Saturday, January 22, 2011

Netflix-a-thon (#22) BOMBSHELL (1996)

It's important to distinguish which Bombshell this is - it's in no relation to the Jean Harlow vehicle from the 1930's, but rather a very cheap quickie for video from the mid 90's staring the kid who played Elliot in E.T. and with other forgettable performances, some by people we may have seen before like Frank Wahley (the "What" guy from Pulp Fiction and Brion James who also appeared as a nefarious-looking guy in the sci-fi classic Blade Runner), and some not so much (any of the female actresses with hair ranging from Beverly Hills 90210 to Ramona Flowers flavored).  It's got a stupid-as-bricks plot that only gets stupider by the execution.  One should know what they're getting into from the start by a) the picture given on the little icon-image for the movie, a picture of Henry Thomas in green lighting, b) the description giving it as a "Brightly colored sci-fi future", and c) it involves a guy who gets his kidney removed and replaced with a bomb.

Woops, did I say 'bomb', I meant acid, or something like some weird chromosome or neurons or I don't know what.  Sadly the Netflix description actually spoils the   This is because the director, Paul Wynne, who actually, I shit you not, has this as "a Paul Wynne Mix" instead of "film", doesn't really care too much about the mechanics of the plot.  He's more interested in making shit look "cool" or hip.  Certainly the movie is caught in kind of a mid-90's timewarp as Henry Thomas has hair out of Seattle Grunge and as do the women I mentioned before, attractive (Madchen Amick and Pamela Gidley), and with the look of the film being all about "colors".  This is indeed just one big Starbust pack of a movie, with bright yellows and greens, the latter which makes things look like there was no one looking after the green-screen on set, also purples, blues, reds, so on.  There's even a scene where a kidnapper-ransom person has all of these vials of things that could be chemicals, but who cares, it looks so shiny and colorful.

The producer after trying to approach Wynne about changes to his "Mix"
If Wynne was looking to make a commercial for Crayola, mission accomplished.  But as far as storytelling goes, its kind of a big mess, as there is some intrigue at first with neurons and sub-atomic particles and gene-stuff that is way over my head even with badly worded exposition, and characters so thin you can bend them over with the wind.  And what does Wynne do to compensate?  By having lots and lots of CRAAAZY shots.  You know the kind, a would-be Terry Gilliam doing lots of dutch angles, usually moving from left to right to straight in dolly shots, and lots of warped angles with fish-eye lenses and close-ups.  In a weird way it might be cruel to say the director isn't creative, as he is.  He just doesn't do anything with any of his possible skills for any good for the story.

It's an overdose of style, and it doesn't help a script that is just... silly deep down, involving a case of a MacGuffin inside of the lead character- and the character not doing the logical thing like, say, going to the hospital or the cops.  Sure, one might argue that he can't do that as the ransom-kidnapper guy in the mask and would-be Jigsaw voice is no good at what he's trying to do as he ends up sounding awkward and unsure of what he's doing when things don't quite go his way.  It almost comes close to being respectable again by having such a bumbling villain.  And then one has to try and put some logic into the movie, and it falls apart all over again.  And some of it is just WTF laden, like a mention at the end of "Coming up next: Shredder".  Huh?  From the Ninja Turtles?  Since when did he get his own daytime talk show?

This was Elliot from ET.  This is Elliot from E.T. on drugs.  Any questions?
There's an overlong car chase without many other cars or pedestrians, a car crash flashback done with stock footage (!) and acting that is either stiff and uninspired or just trying to be over-the-top (the villain, who when revealed is just so obvious as to inspire so much laughter).  It's just a really bad ticking-time-clock scenario with a lead from Thomas showcasing why he never made it: not that he isn't talented, but that he didn't pick his roles as wisely as others in his young age range.  Thankfully it's such bumbleheaded work as a movie mix that it gives a lot to chew on for bad movie lovers looking for a laugh.  And in case you were wondering, there isn't a blonde to be seen in the whole work.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Netflix-a-thon (#21) Jack Nicholson's GOIN' SOUTH

I love Jack Nicholson.  That's just one of those common things to say, like "the sky is blue" or "chicken is yummy."  Sure, some of you out there may have been annoyed by Nicholson at times in some of his films, he's had his stumbles and sometimes been in some flawed films (one of which his most recent, How Do You Know).  But there's just something that is completely irresistible about his star quality and acting ability.  When Nicholson is on he's ON, but, like Pacino, he can also be subtle, calm, reserved, observant and generous as an actor to those around him like in the underrated The Pledge or even the quiet moments in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  There's barely a time I can find something wrong with what he does, unless, for the most part, if the character isn't written well or the other actors don't help.  He's "Jack", and I and most of the world enjoys watching him get away with something on screen, and with a grin and a eyebrow shuffle.

So it's with some sadness that I have to report that Goin' South isn't great art from an auteur.  No, thankfully, Nicholson already tried for that and (somewhat) succeeded with his first film as director, Drive, He Said (the only one of his three directed films that he didn't act in).  For this, it's a "movie" as Hollywood might say, and as my pop-in-law would say it's what could be categorized under "a hoot".  I'm not sure if it's the funniest western comedy... no, that's a lie, as nothing is technically better than Blazing Saddles.  But as a screwball Western, which is one of those rare breeds (maybe Cat Ballou also joins it or, unintentionally as comedy, Paint Your Wagon).  It's premise is right out of a screwball comedy, only if it were directed by Anthony Mann: an outlaw, one of a gang, gets caught by a possee trying to get to Mexico and is taken back to town to hang.  But before he's let loose at the gallows he's told of a provision that he can escape his demise if a woman goes to marry him.  A woman raises up her hand, an elderly woman, but she'll do... until two seconds later when she drops dead.  Doncha hate when that happens?

