December 18, 2008
Reviews I've been putting off.

Brotherhood of Satan. Absurd but sort of fun late-night 1971 Satan flick. Something about strange disappearances of children and a couple trapped in a town after a breakdown. I can't imagine a more improbably high priest of the Dark One than Strother Martin, though.

Eyes of Laura Mars. So so tacky.

The Ruins. Enjoyable at the time but it fades in memory. Laura Ramsey is perhaps at the top of the Cute list, but there is no desire to see her excessively bloodied. That's not how I roll.

21. No. Maybe if you're a fan of the blank Kevin Spacey stare and Vegas, but for me? No. Maybe I'd have been more interested in a doc about the actual story.

Young@Heart. Not a great documentary, but a pretty great one to see with family.

The General. We saw this at the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax - which was perfect. Everything about it was perfect.

Shine a Light. I haven't seen Last Waltz or very many music documentaries to compare this to - maybe it's more a performance film than a true documentary, anyway. In the IMAX presentation we saw, it blew us away.

The Mist. It felt overwrought and I didn't love the ending. I don't remember the short story enough to know if there was any reason given for the monsters, but I'd have preferred none.

Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay. Holy crap! I was responsible for taking people to see this, insisting that the first one had been so much fun, and how could this one miss? To those people I apologize. How quickly my hopes for these characters were dashed. It degenerated quickly into poop and gay and jackoff jokes. And ended with a big wedding confession of love, to boot. Who thought this was funny in the script stage?

Girl Boss Guerilla. I seem to be moving farther away from the bright center of the Pinky Violence universe. Reiko Ike and Miki Sugimoto in this one.

The Orphanage. Del Toro's productions are always reliably moody, and somewhat creepy. I'd like to see him explore some horror not based on children.

Iron Man. What a surprise! Thanks, Jon Favreau!

Apocalypto. The message I choose to take away from this Mel Gibson production is that religious fanaticism can destroy a society from the inside, leaving it vulnerable to external forces. What? That's not what he meant for me to...?

This movie would be lush and beautiful - actually is, although it all seems to take place at a run - and Gibson is such a strong director. He excels at immersing you in a completely foreign world, and creating identification with characters you have nothing in common with. I'd like to see him apply these talents to some non-apocalyptic fare.

The Nines. Clever! Interesting! A worthwhile VOD diversion!

The Fall. Perhaps my favorite of the year. Tarsem Singh puts his wild visual imagination in the service of a sweet, weird, dark, fantastic children's story. It's been said elsewhere, but it bears repeating that the amazing sets and locations in this movie are not CGI - just a wild, globe-trotting theatrical imagination. I would not say this is a perfect movie - but it's touching and thrilling to see.

Clerks 2. A movie that perfectly fits Kevin Smith's abilities and humor - it doesn't feel like a massive overreach. I was very happy to return to the world of Dante and Randall, and I to Smith and Rosario Dawson's credit, I actually believed the love story.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. After the recent Star Wars films, and now this film, I think I see the risks in working in sequels. When a film is an entry in a series - whether it's James Bond, Alien, Harry Potter, Jason Bourne, or Jaws - it needs to succeed not only for itself, but the others. When one is particularly bad, then it's brought the value of the entire series down.

Does that sound like an angry fan-boy talking? Who's keeping a "series" score, anyway? Does Jaws II bring down the stock of Jaws? Does Superman IV: The Quest for Peace ruin Superman: The Movie? Certainly not - but knowing that your favorite characters went on to vamp and prance needlessly, to parody or just plain repeat themselves, stays in the back of your mind.

Maybe the damage is in how a poor entry wipes away the pleasant gauze of nostalgia. After Attack of the Clones I asked myself the most sacrilegious of questions- how good WERE the Star Wars films, anyway? And after Crystal Skull I went back to Temple of Doom and Last Crusade (Never Raiders - not that one, there's no question there) and asked myself, were THESE movies as good as all that, really?

Of course the answer is not that they ALL SUCKED!!! after the originals. In my opinion the flaws I have found in the latter trilogy entries have been minor, and only discovered after multiple viewings over decades. That's a success by any definition. But rightly or wrongly, an entry like Crystal Skull in the franchise does foreground those weaker moments in the previous films - if only because it raises the question in the first place. Crystal Skull absolutely ran the Indy nostalgia account into the red.

Of course just because it's been 19 years since the last film doesn't mean 19 years' worth of effort has gone into the screenplay. Still, the bar tends to migrate upward over the years - and higher still each time one of the main players was quoted that they were just waiting for the right script.

