April 12, 2007

Inside Man (2006)


My 2006 top-ten ranking: 7

Risk of spoilers: Nah. You're safe.

I like the experimental Spike Lee -- they guy who took a chance and failed on She Hate Me. I think the problem with that movie was sustaining the level of irony it opened with, when Lee is best with characters confronting their own idiosyncrasies honestly, and even earnestly. When the early sarcastic tone of She Hate Me gave way to the soft-soul a-lesbian-for-lunch love scenes, the movie drifted in between irony and earnestness in a very uncomfortably self-concious way.

But the Spike Lee who directed this movie was the same guy who directed the powerful 25th Hour. The tone is confident and even somewhat whimsical. It nods to issues of culture and race, but really it's just a good heist film. And as far as I am concerned, heist and con films are top of the pops.

The big question with heist and con films is: did you see the con coming? These days some of the strongest con films aren't really con films at all -- they're films in which the con is hidden, the sleight of hand complete. Films like the surprising The Upside of Anger fall into this category. But they don't deal with con men or criminals, so should probably be excluded.

Inside Man starts with Clive Owen essentially daring us to catch him at his game. Like Orson Wells at the beginning of F for Fake, or like a stage magician cockily letting his tricked deck be examined, Owen tells us just enough to that later we understand his words differently.

In between is the hostage situation, in which every hostage is manipulated to the end of the robbers with specific ends in mind. The film comes alive in Lee's casting, which feels like an actual cross-section of New York as opposed to a whites-only extras casting session.

The film clips nicely, moving along in just the right pace. in the end, it's a good heist film with minor cultural commentary in the mix. Not so much to overshadow the action, but just enough to punctuate it. A great mix which made for good entertainment with a lingering appreciation.

Where we saw it: Movie Theater | We deign to rate it: 90 outta 100
Posted by Martin at 07:10 PM

February 21, 2007

Notes on a Scandal (2006)


My 2006 top-ten ranking: 8

Risk of spoilers: Let’s just assume, okay?

“Everybody fucking fantasizes about it!” screams Bill Nighy as Richard Hart to Kate Blanchett as Sheba Hart after finding out about her indiscretions with a student, “that’s why they call it a fantasy!” In this film, everybody does fantasize about it — it being the thought of consuming younger people sexually as a balm for your troubles. Richard was once Sheba’s teacher and is 20 years her senior, although that fantasy seems to have calmed into average domestication with an unaverage (developmentally disabled) son.

Judi Dench as Barbara Covett (get it?) fantasizes about it, maneuvering Sheba into trusting her and awaiting her moment to strike, playing her manipulative hand with smooth aplomb.

And of course Sheba fantasizes about it, and then acts on that fantasy by the train tracks in a moment of adolescent adoration, a reliving of a romance that only a high schooler would find romantic. Nothing like the smell of creosote to trigger cupid and his piercing shafts.

Barbara is the pivot in this, playing a mother superior figure in her own mind, with unkind secret words written on the paper she uses to filter and scold the world. Her secreted derision and insults to the people around her obviously a defense to keep closed the gap of despair and loneliness felt by rejection and repressed sexuality. That she is both hateful and sympathetic on more than one level is a nod to Dench’s mastery of performance.

Continue reading "Notes on a Scandal (2006)"
Where we saw it: Movie Theater | We deign to rate it: 90 outta 100
Posted by Martin at 07:57 AM

February 15, 2007

Marie Antoinette


My 2006 top-ten ranking: 9.

Risk of spoilers? Let me put it this way:
At Versailles there once was a Queen
Married into the court at fifteen
One misquoted line
She was asked to resign
By a very polite guillotine

Angular guitars spike over the end of the Annette Bening Columbia logo. Awkward pink monospaced text on black as the drums kick in. The screen goes totally black. John King of Gang of Four sings “The problem with pleasure / What to do for leisure? / Ideal love a new purchase / A market of the sense” Cut to Marie Antoinette as we have always imagined her — a representation of luxury, lassitude and boredom. She’s elaborately dressed in vibrant glimmering silky whites, feathers in her hair. A maid affixes a shoe to her foot. Cakes surround her in her powder blue Versailles drawing room. She reaches over lazily and swipes her finger across the icing of a cake, and then inserts her finger into her mouth to lick it off. Only then does she notice us watching her, and seems does a double take upon noticing us. She looks right at us. Her surprise softens into a light, wry smile, and she leans back and closes her eyes, fully aware of our presence.