Is this cause of my song from Tommy?  It was just a joke!
Sweet Mary Steenburgen (her screen debut) then comes to Henry Lloyd Moon's fate, and the scraggly bearded Nicholson becomes her loyal wedded spouse.  Of course this doesn't mean she has any intimate feelings for the man, on the contrary her main goal is to put him to work as she's working at the mine to possibly find gold to stop a railroad company from taking over her land (yeah, it's one of those kind of dopey Western yarns).  It's from here that some predictable things happen, and not just those that one might expect from a romantic comedy.  Thankfully as it's the 1970's there's some rowdiness even in a PG-rated movie, including much innuendo, some drunken camera moves as Nicholson tries to sweet-talk his 'wife', and then Moon's old gang comes to call when they start sniffing some certain 'find' that he's gotten with Julia Tate-Moon.  Oh, there's some wackiness that ensues, and sometimes to do with John Belushi in a bad moustache.

Yeah, maybe not everything in the movie is funny, like John Belushi's moustache.  Thankfully his few minutes as a bandito-looking sheriff in the small town are more than amusing, and Nicholson ultimately reveals his skills at directing comedy.  Some of this is just from his own confidence at pulling off self-conscious hammy acting.  This is something that may get on viewers nerves, and may account for the rating being a 6.2/10, a decent but not very high rating.  For me it worked completely in the scewball style, which included details like how Christopher Lloyd's town-deputy had the hots for Julia and now can't stand it that Moon's finagled his way into becoming her husband (there's a hilarious scene where he goads him on, and Nicholson turns into a kind of kooky caricature that only Johnny Depp could have pulled off with vigor and goading).

So... Animal House... did you really break a bottle over your head?  Cool!
Not all of the movie works.  The end of the movie wraps up just a little too quick, despite a mostly exciting gun battle that is notably without much blood.  And the music is a little too goofy on the whole, though it's probably the point for it to sound like that with such a goofy story.  What did work for me worked very well, which was the chemistry between the two leads.  It doesn't seem apparent at first, but then again Julia seems to be a cold fish, workmanlike, maybe a tomboy who does a lot of "man's" work for the old-West, and Moon is such a misfit with a lust for drink and rascally facial expressions.  But it's always there, and the comedy that comes out of the awkwardness if genial and fun.  To be honest I'd rather see something a little eccentric like this than a Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy comedy from the 40's, which would be more well-mannered in a way.

So, it sounds convoluted, but I end up in the future, that is a future movie ending up with Christopher Lloyd... yeah.  
Goin' South is best seen a down-and-dirty piece of gritty, eccentric-light comedy.  Nicholson's eye is fine if not superbly attuned as director for a genre piece (hence why I didn't bring up, you know, Sergio Leone or John Ford or someone so grandmaster in comparison, actually Anthony Mann is being generous).  He's helped largely by cinematography by the great Nestor Almendros, who gives some of the best contributions for those tight, claustrophobic scenes in the mine where it's all dark save for a lantern and the two faces of the stars.  And there's such a fun ensemble cast going on here, with Lloyd, Danny De Vito, Veronica Cartwright, Belushi (who may be a little too slapstick for me but has an accent that kills), and Ed Begley Jr, and there's always something for them when they come on-screen, especially when Moon's old gang comes moseying on over in the middle of the night to party down with the Moon couple.

Take it for that, and it's a good ride, and a respectable and professional piece of studio filmmaking that has just that touch of Nicholson rebellion and chance for craziness, mostly in that first fifteen-twenty minutes setting up the movie by almost killing its protagonist.


ADDENDUM: (This made for a kind of odd evening.  At first I was anticipating once this movie ended to jump right into the newly revamped Roger Ebert At the Movies, which did premiere tonight in the NYC area on PBS.  But at the same time as I was watching the movie I paused momentarily and checked my Twitter feed... and I almost wish I had waited till it ended as I read the sad news that Countdown with Keith Olbermann was over as he was leaving the network - whether he quit or was fired it's still not said though he certainly wasn't through with his contract, besides the point - and it messed up my equilibrium watching this goofy movie with Nicholson in the 70's.

But the worst part was that I experienced, and not for the first time but most significantly, a major glitch in my Netflix-streaming watching.  One might think that the viewing experience would be close to perfect, but it's just that, close, but not quite cigar - the experience was tainted tonight by glitches in the viewing, or what are closest to being like skips, and then it suddenly just stopped (and this was about oh seven, eight minutes until the END OF THE MOVIE) and a loading bar showed up that said "Rebuffering".

It never rebuffered, and I had to turn it off to get on to Ebert's premiere.  If anyone else happens to have this problem while watching let me know unless if it's just a temporary thing or just something to do with the internet, at any rate this was quite annoying, not to mention that I had only stopped the film once before, about four minutes in, and then when I had to turn off my system - it turns off automatically after 20 minutes if I don't anyway - it didn't go back to where I'd left off but back to *four minutes into the movie*.

Sadly I've found in this month this has happened a couple other times, though not to the annoyance it's had tonight, especially as it's such a light affair.)

Netflix-a-thon (#20) Paul Schrader's MISHIMA

The life and work of writer Yukio Mishima, whom I knew little about going into Paul Schrader's 1985 film outside of being a very celebrated and popular novelist in Japan and that he killed himself in 1970, is half enough for a movie, and Schrader knew this.  This is why the film, which is broken up as "A Life in Four Chapters", tells not just his life story from awkward stuttering child to rejected-for-war teenager to acclaimed novelist and closet homosexual to his final day on Earth with his comrades, but also that of his works themselves, full of passion and political strife and some hard, sometimes melodramatic choices.  