What they shot was not worthy of the series. I would have liked to have seen a much better screenplay - AND idea - for an Indiana Jones film. I would have liked to have seen someone wrest the favorite father-son theme away from Spielberg this time around. And I would have liked - along with nearly all of fandom, it seems - for there to be no nuclear refrigerator scene. It was an embarrassing, stand-alone sequence that added nothing.

There seemed to be too many characters in the film. By the time we get to the temple at the end, even the blocking seemed awkward, there were so many people. It made it harder to develop individual characters. Compare what you knew about Belloq with what you knew about Irina, for instance. Probably the film would have been leaner and better if both Mac and Marion had been left out. I loved Marion in Raiders, of course, but here Karen Allen seems along for the ride just for the novelty of the reunion. She and Indy's bickering was actually annoying when it should have been endearing.

In the end, I'm not positive what the Crystal Skull was, or what it did. Did we ever find out why it attracted gold, and repelled giant ants? At one point Blanchett's fabulous Russian baddie seems to indicate some sort of mind control ability - which fit perfectly with the Red Scare - but then that seemed to evaporate, and Indy only needed to return the skull to the tomb. But then, as payment for the return, these aliens then... killed Irina with Absolute Knowledge? Which seems way too close to how Belloq met his end in Raiders, by the way. (Mac is then dispatched for much the same reason that Elsa went out in Last Crusade.)

And the the entire thing ends in a completely overblown special effects UFO vortex explosion - when something more subtle and creepy might have been a little more appropriate.

The movie's imagination seemed to be stalled. The filmmakers seemed stuck for what creepy-crawlie they'd subject us to. A climactic chase scene involved not one, but THREE waterfalls. (I think after one, there are diminishing returns on thrills.) The ever-unfolding temple with disappearing steps seemed like a bit of an excessive booby-trap - for the first time in Indy booby-trap history I found myself finding it a bit impractical. Indy for the first time seemed... sadly, a little geriatric.

Posted by Chris at 1:32 PM
December 12, 2008
The Day The Earth Stood Still ('51)

Saw the original The Day The Earth Stood Still again last night. Despite being punctuated by frequent commercial breaks and inane trivia (Thanks, AMC), I'm glad I got to see it before we rush out to see the remake this weekend.

I don't thrill to this movie the way I do other classics, but it is fantastic to see. Robert Wise's movies in the sci-fi genre (Day The Earth Stood Stilll, Andromeda Strain, Star Trek) all have a sort of reserve to them - they are not wildly dramatic like Body Snatchers or War of the Worlds. There is one man that runs screaming through the DC streets after Klaatu's saucer (His "Space-Ship") lands, but he is observed at a distance - we don't get the equivalent of that shot through a windshield of Kevin McCarthy screaming THEY'RE ALREADY HERE!!! as in Body Snatchers. Instead, Wise cuts to tableaus of gravely concerned yet unhysterical citizenry around the globe, as they ponder what the arrival of this "Space-Man" means.

The thing to love in this movie is the broad simplicity of the plot and action. All Klaatu wants is to speak to every single ruler on Earth at once. Is that so hard to do in 1951? When informed that yes, it is, a mild look of puzzled irritation shows on his face, but he leaves it to the U.S. ambassador to arrange. Later, he tries the top scientist in DC - leaving it to him to arrange a consortium of World Scientists. These Scientists have the support of the Military - until they are politely shut down. (Every transaction is very polite in the movie - the "car chase" is really just a corridor created by the Military. Even when the two soldiers are disintegrated, it's a calm transaction. In another film, Klaatu and Patricia O' Neal would fall in love - there's even a perfect opportunity, in the stopped elevator - but that would have been impolite to her current boyfriend.)

The effects are stunning, not for what but how they show something. My favorite is Gort's retrieval of Klaatu's body from the prison. A flash of light, and there's a hole in the wall - no crash or dust. The tanks and artillery melt quickly and gloriously. And there are such lovely noir shots in the film. My favorite is still Klaatu looming in the foyer of the boarding house, but I also love Gort working the control panel of the Space-Ship while Patricia O'Neal cringes in the background.

