it's not a bad entry into the "rigorous" mise-en-scene sweepstakes. I'm fond of movies that are shot in America but are directed by non-residents (Zabriskie Point comes to mind for lots of reasons); seeing something familiar (in this case -- the deserts of Southern California -- very familiar) through another's eyes is always refreshing. There's a quick shot of the highway twisting its off-ramps into the desert that's quite beautiful, and I liked the close-up of the texture of the Joshua tree.

Still, I can't help but feel that Dumont blows it with the two "gotcha!" moments at the end, revealing a fundamental dishonesty in his approach. Both moments are, cinematically speaking, excellent; I jumped both times. But both are very much horror conventions, and I'm having trouble reconciling them with the hands-off, just-observing technique of the previous ninety minutes. If it's so important to simply to show a story that's simply happening, to "allow the viewer to think" (to paraphrase from the interview on the DVD) why resort to such manipulative tactics? Why not show these two moments from a cold long-shot? Or was everything up until this point just another way of manipulating the audience?

Posted by kza at 03:44 PM | Comments (3)

December 08, 2004

Fire Sale (1977, Alan Arkin) (v) 53

Unaccountably derided on release (Leonard Maltin: "BOMB", Dave Kehr: "Goes horribly wrong"), this always-amusing but never hilarious comedy still isn't the long lost gem I'd hoped. More than anything, it feels like a dry run for Seinfeld: a digressive, increasingly complicated narrative, progressed by small character actions; loud argumentative Jewish characters; and the occasional coincidence to perk things up. Kehr also called it "shrill and frenetic", but that's part of the charm; like a lot of comic universes, this one is perpetually out of control, and Arkin (who also stars) deals with it with his usual deadpan anger. He gets good, if high-pitched, performances from his cast, even the minor characters, but like one might expect from an actor directing, the visuals are secondary. Solid script by Robert Klane, who scripted Where's Momma?, which I haven't seen, but I suspect is similar. However, if a movie full of George Costanzas, Mr. Costanzas, and Mrs. Costanzas sounds unbearable, avoid.

Posted by kza at 02:56 PM | Comments (20)

December 07, 2004

Brute Force (1947, Jules Dassin) 79

Exactly the kind of movie you'd expect from a future blacklisted director: hard-hitting and unrepentantly liberal. Burt Lancaster and his fellow cellmates are going to bust out of prison, but there's all sorts of politics to be navigated first. I'd like to think this noirish jailbreak flick rocked 'em back in the forties, but its impact has lessened over time. Dassin probably wanted to thwart the Hays Code by giving his inmates backstories that show they aren't such bad guys; unfortunately, the flashbacks slow the film down. (It would've been really cool if all the women in the flashbacks were played by the same actress -- coupled with the sentimental music, it would've reinforced how the prison system simultaneously strips them of individuality and binds them together -- but that's obviously too anachronistic a choice.) I don't necessarily need to think these men are good guys in order to root for them; the incredibly sadistic Captain Munsey (a terrific performance from an unlikely choice: Hume Cronyn) is reason enough. And after a TV show like Oz, with its racial- and gang-warfare, a place like Westgate looks like some kind of nostalgia-derived paradise. But this is still a tough movie, even now; the murder of a stool pigeon is chilling, and the Grand Guignol climax is still shocking (albeit exciting as well). Val Lewton fans: Lewton regular Sir Lancelot appears as "Calypso" (natch), an inmate who sings all his dialogue.

Posted by kza at 05:45 PM | Comments (3)

December 06, 2004

The Dunwich Horror (1970, Daniel Haller) (v) 47

Easy to dismiss if you're a Lovecraft fanboy, unless you think Dean Stockwell getting to second base with Sandra Dee is the epitome of Cosmic Terror. And that seems to be the thing: there's a definite "straights vs. hippies" thing going on here, with Ed Begley's Professor Armitage representing the old guard, trying to protect blonde, All-American Dee from Stockwell's sideburns. While it could be read as an attack on the "cowntuh cul-chuh" (as Senator Tankerbell would pronounce it), with its freaky body-painted free-love cultists and a pre-Cronenbergian fear-of-the-body theme running throughout, I can't help but think that the filmmakers are on the side of Yog-Sothoth. (Especially after a primally effective, if incredibly typical, freeze-frame final shot.) Remarkably faithful to the story despite the focus on sex; I saw this on TV ages ago, but didn't remember the rampage of Wilbur's brother, a major part of the original story. There's a couple good shots in that part, mostly done with wind machines, that capture the sense of invisible horror key to Lovecraft. Yet, this is incidental; what's important to the film is that the monster strips the clothes off Dee's friend while attacking her (one layer at a time!) and kills all the rednecks. Kudos to the writers for pulling up all this subtext from a 1928 short story; but still, still, Lovecraft's intent is missed.