It's an ambitious artistic achievement that has Schrader, co-writing with his brother Leonard, at his full powers with his talents for storytelling and complex character relationships, investigation into what makes an artistic person with concerns about life and death and physical beauty and "duty" to the empire.  And with collaboration from many key crew and a composer of some (MAJOR) note it soars.  It's sometimes a difficult film, and experimental in how it uses its sets and (fake) locations not to mention color and black and white.  And for a serious cinephile interested in bio-pics that veer from the expected and tried-and-true it's an essential

Mishima, which was his pen name, grew up in a household mostly without a mother, or one that mostly (as the film shows) kept him him inside by his grandmother, who in one semi (or just downright) disturbing scene has her rub her legs through a blanket as she badmouths his mother.  Then it cuts ahead to life with his brother, as they meet girls and poor young some-day Mishima doesn't know what to do with a girl who is also an adolescent and sexually aware.  If you thought the sight of Colin Firth in The King's Speech was awkward from his stammering, this gives that its run of money.  He is, in his time spent with other kids on the playground or with his brother, a social mess, and he realizes at one crucial point in the narration we hear how he differentiates the world and words, and also what would be a constant life-thought: how does one become beautiful?  

In these early scenes, perhaps it was just from knowing more about the director than the subject at hand, but it felt very personal.  Maybe Schrader, despite being from the Mid-West and Calvinist-Dutch upbringing, saw something in Mishima that he would relate to as a big bag of contradictions who had talent but came from a repressive background.  I like when a filmmaker is able to tap into something in the subject and it's not an immediately recognizable thing unless one is very aware of the artist's background and possible connection with it, because it allows for personal expression through 'smuggling', if that makes sense.  Mishima may be more about Schrader in some respects than it is about the man himself, or what we could ever know about him.  It's a tale told of a man's life as he's certain of his abilities, and keeps his darker secrets mostly hidden, and has a view of the world that has beauty and the darkness of death, and when it comes to his artistic sensibility, there's no choice except to write and make films, as Mishima did until he resolved to die himself.  

In other words, the film is not easy to peg on a first viewing.  Mishima wrote stories that were more easily definable, though still with complex emotional components, and they're recreated here in the film, interspersed with Mishima flashbacks to youth and to his successful days as a writer, traveling the world, seeing how he could "become" beautiful, and becomes politically active at speeches.  These recreations of stories are the first exposure I've had to them (all stories and novels, of which he had many, unread by me), but that doesn't matter so much.  What does is how they're expressed with all of these sets which are precisely artificial in the colors, how it is in a stage and sometimes constrictive with how much space there is.  At first this was unsettling, but I found myself drawn into these sets, sometimes not noticing how staged it was.  

The "Runaway Horses" story, about a group of political revolutionaries against Capitalism and who meet a violent fate, was probably my favorite, as it had some of the best acting and the tightest grip on its dramatic structure.  But the other stories are intriguing as well, for the romance and freedom with sexuality, and especially how this is all shot.  I have to stress this so you know: this film is achingly beautiful in how it's shot by John Bailey, as he and Schrader devise a way to make colors stick out more than in a naturalistic work, and then when it cuts to black and white scenes they're sharply drawn in its characters and settings, timeless really, as if they were shot yesterday or 70 years ago.  Even in those few moments where the Mishima stories went into some bizarre little sections (usually to do with, as mentioned, some melodramatic stuff and some violence with lovers scorned and so-on), I was unable to look away from the smallest detail in the cinematography.  

It's surprising somewhat as I almost, kind of, expected something more austere from a director like Schrader, who isn't known for having such lush, vibrant strokes as someone like his contemporary Scorsese.  But it's a fever and passion that never stops in the film, mostly attuned to how the characters have this kind of underlying passion underneath some of the formalism of Japanese culture and tradition.  This even extends to the sequences with Mishima and his men on the fateful date in 1970 as they drive to their deaths.  By turns of how rich and moving Schrader shoots the film and directs his actors, he emphasizes how crucial the point is for Mishima: that his eventual death must have some meaning, and by how he chooses it.  In a way the whole movie is about how to choose to die, but also how to live before it, or create stories to live through.  It almost has no choice as a film but to be beautiful.  

And how can I forget to mention Philip Glass?  Good Dog this is among the top-top peaks of his career as a composer.  He still plays on the same kinds of orchestral themes he's done throughout his career (surely some may hear some Koyanisquaatsi here), but he has variations, times when he goes into some unexpected places.  Like a rock and roll song in one of the stories!  There are rare moments here like out of the greatest pieces of cinema where image and music connect so wonderfully.  Glass gets maybe more than the director does how important every stroke of strings are in scenes like a young man trying to find a way to cut his belly in Seppuku.  It's an intense whole work that compliments or perhaps criticizes as it goes along in a way; as there is a contradiction or unusual angle on screen, Glass' music highlights it, or makes it just a little stranger, or reminds us how achingly human it has to be to be this man, or a character in one of these stylized-artificial stories.

As yet another story that starts off and often stays , as Paul Schrader himself put it, as a "Man in a room" preparing for something and going by any means to execute his plan, it's never less than compelling.  He's a character I will enjoy again on a revisit of the film; Mishima is a character who is by turns dead serious, witty and charming, solemn, and with an inner-life that can never let go of the pain of his youth without a ritualistic demise.  It is, finally, why I sometimes can affix the term "meditative" on a film and not feel embarrassed for loving it all the same: it meditates on the soul, sex, pain, duty, and honor with maturity, grace, and questioning all the same as he was, at least some of the time, out of his gourd.  

(PS: Thank you Criterion for allowing this to be available via Instant-view; I've meant to see this for years, before on DVD and once on a re-release in theaters.  It's the only way to go in terms of its remastering for music and image.)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

How to dream as a Cinephile

I read this article today over at the website Mubi written by Doug Dibern, and it's sparked in my mind about how crucial it is for a cinephile to keep on dreaming about movies, and those particularly never seen or wanting to see, or maybe never to see at all.  It's a powerful thing for a cinephiliac (if that's a word) to keep on imagining about other movies and to keep harping on what they might be like, even if they turn out to be hellish wastes of space by the likes of Hershel Gordon Lewis or (gulp) Uwe Boll.  It's the kind of essay that keeps me plugged in to why it is that I keep at finding films, but also the importance of expectation and want and desire and (that dirty word) hope.