Is this the Marie Antoinette — forever held in the mythic populist French mind, trapped in the layers of misconception and politicization — that has been waiting in luxurious hibernation for a more unbiased telling of her story? Maybe this is the classical French queen, the one that the crowds expected to find eating cake as they stormed the Versailles, the one that is indifferent to human life — even her own?

It cuts again to black and we have the pink ripped paper credits evoking Never Mind the Bullocks here’s the Sex Pistols (“God Save the Queen” anyone?). The message is clear: this movie is not about supporting history or historical film as we have come to know it. This film is defying that history. It’s about subverting genre. It’s about subverting our previous visions of Marie Antoinette (the clearest modern analog I can think of is Florida’s Katherine Harris, with her “Let them eat prayer” attitude).

It subverts genre by re-imagining the genre. Instead of falling on the trite and expected classical scores, Coppola brings — seemingly — her own musical tastes from the part of her life when she was the age of Antoinette. By bringing in New Order and Gang of Four, the woman who was a teenager in the 80s when this music was new finds a way to connect to a very teenage feeling. She brings a sensation of human developmental age to Antoinette. The usual mode is to imagine the young and regal as wise and cultured.

This movie, about a teenage queen reacting to the great forces of will and power around her, barely cracked the top tens this year. I suspect that has a lot to do with the filmmaker, whose past and whose family apparently overshadow any of her successes. But I’m not interested in talking about the director in any context but her work. Anything less, I say, smacks of sexism and the gofugyourselfification of our nation. I personally don’t care about canned champagne and I certainly don’t think that Godfather III was her fault (for that, I blame her father). I don’t care what she wears or who she dates. Worse yet, mocking her on these levels without fully considering her work apart from them is ridiculous.

Continue reading "Marie Antoinette"
Where we saw it: Movie Theater | We deign to rate it: 90 outta 100
Posted by Martin at 07:51 AM

February 06, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth (2006)


My 2006 top-ten ranking: 10.

Risk of spoilers: definite.

As Jim Emerson pointed out, this movie is about putting adults in the same mind space that they were as children listening to fairy tales. Is that what Terry Gilliam was trying with Brother’s Grimm? If it is, then Guillermo del Toro has shown him the proper way, and it has to do with putting myth — which typically does not scare adults — up against reality, which typically does scare adults.

It’s a movie about fascism. About absoulteness. About the idea that there is one true path held up against the idea that the paths are what we create. Pan, after all, wants Ofelia to follow one true path. She does for most of the movie, until she confronts choice and desire. In one case she learns about consequence. In another, she learns about sacrifice.

Both of which Capitán Vidal, played with greasy sinisterness by Sergi López, know about. Although the latter he disregards. After he kills the doctor for crossing him, he says “You could have obeyed me!” The doctor replies “But captain, obey for obey’s sake…without questioning…. That’s something only people like you do.” The name of the character is Capitán Vidal, sans first name. His rank is his name. It’s where he begins.

Continue reading "Pan's Labyrinth (2006)"
Where we saw it: Movie Theater | We deign to rate it: 89 outta 100
Posted by Martin at 08:31 PM

February 05, 2007

The latest

Once upon a time I wrote here about every movie that I saw. The idea was that I could record them. I added a quip just for the fun of it, and then spent a year writing more in-depth pieces. But, sad to say, I found myself avoiding seeing movies because it meant I would have to write about them, which is hell when you’re Netflix list is hovering about 500.

So, I just stopped. My last post here was a wrap up of movies I’d seen, around last April sometime. Since then I have been keeping track of movies I’ve watched via del.icio.us (under the tags seenIn2006, and seenIn2007). So why write now? A few reasons.

1. KZA left the Hellbox fold, for reasons it seems he doesn’t know himself, and began writing more of his great posts about movies elsewhhere. When he goes long form and gets in depth, he’s at his best, in my view. So, I got inspired.

2. I took part in a neat and nascent awards thing, and was forced to rate the movies I’ve seen in the past year. During the voting, I was writing short blurbs about the movies. I’ve decided that I’ll expand those and write about my top ten here, just for the fun of it.

Look for those coming up over the next week or so, and more info on the awards thing when there is more to share.

Where we saw it: we didn't | We deign to rate it: meta-dope-stuff outta 100
Posted by Martin at 07:48 PM | Comments (1)

April 30, 2006

The Behind List

Here is a partial list of movies that I have seen, and not reviewed, but for which I feel no guilt for not reviewing. I named this post as I did, because for some silly reason, the post titled Damn, I'm Behind! gets more hits (by far) then any other on this blog. I'm hoping this will be the same--but if you come to this post via Google, do tell me--how did you get here? Leave a message, I'm curious.