Posted by kza at 02:12 PM | Comments (6)

December 04, 2004

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004, Kerry Conran) (f) 40

Seems, at least in the beginning, to answer the age-old question, "What would the love child of Spielberg and Maddin look like?", but Conran doesn't have the narrative dexterity of the former or the formal chops of the latter. Instead, it looks more like a live action Paul Dini cartoon, only with real people weighing everything down. There's no real indication here that Conran has any ability to actually write or direct -- the relationship between Sky and Polly is so perfunctory it almost doesn't even register, and scenes never really build up to anything -- but perhaps the willpower to actually get something like this made is all that matters anymore. I was dreading the blue-screen gimmick (especially after Lucas' foray), but a lot of it is pretty damn seamless (and when it is obvious, it reinforces the old-timey 30s feel), but it ultimately inaugurates a new skill by which to judge actors: whether they can do blue-screen acting. Angelina Jolie and Giovanni Ribisi can; Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow, alas, cannot. (And based on Paltrow's terrible performance -- incapable of convincing us that she's interacting with her environment, she singlehandedly ruins a good scene, the giant robots attacking NYC -- it's possible that Law himself was never in the same room as her.)

Posted by kza at 09:28 PM | Comments (1)

December 01, 2004

Yongary, Monster from the Deep (1968, Kim Ki-Duk) (v) 61

First, not that Kim Ki-Duk, unfortunately. Second, don’t be fooled by the rating: this is one godawful movie. However, the pleasure quotient is through the roof.

The pleasure here, for me at least, comes in two forms. The first is that it’s what kids today call a Kaiju, but in my day we called ‘em Giant Monster Movies. I have a weakness for this genre; while it has been argued that all film is a kind of dream, the strangeness of a Giant Monster Movie has always struck me as particularly oneiric, with their cardboard cities and impossible creatures, who would realistically break their bones the moment they took a step. (This is why War of the Gargantuas remains my favorite, since Inoshiro Honda ditches the lumbering rubber suits for body makeup, resulting in almost-acrobatic monsters.) Frankly, there aren’t many things more wonderfully cinematic than giant monsters fighting it out in an urban landscape.

The second pleasure is one that, unfortunately, usually goes hand in hand with Kaiju: It’s genuinely terrible. Not mediocre, but jaw-droppingly and head-smackingly bad. The plot lumbers from moment. Yongary (rhymes with gymboree) breathes fire, and we can see the metal tube of the flamethrower in the monster’s non-articulated mouth. There’s a little kid (isn’t there always?), and at one point, he gets Yongary to dance, and the soundtrack encourages him with a little bit of fake rockabilly. The less said, the better, actually.

However, the following exchange had me on the floor in tears. It really has to be seen to get the full effect, but I’ll do my best. The hero pulls up to the front of the military base; he knows how to kill Yongary. The MP at the gate stops him, and hero explains, dubbed, why he needs to get in. Now, imagine a traditional two-shot of the hero and the MP, with no real urgency on the part of either actor. The MP says, as the hero stares at him dumbly:

You got here a bit too late, sir. They’re going to hit Yongary any minute. (Pause.) They’ll be using guided missles. (Pause.) You’d better go. (Pause.) They’re going to hit Yongary any minute. (Looks at watch, then:) They’ll be using guided missles. (Pause.) You’d better go.

It’s unclear if the dubbing team ran out of time, were intentionally trying to camp up the movie, or just didn’t give a fuck, but the result is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.

At the end, the hero and the military finally defeat Yongary with itching powder; I assume that we don’t see the previous attempts to kill Yongary with a whoopee cushion, an electric buzzer, or binoculars with ink on the eye-pieces. He seems to scratch himself to death (without leaving any physical marks), then collapses into the river. Yet, one of the final images is of a trail of blood on the water… and the trail appears to originate from Yongary’s ass. I shit you not, Yongary dies from bleeding from his ass. Which makes me think: maybe it is that Kim Ki-Duk…

Posted by kza at 03:00 PM | Comments (1)