Yes we can... dream about movies.  What, healthcare?  Uh... (runs off)
The article was mostly about the lust for fantastical glory over finding the missing print of Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons, but there was also a mention of a book, Film as a Subersive Art by Amos Vogel that caught my attention.  I read through the book, or the sections that looked most interesting, some years ago and it's the kind of movie guide that any serious cinephile should procure.  It's an essential guide to films that are underground, independent, or just "dangerous", and has reviews of both capsule-Leonard-Maltin length and full on essays.  Some filmmakers were known to me quite well, like Godard and Bunuel and Dusan Makavejev (director of WR Mysteries of the Organism), and others, not so much, mostly from the NY Underground and films like Oh Dem Watermelons (click on the link, it exists, I dare ya).

The thing that I related to in this article, and I had known it before but hadn't seen it articulated quite so well in sentences and verbs, was this:

"I’m not talking about the experience of watching a movie and being disappointed. I’m talking about the notion that when you see a movie that you loved but hadn’t yet seen, you’ve erased an aspect of your identity that once nourished you. Each of those movies either fulfilled or frustrated my expectations, but by seeing them I diminished myself as a human being. There was a void now where once those movies used to breathe."

It's such a fascinating thing, and something that is a profound thing for a movie-goer who searches high and low for movies that are just under the radar or obscure.  Dibern's journey through movies has taken him to a point where he's more philosophical than I would have been years before.  But I can understand it: once the hill is conquered, it's not quite the same.  I'm sure I could try and find many of the obscure lot of films from Vogel's text, some of them in museums, some in the deep dark pits of Ebay, some now just surfacing on the back catalogs of the studio's vaults.  And maybe finally seeing that obscure movie takes away that part of myself that was there, hoping, wanting, not sure but with a piece of my mind that was secure to myself, uncorrupted by the actual dream on celluloid (to get all pretentious about it)

Still from a movie I don't remember, but wish I've seen... maybe.
But the other facet to the article I can also relate to is hope.  Not to get all Obama on you, but it is good to hope for something, at least when you have a geek-like passion on a subject or piece of entertainment or escapism or, especially, art.  And it's getting tougher to hope in an environment that is becoming easier and easier with access to things; at the same time I was reading this article, I also came across somewhat unrelatedly an essay written by comic Patton Oswalt about how "Geek Culture" as those of us over the age of 25 would know it, is dying, or has been dying for a while as anything can be found at any time online.  While his observations mostly extend to those small passions that have now become part of the mainstream (i.e. the passion of a D&D fan the same as a Desperate Housewives housewife sect), I think it also extends over to motion pictures.

It may seem futile to find certain things after so much time in the face of a world where so much is available, if only by bit-torrent (albeit me being not-so technically inclined trying to track down, for example, Andy Warhol's Blue Movie on a download site and not being able to figure out how to download the fucker is even more infuriating).  And it may also be counter-intuitive given this past month being Netflix-month - a month dedicated to going through the files available on a service where eventually everything could be conceivably available there.  Maybe a part of me wants to lose some of the hope in finding that one movie I hadn't seen before and had been searching for years and lo and behold it's right there and just a click away and I can rate it later if I so choose.

Orson Welles tries magic to find the missing Ambersons print and turns up... Rita Hayworth, bah, who needs that?

But it's a feeling that should be nourished, if only for a little while.  The 'Ambersons' anecdote he tells is vivid and incredible, like one can picture Welles digging film cans of his sophmore treasure into the ground with the fervor and urgency of Harry Lime running through the sewer in The Third Man.  There were movies like that for me, and as I ponder them writing this it does become sadder, a little less fruitful.  There never stops being a time when I search for new-old films or old-new films, but there were acquisitions over time where now there is a void.  I remember finding  a used-battered VHS copy of Jean-Luc Godard's King Lear and... oh holy hell, it's still a WTF forever and ever.  But as I watched in agape horror at Woody Allen rambling poetic nonsense at the end over slow motion of a horse running on a beach, I should have known it and know it better now: I can never quite relive that again, even as a horrific experience sitting along and clutching my pillow to dear life at the agony of it.

So one just has to keep on dreaming about films, and those unseen, and maybe the film built up is better than the one that will be revealed.  On my facebook I have a photo album of "Where in the World is This Movie?" and the list is about twenty-strong, but could dwindle tomorrow.  One such movie that was on the list up until a few months ago (though still unwatched) is Alejandro Jodorowsky's Tusk.  This is one of those works that some movie fans drool over and others raise an eyebrow in 'huh' anticipation.  It's a movie about the friendship between a little girl and an elephant in India directed by a man who previously had a gunslinger and his naked son killing people across Mexico (El Topo) and a woman who uses her son's arms to exact revenge (Santa Sangre).

I can imagine so much potential with something like Tusk, or such disaster.  I see a lot of psychedelic colors flying about and music out of Satyajit Ray booming out as a little girl does somersaults on the top of an elephant as it rushes across a village.  And I also see Jodorowksy playing a guru with a beard as long as Mandingo's dick writing scripture on a tablet and pontificating about this and that and the other.  I can dream those things... and yet also I know deep down it's not true.  It's very likely a dull movie, and one that has perhaps stayed in such obscurity for a reason (I procured it under a stroke of luck by a bootleg seller online, though the quality of the DVD-R leaves much to be desired).  Perhaps the paradox is that if a movie were as crazy as I might try to imagine, I would have seen it already, or it would be more readily available.
Actually, this may be even more entertaining to imagine now that I think of it as it will never exist.  Holy shit this could've been awesome.
There are other movies on the list I count off- Fellini's Voice of the Moon (his last movie!), Visconti's The Stranger (this one baffles me as it's a director of some note plus Albert Camus plus Marcello Mastroianni), Fassbinder's Desire, which also boasts writing by Nabokov and Tom Stoppard.  Such possibilities and maybe, just maybe, they should stay that way.  It's an interesting disposition to have, that dichotomy of Hope with a movie, of it being seen some day, and then actually seeing it and that experience being something else.  As a collector, as a geek I treasure that, of venturing off to, say, the Film Forum in NYC and finally after years and years of searching to see a screened print of Samuel Fuller's Park Row.  It's hard to equate the pleasure of that, and the hope likewise that the film will be great.