Anyway--I'm not abandoning the blog, and I may review these below in the future, if the inspiration hits. As for movies seen in the future--we'll see. I'll write if the movie compels me to do so.

  1. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (04-29-06) - DVD - rating: 86/100
  2. Whiskey Galore! (04-29-06) - DVD - rating: 84/100
  3. Thank You for Smoking (04-22-06) - Movie Theater - rating: 80/100
  4. Lonesome Jim (04-14-06) - Movie Theater - rating: 84/100
  5. Friends with Money (04-15-06) - Movie Theater - rating: 69/100
  6. Nine to Five (04-23-06) - DVD - rating: 85/100
  7. Washington Square (04-09-06) - DVD - rating: 72/100
  8. Primer (04-08-06) - DVD - rating: 86/100
  9. Finding Neverland (03-26-06) - DVD - rating: 85/100
  10. Gotham Fish Tales (03-21-06) - DVD - rating: 60/100
  11. Things Change (03-19-06) - DVD - rating: 70/100
  12. V for Vendetta (04-02-06) - Movie Theater - rating: 50/100
  13. Inside Man (04-10-06) - Movie Theater - rating: 94/100
Where we saw it: | We deign to rate it: cushiony, fat, behind outta 100
Posted by Martin at 11:40 AM | Comments (2)

March 18, 2006

Blue Velvet (1986)


The tightrope that Lynch walks is the irony. Ebert, in his review of this movie, totally missed that, and saw the irony as sarcasm--an inexcusable backdrop for the bare emotional honesty that Rossellini inhabited in this role. I think he missed the point. The irony is not just for laughs and sarcasm--it is the irony of the modern hipster, years before it's time. To the hipster, so quoth The Hipster Handbook, irony caries more weight than reason. To the critic, it's offensive because it belittles seriousness. To a more modern eye, it's not a counter or undercut of the violence, it's a comment on the form of the movie itself. It is a layer in the movie. It's a framework for absurdity (everything in the movie is absurd, but Dennis Hopper is frightening and absurd, while McLaughlin and Dern are ernest and absurd. Rossellini is tragic and absurd).

Much like Mulhulland Drive later (which, Ebert loves), Blue Velvet describes the haunting of a mind. Through the visual language of film noir and white-picket 50s technicolor, Lynch shows us (literally) the vermin under the manicured lawn. His irony is not mocking life, but mocking idealized filmic life. He's not making a statement with film about how life is (and maybe shouldn't be) a certain way (re: Crash, the 2005 version), he's making a statement about the artifice of representing life. The map, after all, is not the territory--nor will it ever be.

So, if film is not life (suck that Goddard, truth at 24 frames a second my ass), then the purpose of film can't be to represent life. The purpose of film is to tell a story and make an emotional connection with the audience, which can certainly evoke strong feelings of empathy. While Ebert felt that Lynch kept the audience away from the stark emotional realities of Rossellini's experience with irony, I say that Lynch keeps the entire medium at bay with irony, eroticism, and violence. The three are intertwined and inseparable.

This is, I think, what Spike Lee was attempting with the flawed He Got Game, a movie that started seeped in this irony, but dissolved into mistaken earnestness. Also brought to mind is Todd Hayne's brilliant Far From Heaven where the irony is not as cynical, and is one step further removed from the action, but the sexual tensions and violence that comes from repression are represented.

Mostly, Lynch shows us that of the people who watch films, some will take everything at face value and become offended if the filmmaker doesn't approach certain taboos in the acceptable way. Some others--and this is the current mask of Hollywood, as evidenced in this years Academy awards--want film to change the world through social conscience. To these types Lynch holds up something reprehensible and beautiful and challenges both views. Accept the film for what it is, and the irony feels right at home with the sexuality and the violence. They are three pillars capped at equal heights.

Where we saw it: DVD (Seen It Before) | We deign to rate it: 95 outta 100
Posted by Martin at 10:03 AM

March 14, 2006

Flightplan (2005)


Jodie Foster, mommy. How do you make a mommy freak out? Steal her child. Or endanger it. That sympathetic human heart-tugging at the plight of a child or woman or, better yet, both--this is the emotional landscape of this movie. It offers a few twists throughout that I hear they call plot, but really it's a character study in how realistically Foster can lose it while still keeping it together. Or, said differently, Foster playing that fine line where we question her character as to her sanity, not knowing if she's really insane or if she's simply a mommy who lost her little girl.