So if Klaatu is the Christ-figure (this story is somewhat of a forerunner to E.T., with the alien's death and resurrection), then what does that make Gort? I searched my memory banks for which disciple acted as Jesus Christ's "thug." Was it Matthew or Mark that stood guard outside the Last Supper and zapped the Romans when they approached? Hmm - no. Then it occurred to me - maybe Gort is God in this metaphor. Immensely strong, completely silent - he can bring someone back to life, or he can destroy whole armies with a glance. He's an infallible, unstoppable robotic Galactic Policeman (actually just one of a set) the Klaatu-people have put in place to preserve the peace in the galaxy. Yes, I think Gort may be God.

When we get to the end, the simplicity of the plot starts to sag a bit. The big message that he'd required a world-wide audience for was sound: no nukes in outer space; keep your wars to yourself. But when he goes on to describe how the people of the outer galaxy maintain peace, it all becomes a notch fascist. People of Earth, do as we have - hand over all power to a team of unstoppable super-robots! Their judgment is unquestioned and their punishment is ultimate! THAT certainly seems like a set-up for a sequel.

Now, look. I'm going to keep making these strips whether you read them or not, probably. So here's another one:

Posted by Chris at 9:42 AM
December 8, 2008
Favorite Films of 08

Here's a comic strip I made starring Mazinga:

The year is not over yet of course, but this is my list of favorite films I saw in 08:

Rachel Getting Married
Synecdoche, NY
The Fall
My Winnipeg
Tell No One
I Served The King of England
Slumdog Millionaire
Encounters at the End of the World

Not saying these are the best - just my favorites.

Recently I have also seen:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. There are amazing sights in the movie, especially in the opening scenes. The Elias Koteas clock-maker's prologue was amazing and touching, and I wish the entire movie had stayed in this vein. I think some will be off-put by the CGI that makes up Brad Pitt's character for the first half - the software boys still haven't resolved that less-than-human quality around the eyes, I see. But it's still extremely well done, and Pitt sells Button's endearing innocence extremely well. It's a sweet movie and I'd recommend it to anyone, though I'm not sure what it adds up to.

Mary Poppins. Re-watched for the umpteenth time Thanksgiving night. This is one of the earliest movies I remember seeing, along with Silver Streak and Spy Who Loved Me, and it made a huge impression on me. To this day it is THE Disney movie for me - moreso than any animated or live movie they did.

Dog Soldiers. Good werewolves - too bad about the story. In retrospect they seemed more interested in displaying a lot of British Commando grit than developing any part of the plot. There's lots and lots of shooting in this movie, and I don't think any single bullet accomplishes anything. Also, if they were a rag-tag group of soldiers willing to run a suicide mission, why wouldn't they agree to let one of them be turned into a werewolf, and then he turns the rest of them into werewolves, and then fight the baddies that way? Now THERE'S the story they should have used. Interesting when viewed as a run-through for Descent, and you could do worse if you're in need of a Friday Fright.

Slumdog Millionaire. A vibrant, excellent film from Danny Boyle. Right now in film schools and journals everywhere, they're writing about Boyle's use of toilets as redemptive passageways in his films.

The use of the game show questions as jumping-off spots for flashbacks was a great device, but when they piled on the duplicitous game show host plot and then flashbacks coming from another angle at the far-too-brutal police station, I began to lose track of Jamal and Salim - particularly as they got older. What was especially lost in this section was a sense that Jamal and Latika really did belong together - that finding her was what motivated him throughout the years. It certainly seemed random that she would risk angering her gangster-keeper to meet Jamal at the end. It's also possible, sadly, that the actor Dev Patel was just unable to convey Jamal's longing for her.

In the final stretch especially, it felt as if there was a rags-to-riches tale competing with a feel-good sports movie competing with a story of two young lovers kept apart by fate.

I also think the the point that life is brutal for a slumdog was adequately made without the jailhouse torture. It made for some brilliant smash-cuts at the beginning, but it was also improbable and unnecessary. Could a top contestant on a national program really just be snatched away right before the climactic episode, to be detained and tortured, and then re-inserted without explanation? Would a police inspector so willing to apply electrodes really have a change of heart? And wouldn't an accusation of cheating also implicate someone within the show?

Salim's brutality against his brother and Latika was also dealt with oddly - what he did was unforgivable, yet it did not seem to illicit much condemnation from them. The fact that he ultimately sacrificed himself to allow Latika and Jamal to escape was right, but that he'd be given so much as a smile - or used as one of Jamal's lifelines during the show?!? - after his actions was a strange oversight.

Where this movie veered into City of God territory, it lost me - but note that it's still on my list of 2008 favorites.