But it's another thing to not have that, for the hope to keep itching, that the Great White Whale of an Ambersons is out there somewhere, or the dream of it.  This is the kind of thought process from this article that would make me want to dream more about those films, my "own" versions playing in my mind (or, more succinctly put in the essay, " order for us to nurture that aspect of hope that is tied to our cinephilia, it seems that we must keep some films in the realm of the imagination."  Or, in Donald Rumsfeld speak, the "known Unknowns", the things we know that we don't know.  Or, as I would like to put it, my dream vs. their dream, a steel cage match in an imaginarium.  Point is: keep on the search for movies, but for those that are so elusive that seem impossible to find, make up your own story or version.  Your mind is a thing to waste only on alcohol and Jersey Shore, and maybe only the first one in moderation.

Or to put it one last way that might resonate with some of you more 'mainstream' moviegoers as some of the other examples might be too "arty" for some, think back to around 1998, early 1999.  Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace had been announced that it would be released in the summer.  Oh joy of joys, one might say! Finally taking one back in the Star Wars universe, and more crucially for us SW geeks the stories not yet told of those Clone Wars and years where Anakin Skywalker was a young, great star-pilot, cunning warrior and good friend of Obi-Won Kenobi in the Old Jedi Knights Banana Republic Club.  Such dreams to have with that, about what planets they visit, what creatures from that period, the battles, the languages!  Or how they handle the mother of Luke and Leia, a strong woman who is given very little back-story in the original trilogy.  And the dark side, and the rise of Palpatine to power (Elect Palpatine Now!)

If little Ani sees his shadow, does that mean he go back in his slavedom forever?
Every one of us going into it had some kind of hope about it, and no one's hope was quite like the other's.  Then we all saw the movie... and it took a while for some to sink in that this was NOT the dream, at all, that any of us really had, and we had to conform to it.  There is always the chance that the prequels or just the entire series could be rebooted one day, and maybe it could be improved upon to just give some good stories and characters that are well-rounded and have some interesting features.  But there is no way to go back to those initial dreams and hopes.  A million dreams cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced one day by George Lucas, some sooner than others.  Maybe sometimes being a geek kind of sucks.  And some times the dream can backfire.  It would be incredible to find someone today who has only seen the original trilogy, and who has their thoughts about what episodes 1-2-3 would be about... or maybe just (pleasantly for them) blank slates, unnecessary to fill as 4-5-6 were made just so.

Make some sense?  Dreams do feel real, don't they?  It's only after we wake up (or go see the projected ones) that we realize something was strange....

the flooding end of dreaming

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Netflix-a-thon (#18/19) Spike Lee's A HUEY NEWTON STORY & KRUSH GROOVE

Two movies back to back, and up to no good... I don't mean that, like, I didn't like them, I meant in the slang that... oh, I'm white, my bad, nevermind.

Huey P. Newton may not be as well known to people from 'my' generation- meaning those who grew up in the majority of time after his death (1989).  He was one of the co-founders of the Black Panter party.  According to Wikipedia, he became the head of the 'Ministry of Defense' by a coin toss with Bobby Seale, and then there were some ups and downs... mostly downs, and a lot of them (though not all) brought on by 'The Man' and fucking with him and sending him to prison for a murder he didn't commit, and then spent the 70's in the wake of the Blank Panther party to do... well, to try and figure out what kind of responsibility he had as a "leader", a term that, if one believes this live performance/mixed media film, he wasn't very comfortable with, certainly not as a Socialist.

Since my knowledge of him going into it was not very wide-reaching, I had to judge the work by its own terms, as theatrical presentation all-around.  It's a theater piece that, like other times Spike Lee has done, is caught on film with vivid colors and light and a camera that is either constantly on the move or in an angle that seems to be too unusual to be filmed all live, plus edited-in newsreel footage either cut in or screened behind the actor.  I have to wonder if this was filmed like like other productions like Freak or Original Kings of Comedy.  It might make sense that he stopped the performance to get another angle, or that, because it's being taped, Roger Gueneveur Smith would have stopped for the director.  Or it's all just really planned out and to-the-T timing on Lee's part.  There's not a fault on his part I could find.

As for Smith, his performance is something different.  I was always feeling on edge with how he did Huey Newton, and it was a strage edge.  I have to take it on the basis of the performance, which is at the least convincing of being full of passion and paranoia, that this was how Newton was.  Smith makes Newton into an equally charismatic and scary figure, one whose eyes have that cold-dark stare like someone at war (or, more approximately, a revolutionary who sometimes scares himself "like an onion, crying at the present" he says).  Sometimes this did work for me, and his rapport with the audience, whether they were for real or planeted by Lee, had a good genuine up-beat quality transforming it a little past a usual theater-monologue into a shared theater work.

Other times, I... I don't want to say Smith is not talented, because it's completely clear he is.  But it's such a fast performance, with words flying faster than an Aaron Sorkin script on methamphetamines, that it's hard to keep up, and with an accent out of one of the side characters from JFK or something: real New Orleans creole sound.  Again, this isn't to denigrate the performance, but a few moments I just heard my head screaming "Just QUIET for one second!"  And yet just as I would think that, the performance would slow down, and something wonderful would occur.  Huey talks about the savage nature of a circus geek and how a geek has to be cunning and quick with the chicken and toss out just one bone to remind everyone else looking in they are the geeks; an analogy for black repression in America.  It's a chilling passage, but even better is what comes after as he gets up and does a groovin' dance to Bob Dylan's "Balad of a Thin Man" (some of it, not all of it), cigarette flying.