But, personally, I'm a little sick of getting my marionette heart tugged in this way, my string has grown to flexible and callous. Kill the fucking kid, already, just give me something besides Foster's (admittedly well-acted) panicked face to go on.

So, let's talk about the marvel of engineering that is this plane they are flying on. First, it's quite extraordinary that the airline apparently has enough money to buy a plane and not use all of its space. Put in sumptuous staircases, and open lounges (that terminate in the cockpit door, thus putting the drunkest passengers nearest the flightcrew). Why, it even has a cot for the pilot to rest in during those long flights. I wonder if he lives on board?

And then there's the avionics area, which appears to have an exploded Cray-2 super-computer in it (is this plane handling requests from thousands of users at one time? Is it crunching weather prediction data? Is it modeling the airflow over the wing in real time? Measuring the alcohol-to-soda ratio in every cocktail? I can see some novel uses for huge computers on board, but no practical ones), and a good football field of unused space in the nose cone. Hey, 45 passengers could fit in there if you knock out the super computer and fill it with seats. At an average international ticket price of around $1000, that would be $45,000 the airline could make through efficiency each flight.

And what's with all the Jefferies tubes everywhere? Do they call down to the engine room when they need more power? Does the crew crawl around in spaces large enough to fit luggage, people or duty-free goods that they can sell for a profit? Okay, I know that some liberties had to be taken because--let's face it--flying is boring. But, I prefer the other scary flight film I saw recently.

Continue reading "Flightplan (2005)"
Where we saw it: DVD | We deign to rate it: 54 outta 100
Posted by Martin at 07:36 AM

March 10, 2006

Dark Water (2005)


Better than the previews led me to believe, which is saying something, but not a whole lot of something. A waify potentially psychologically disturbed woman played Connelly? That's no sign of the apocalypse, that just the way things have always been.

The ending of this movie--and by ending you should be clued in about SPOILERS here--is so badly handled that it nearly negates everything before it. The psychological set up for the primary character was, in my view, totally negated by her action. It was a passive thing to do--essentially abandoning her daughter in a different, but just as real, way as her mother abandoned her.

If, though, her character had been truly crazy, and had a moment of clarity that she was hurting her child, then it would have made sense. But they set up JC as a passive woman and then her moment of action, supposedly redeeming herself and her pain at the hands of her mother, and so the last action had no bearing on her emotional well-being.

Tim Roth was great, and disappeared into the roll, as was the always great John C. Reilly and the particularly evil Pete Postletwaite. As for JC--well, she annoyed me, like her characters usually do, which means that she's playing them right on the button, I would say.

Where we saw it: DVD | We deign to rate it: 55 outta 100
Posted by Martin at 08:22 AM

Kill Bill, Vols I & II (2003 & 2004)


Characters are driven to inevitable futures, but it's always nice to see a movie that simplifies the drive. This title is as good as the much lauded Snakes on a Plane for pure descriptive purposes. You know what's going to happen from the minute you walk into the theater--there is no guesswork that Bill won't be killed--and anybody who thinks that this is a spoiler is missing the point. It's the process and the journey that amuse so much.

And show what a true crazed master that Tarantino is. The movies that he worships, and gives ode to here, are nowhere near as entertaining as his opus. Why? Because Tarantino does it all outside of genre--he's poking fun and paying homage at the same time.

Here too, he uses the standard saws of Spielberg--the mother and child--and twists it on its head, so that sentimentality leaks out and only a skeleton is left. No tear jerking here, just understanding why the heck the Bride would do what she does when she does it. And, of course, even egg her on despite the bloodiness of her rampage.

Some might argue that the plot is insignificant, but despite the fact that Tarantino is so copied by fools who just stack a bunch of improbable and shockable violence and abstract, witty, nostalgia driven dialogue in a film and call it a QT alike, the true test of a Tarantino film is plot and character. (but wait--dialogue like this is pure gold: "If on your journey you should meet God, god will be cut."). It's like the people copying the iPod who haven't had any success. The original still outshines the copies, and so it is in this case as well. Because they don't get it--they don't understand what the original success was about, and try to paint-by-numbers their way in.

The reason the heroin-overdose part of Pulp Fiction works so well is that you've been hanging out with these characters and you like them (or, in the case of Stoltz and especially Arquette don't like them so much) and you know what's at stake if she dies. Therein lies the comedy.

Just putting some thugs in suits and handing them throwaway Wildeisms doesn't make a QT. Here's hoping the man has a long life full of filmmaking.