War, Inc. As strong as my disdain for the last administration is, it does not extend an excuse to this movie for its lazy heavy-handed attempt at lampoon. If there is a spectrum of quality for war satire films, with Catch-22 or Dr. Strangelove on the far right, War, Inc. isn't even in the visible part on the far left. I didn't believe or care about a second of this film. It seemed as if the cast and characters of Grosse Point Blank were lifted out of that much better film and pressed, groaning, into service in this one.

Posted by Chris at 10:11 AM
December 2, 2008
Quantum of Solace

Coal Miner's Daughter. I haven't IMDB'd or Googled to see if this is the prototypical musician biopic, but it's the first one I remember that went into some of the sordid details. I remember Doolittle Lynn being interviewed about the movie, and it took a lot of guts for he and Loretta to let them tell the movie this way. The first part of this movie in particular is pretty amazing, and it's hard to stop watching Tommy Lee Jones and Sissy Spacek.

Quantum of Solace. Has every new Bond actor been described as "what Ian Fleming REALLY had in mind with the character?" It seems so, but it's not hard to believe with Daniel Craig. I remember being thrilled when Brosnan took over the role, and I'm just as thrilled with Craig.

What's particularly unique about Quantum is how it is a real part 2 to Casino Royale. In fact if you don't remember Casino you might need a refresher. One thing I also needed was someone to help me with who was who after it was over. I enjoyed the movie a lot, but I left wondering 1) who Vesper had been working for, 2) why everyone was so intent on Bond forgiving her, when she did in fact betray him, and 3) have all the villains we've had since Casino been a part of Quantum? I have it now (thanks to friend McFall), but it confused me without ruining the movie.

What is exemplary about these last two films is how they have maintained a single arc:can Bond, just starting out as a double-0, do what it takes to work for MI-6? Can he seduce women and not give away his heart? Can he do his duty without letting emotions get in the way? We know he'll develop into a master spy, but these films show us an unfinished Bond we've not seen before.

One of the most interesting relationships Bond has is with M, and Judi Dench has the best time of it that she's had in the previous 5 or 6 films. Their scenes are the highlights, as she and her team track him through the best cell phone ever. If they choose never to go back to the style of multi-function wrist-watches and invisible cars and stick with that cell-phone, it will be fine.

A few quibbles with it here and there: the Instantly Exploding Hotel seemed a bit of a set piece at the end; it seemed everyone knew the intimate details of Bond's inner struggle; and unless I am just slow it would be nice not to have the plot explained to me afterwards. I'd also like to see Bond's refinement include less Jason Bourne-style action as well.

Posted by Chris at 12:17 PM
December 1, 2008
Various notes to share with the people

Note to young rockers singing from a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Float: Next time you find yourself performing from a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Float, just know that what you are doing cannot be described as "rocking."

Note to Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day email: Less obscure etymology cases and more words I can actually use, please. Look, my vocabulary is actually shrinking. The amount of time I spend searching for a word is increasing every day, and you're sending me "chawbacon" and "hypeathral" and "gravid." I'd be happy if you just sent me synonyms for "annoying" for a while.

Note to third-generation autoworker in Michigan: I'm in danger of losing my job, too - but I think everyone assumes I'll have to adjust and keep up with the market if I want to be employable.

Here's a comic strip I made starring Mazinga:


Fears of the Dark. Of about five shorts (I think) the last two were good. These would be fantastic to be played individually as shorts in front of other horror films. The Rorshach interludes I could have done without, and I'd have enjoyed the "wild dogs" connective scenes more if they were actually connective.

Inland Empire. On the first viewing, and it will be my last, I don't believe there is anything here that wasn't already done in Mulholland Drive. There is a lot of movie here; I wish it had been more interesting.

Synecdoche, NY. Wildly imaginative, on an epic scale. From talking it over with others, I think you'll need to have loved Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation to really enjoy this, but how can you miss a Charlie Kaufman movie? He's this decade's Terry Gilliam.

Star Wars: Clone Wars. How the series has fallen. I don't mind that an entry into the series is animated - the Genndy Tartakovsky Clone Wars episodes on TV were better in some ways than some of the last three films - but the continuing story of Anakin Skywalker gets thinner and thinner. Not to get into THIS whole discussion, but certainly a major shortcoming of the last three films is that the massive battles and generals and factions were not just backdrops for interesting characters - they were the whole story. I think Star Wars fans are more interested in a post #3 Darth Vader than they are a post #2 Anakin Skywalker.

Posted by Chris at 12:46 PM