The mood is tense and taut, but the material Smith delivers, with the kind of intensity of a professional who never loses for an instant his own conviction and stamina for the real person and the themes, is absorbing.  You want to know more about him after it ends, as it feels oddly enough as though this just scratches the surface about the movement and history.  At the least there is a sense of this man, who had a biting, sardonic sense of humor, bitter at those around him and somewhat at himself, and just at a society that doesn't see how its in revolution always.  It's a radical little production and direction for a radical who was as vulnerable as he was vicious and, indeed, kind of crazy, and its only liability is some repetitiveness in its performance and (by nature of its location) some of the shots.  And it gives some great references to Macbeth ("ghetto gangster, Act V Scene V) and Black Orpheus as a bonus.

And now for something a weee-bit different (though still right out of the streets and into your theater seats):

It's impossible, or close to it, to try and talk about Krush Groove the way that a usual movie review would go about it.  I can't really speak much to the quality of the direction as its by a hack-for-hire (the director Michael Schultz has such illustrious credits to him like Car Wash, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Rock 'n' Roll Mom, so let's not go to his oeuvre so fast), and while its cinematographer is a man with some name recognition for buffs, Ernest Dickerson of many of Spike Lee's best films, it too isn't anything to write at length in detailed form (save maybe for one interior bedroom scene at Sheila E's place in the middle of the night that's kind of moody).  And the plot, oh, don't go there too fast.

If I had to try and sum up the story it would have to just come down to this: it's got two stories, one more dramatic and one more comic, more or less (emphasis on that really), and one is about the start of the careers of rappers RUN DMC, Kurtis Blow and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde via Russell Simmons and Def Jam Records plus Sheila E, and the other is about, yup, The Fat Boys, the rappers who are up to no good at the Sbarro's All-You-Can-Eat buffet.  But if I were to tell someone about this movie, or more to the point tell them if Krush Groove is worth they're time on Netflix or to seek out on DVD, then telling about the story would be third or fourth, if at all, on my list of things to talk about.  It's got a story about as complicated as that of Burlesque, only with slightly better (just slightly, like by a nose-hair's length) dialog.

It's tricky to rock and rhyme, but the deficit, we could do that, no problemo.
No, no, good reader, see this because it's got mother-busting RUN DMC, Kurtis Blow, (most of all for some guilty-pleasure fans) The Fat Boys, and a slew of other memorable and not-so-memorable old-school rap acts out of the mid 1980's NYC rap scene.  It's a time and place that seems so ancient now even as it was still part of the post-modern era that we're in now.  It's got some lay-overs from the 70's- a disco club that the rappers go to after a gig, for example, and some of the music seems to carry over from it in the beats- but its really its own thing.  It's amazing to me that aside from the talent that is actually on display, how effective Run and DMC and everyone else were at the time of crafting they're raps to be about things, if only sometimes about having fun, is that it's a rap age that had a slight innocence to it.  This isn't to say Kurtis Blow or other rappers like Grandmaster Flash didn't rap about real shit going on in the streets, but the tone was different, less of the "Bitches and money" crappola that's sunken rap into the shitter for so long.

To see the rappers in this movie, from the main acts to the "smaller" ones (um, LL Cool J and The Beastie Boys for brief appearances), are to see acts that can stupify with the ease with which they lay their tricky rock-and-rhymes.  Not all of the acts blow one out of the water- Sheila E's first song (not the Hollyrock, the other one) is weak, and New Edition, well, let's not go their shall we into aluminum-foil suit-ville.  But the ones that do make the movie a lot of fun, as nostalgia and just as straight musical entertainment that flows well.  And when it means to be a comedy, as silly as it can be with those joyful idiot Fat Boys, it's very funny (the buffet I mentioned before had me cracking up laughing, and I knew it was intentional comedy thankfully).  It's when it's a drama that it's a little shakier since not all of the actors, even the real ones like Blair Underwood playing the Simmons surrogate, have much experience.  They do alright, but it's a storyline that is so cookie cutter it's biggest shock is how fast it goes through the motions.

Needs more Ding-Dong, man, Ding-Dong
Krush Groove, sadly, didn't become bigger than E.T. like the original bet was between Ben Affleck and Matt Damon in Kevin Smith's Dogma.  But in its own right, for some, maybe it had (or could have?) just as much a special place on the video shelf.  It works best as a slice of a time period, with some dated clothes and still funky and wicked beats and Rick Rubin (!) and cool rhymes done by people who know what they're doing.  Sometimes with a music movie I just want to be able to go as soon as the movie ends to check out as much of the music as possible.  You can rest assured, and hopefully this is the big recommendation, a Fat Boys CD will be coming express mail by the end of this week.

Netflix-a-thon (#17) Lamorisse's THE RED BALLOON

This really was what I needed today, or rather tonight.  I spent all day at work and then decided to stick around in this empty office all the way up in the ass-crack-of-Manhattan (i.e. at the tip-end near the Bronx) to do some extra work that I do from time to time with filing.  And then, to fill some of you in on my personal details as they're a need-to-know basis in this blog, I saw a notification on my blackberry schedule pop up that R.W. Fassbinder's World of Wires was playing tonight at the MoMA... in fifteen minutes.  (I then proceeded to go into a tirade much like the Duke of York does when asked by Lionel in The King's Speech to let out some obscenities and they come FLYING out).  That, added with one of those finger-jams in-between a chair and a desk and then a freeze-up of the computer, left me quite an un-happy Jack indeed.

So, off I sauntered off to another computer at the office, and turned on Netflix-instant.  The reason I was staying at work in the first place was to wait for my wife as I offered a ride home.  As she would need another hour or so to arrive, I figured this wasn't enough time to watch a full 90 minute feature, but I wasn't in the mood for a short cartoon or TV show, and wanted to kill two birds by notching off another on my now-far-behind Netflix-a-Thon.  And then this popped up...