Where we saw it: DVD (Seen It Before) | We deign to rate it: 87 outta 100
Posted by Martin at 08:15 AM

March 08, 2006

Red Eye (2005)


A much different Cillian Murphy than we saw last time, and Mr. Craven in fine form. In a little featurette on the DVD he said something to the effect of:

"Horror movies are all about the vulnerability of the body, this movie is all about the vulnerability of the soul."

Which I'm reporting here not because I have anything to add to it, but more as a note that any time I write a horror scene to remember that it's about the vulnerability of the body.

A marvelous job was done for sticking these characters so close together in such a confined space for such a long period of time. You nearly could call it My Dinner with Rippner.

It is a movie that got in, got tense, and got out again without trying to dress it up or get overly melodramatic. I can appreciate a movie that knows its limits, and let's you enjoy it inside of them.

And it was clever without being tricky, character driven without drawing stereotypes, and enjoyable to boot.

Where we saw it: DVD | We deign to rate it: 86 outta 100
Posted by Martin at 10:18 PM

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)


A bit of classic melodrama with a decidedly anti-spin, successfully couched in the horrors of war instead of the sentimentality of fighting.

But, it is melodrama nevertheless. The boys we meet are young and sweet, they go to fight and fall. We learn a lesson that war is bad. We learn a lesson that being a man isn't all it's trumped up to be.

Of course, for 1930 it was a different message than today. We don't, for instances, have trenches in Iraq, and the army has better communications and supply chains, right?

But imagine being in the theater in the 1930s in Germany watching this, and Nazi's--not yet in power--would open the doors and release rats into the theater and yell.

But still, it's propaganda. Pro war, anti war, it's all about the message and not the complexity of the message.

So, class, we have learned that war is bad. Except when it isn't. Which is whenever it's needed to not be. Remember that, and then no movie can tell you what to think and feel. You'll need brave democratically elected leaders for that challenging role.

Where we saw it: DVD | We deign to rate it: 69 outta 100
Posted by Martin at 06:40 PM

February 27, 2006

Serenity (2005)


I wasn't a huge fan of Firefly, but I did enjoy it and thought it really stood out from the crowd. This feels like a lost extended episode, which isn't a bad thing at all. It isn't quite as grand in scope as it could have been -- maybe I should have seen it in the theater -- but that doesn't mean I enjoyed it any less.

So, too bad it's probably gone for good. We'll just have to wait and see what Joss Wheadon does with Wonder Woman...

Where we saw it: DVD | We deign to rate it: 85 outta 100
Posted by Martin at 06:32 PM | TrackBack (0)

February 26, 2006

Night Watch (2004)


So, imagine they made the Matrix, and then they made Matrix Reloaded, and then Matrix Revolutions was a re-telling of the Matrix and the Matrix Reloaded shot all in Russian.

That's kind of what is happening here--Night Watch was the highest grossing film in Russia until Day Watch, the sequel, was released. The final film in the trilogy is a retelling of the first two shot in English. I'm not sure how that's a trilogy, exactly, unless by trilogy you mean three films that are loosely related.

This here film is actually two films itself: an incredibly awesome one, if you just look at the visuals, and an incredibly stupid one, if you actually attempt to pay attention to the plot. Of which, it seems, it mostly exists just to hang a few cliched artificial tensions on.

It really can't be stated enough how gorgeous it is. I would pay to see it again just to drink it all in.

But it's an interesting study in cultural differences that Russian audiences certainly didn't care about the plot. This from the homeland of some of the greatest writers of all time? I would guess that there was some home town rooting going on here--I'm sure there are parts of the story that can only be understood by growing up in Russian culture. Maybe I'll go read some Gogol and watch it again to see what happens...

Where we saw it: Movie Theater | We deign to rate it: 69 outta 100
Posted by Martin at 08:03 PM

February 25, 2006

The God Who Wasn't There (2005)


No, not an obscure Hitchcock remix of a DeMille epic. It's a small documentary. It suffers from its smallness, and it's smallness of scope. I think the filmmaker should watch Fast, Cheap and Out of Control 20 times, purge self of Michael Moore schtick and re-edit.

Mostly, my complaints are about the preaching to the converted. The film could have been much more dramatic and compelling just interviewing more talking heads and mixing them together, but instead we have some funny pseudo-high quality flying graphics, and some quippy attitude from our narrator / filmmaker.

If this sounds harsh, it's only because some of the interviews he did get were quite good an could have been longer. But, like any good self-serving atheist, his dogmatism is against the theism and quite pro the "a" part.

Continue reading "The God Who Wasn't There (2005)"
Where we saw it: DVD | We deign to rate it: 55 outta 100
Posted by Martin at 09:04 PM