The Red Balloon is one of those movies that you either see when you're a kid or you have to catch up on when you're an adult.  I sadly come in at the latter stage, having for some reason not have been one of the many children who get to see this on 16mm film prints at elementary schools, nor introduced by my parents (no, no, they wanted me to watch "real" films when I was eight like Citizen Kane and The Shining, but I digress).  But either way you come to it, it really is one of those must-see pictures that comes along.  And while it's a short film, it has the substance and weight for a memory of a feature, and perhaps can carry more meaning by being so short.  It's one of those things in cinema, like Singin' in the Rain or Chaplin pictures, that you have to affix the word 'WONDERFUL' like it's an FDA seal of approval on beef.

There isn't much to it, on paper, as it would seem to be just the misadventures of a little boy and his red balloon in the streets of Paris.  But what-oh, what a balloon it is!  As told by Albert Lamorisse, his tale is shot in a pre-New-Wave (or just right at the start of Nouvelle Vague) on the streets and usually hand-held and with all non-actors and some people just right off the streets, but with the kind of aesthetic that one would see in modern memory in Spielberg pictures.  In fact if this wasn't sen by Spielberg multiple times before making E.T. the Extra Terrestrial I'll eat my stock of hats.  It's a boy and bed friend story, and with fantastical proportions.

How fantastical?  On the obvious side of things, it's that the balloon, it so would appear, has a 'mind' of its own.  This is charming on a level all kids will relate to, but also that adults, if one isn't too cold and hard and cynical-bitten, can harp back on: inanimate things not only can but *do* take on lives of their own.  What's whimsical (or perhaps if one has to put it cute) about the film is how the balloon is alive everywhere, and eager to try and follow the little boy Pascal wherever he goes.  Sometimes the boy can't stand to be without him, but other times, like a dog, it just has to stay outside.  "No Balloons Alloooowed" is all but written on some of these adults' store doors.  Stupid adults, who needs em?

The other fantastical thing to me was the look of the film, the colors of it.  The city, which could be Paris or any other urban place - I kept on picturing the one Charlie Bucket runs around in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory - and it's full of drab colors, grays and beige and some blacks and browns, and the kids and streets and buildings all have this look, and the weather as well is ugly and muddy and wet.  And then there's this red balloon, looking much like a lollipop on steroids, and it bounces around looking almost just like a special effect.  The balloon is the eager puppy-oddity of the world that sticks out enough to be noticed, and sometimes not all of the people (i.e. other kids) who wouldn't treat it right pick on it.  I could go into further exposition about it being a metaphor for imagination in the modern world, but then I'd be here all night and where would you be?

Indeed that's where the conflict and drama comes up in The Red Balloon is how it so sticks out and has such a disposition to follow its own balloon-nose (it even chases a skirt at one point in the form of a blue balloon a little girl carries) that other kids can't stand it.  Why should Pascal have all the fun?  Why hog all of the balloon?  And in such a drab post-war environment where nobody has much color at all should there be such a bright rouge thing like that floating about.  Thankfully the end of the movie, once it reaches its semi-tragic conclusion, picks back up to something that is so downright genius that it made me forget every worry I had in the world for just a moment and I savored the screen of a little boy and his "friends" the balloons.

If balloons could talk, these two might go "R-r-r-reeeeddeee!" "Bbluuue!"
This is quality artistry; not one shot is wasted and the attention to the balloon as a character more than a prop is incredible.  At times I had to wonder if it was just a special effect, that they somehow rotoscoped it in in some kind of early 50's fx miracle.  But no, it's all there, and the joy that the boy feels is reflected for the audience.  I would hate to meet the crumudgen who would say 'this is lame' and go on with their miserable lot.    It's a cheerful story told with a cheerful outlook on life, akin to something out of Jim Henson or Walt Disney when he's not at his schmaltziest.  And most importantly it's there as a work like Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are (if not quite as complex intellectually) in how it works so well for children as they can project themselves with the main character, and for adults it brings one back to that feeling of youth and gleeful abandon with escapism (and, as reviews I've read of it seem to give the impression, everyone who sees it as a child remembers it fondly).  And with barely any dialog!  Pure cinema, as one might say!

And did I mention the music?  That, too, is timeless.  

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


(possible spoilers ahead)

I have a lot of respect for this movie.  I did going in to it.  It's one thing that it's an independent film, about just two characters falling in love, or something like it, and then falling much out of love (or something close to it).  It's another that it's getting attention and hopefully being seen by people who can actually enjoy characters who have something to them outside of the usual tropes that come with romance stories.  This is not to say Blue Valentine isn't something we haven't seen before: it's a doomed romance tale.  And it has some overtones of dysfunction right from the start.  For some this will be very tragic.  For others put of by the constant (over)improvising, it might be too much of a too-little thing.

For me, Blue Valentine was never dis-engaging.  I can have things to nit-pick, and I do, but it's always a work coming from a director, Derek Cianfrance, who wants nothing more than to have two people that we might care about, just a little, and with the story being them.  It's the start of the relationship, the start of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy's (Michelle Williams) marriage, and the end, the former shown over a couple of months, the latter shown over just one 48 hour period that goes disastrously wrong.  Why not show the middle?  Would there be much else to show aside from taking care of the kid?

Oh yes, there is a child in the mix, however one of the nice ambiguities is that Cindy, who previously had a dick of a boyfriend who had sex with her unprotected just before she met Dean, doesn't quite know who the father is either, or maybe knows and Dean knows but is fine with it.  It's the right thing to do, perhaps, being a father to a kid to support the woman that he loves.  At the same time it's also the thing that, arguably, is what throws the biggest monkey wrench into what was a pleasant and un relationship; early on in their courtship, after meeting at a rest home Dean worked at and that Cindy was at to visit her grandmother, we see joking, laughing, singing, dancing, caresses.  On a normal level they could have been alright, just what Cindy was looking for after her trouble with the pushy ex Bobby.

But then where would the movie be in its tale?  As a doomed-romance tale we need to see this disintigrate before our eyes, and one of the clever things visually (maybe my favorite small-aspect of the film) is when Dean, trying to just get away from everything after a bad incident where their dog dies, makes a call to go away for the night to one of those "Romance Motel" rooms.  The interior of the room is a "future" room (or as Tommy Wiseau would say, it's not *A* room, it's *The* room), and it's not the wide open space one might expect with a lover's suite.  It's cramped with light blue fluorescent lighting and with the walls looking like aluminum foil, with a cramped bathroom and cramped floors.  This gave such a good dimension to bring out for the actors the angst that rises up for the characters, how much from the start Cindy isn't it to it (and hey, can one blame her, she's away from her kid and the dog just died), and how Dean gets upset that she's not into it (and hey, can you blame him, he got this room just for her to drink and fuck and the dog just died)... Yeah.

If I could nitpick about some things it's not so much about feeling sympathy for one character over another or feeling one is worse off than the other- they're a match made under the right emotions at the wrong time- but about some of the improvised acting.  I love improv acting, especially when people know how to do it well, and it's hard to find better people than Ryan Gosling or Michelle Williams.  But the former actor gets so into it and so intense that he isn't reigned in quite enough by the director; there were times I could sense I knew he was being so natural that it was overtly naturalistic (such as repeating certain words or phrases), which could also be a fault of the director not saying when ti cut.

There were also a few scenes, though short, that seemed to be there to give some character background or development that felt flat, or just abbreviated, and they're both at Cindy's parent's dinner table.  Her father is a caricature of paternal stern-aggression that leaves one cold, and then when it's the first dinner with Dean over he relays the basics of his background (janitor father, fled mother, no high school diploma).  It felt cursory to me.

What worked best and what brought out the qualities of the characters that resonated was just simple body language, even if it was Gosling playing Dean as a goofy, impulsive kind of guy.  I did like that about Gosling's work here, and then later giving some complexity to his situation of being a loving father but a loser at "doing" something more than just sub-blue collar work as a house painter.  Michelle Williams is trickier, but that's what I responded to more.  Other critics have noted that her character is colder, more of a blank slate or just an outright bitch.  It's more complicated by Cindy being a smart girl, someone who could have been a doctor instead of a nurse, and made a choice in her life right in the stirrups of an abortion clinic that affected everything from then on.  It comes down to a question of affection over pragmatism, and that for Cindy having a much more solid life than what Dean could give her wasn't enough.  "I can't take this anymore," she says to him in their big blow-up break-up scene.  Can we?

We're dragged through the ringer of this break-up, and it's fascinating to watch the early scenes to spot if it was just fucked from the start, or if things could have been better.  In that sense Blue Valentine is a very romantic movie, in that it romanticizes the past at a very specific point, its barbed quality of reality included, at the point of no return.  Maybe my finding it messy or a little overlong in some scenes or just once or twice predictable (the song featured so prominently in the trailer kind of nails things over the head just a bit) is part of the point.  And at the center are two nakedly honest performances, ones that could only come in a work that allows for character study.  Hollwyood wouldn't know what to do with it... scratch that, Weinstein Boys did, but that's another story altogether.  It's not an "enjoyable" movie, but if you need depressing and heart-rending... and the bickering married neighbors aren't home, this is the next best thing.

Biggest downside though...No mention of this:

Playing Ketch-up Again: RABBIT HOLE, OWLS of GA'HOOLE, FAIR GAME

And once again I try my best to catch up on some films I've seen recently I've yet to write about either here or on my mistress-network Comments sections.  Thankfully I've been wanting to write about these for a while, just haven't found the time....

RABBIT HOLE (John Cameron Mitchell)

Grief and its process is just one of those things that makes for, in the right hands, good drama.  Sometimes it can be overblown or melodramatic, depending on who is attempting it, but if it's just focusing on the process, of how people process those emotions that are so difficult that counseling sessions every week don't quite cut it, then it can mean something.  Rabbit Hole has that capacity to explore grief with intelligence, decency and thankfully some humor (nothing too outrageous, just enough to have some relief-laughs).

When we're introduced to the married couple played by Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhardt, Becca and Howie, and it isn't introduced right up front that the two lost their four year old child by a sudden, nobody's-fault-exactly accident by a seventeen year old boy who ran him over as the boy chased a dog.  We don't need to know that up front, and Mitchell is wise to keep most of this in body language, how subtly uncomfortable Kidman is with things... until they go to their weekly grief counseling meeting.  They have barely gotten over his death, and yet they have gotten over it far enough to recognize BS in their midst: at one meeting Kidman calls out on one grieving person about their 'God' and 'Angel' and 'Heaven' talk.  It's one of those... very... uncomfortable... silences.

It would be one thing if it were just Becca and Howie having to deal with their grieving selves, but there is also the fact that Becca's dear sweet mother, Nat, lost her son (Becca's brother), though under much different circumstances as he was 30 and a junkie.  That doesn't stop her from trying to give advice, and it's powerful to see that connection made between mother and daughter and the kind of grief they're each still going through; a line that should be sappy where Nat tells Becca about grief being like carrying a brick in your pocket means very much, is resonant and rings true for anyone in the audience that has gone through similar grief for deceased, because the acting doesn't have a moment that feels false.

Even with Nicole Kidman, who can be cold and unaffecting in certain performances and recently got some bad plastic surgery for her face, has so many good scenes here where she connects with the actor just based on the shared pain of the other character, or how the other one feels.  This is in some part for her husband, who is going through his own process that is apart from his spouse (he goes berserk when she deletes on particular video of their son from his phone by accident even as they have a whole lot of them elsewhere), and then by chance the teenage boy who hit their son.  At first we assume this, but we're not quite sure: she follows the boy on his bus rides home from school to say.. what exactly, she doesn't even know.  Her own path through trying to cope with what happened is ambiguous, or what she wants to 'do' exactly with this boy.

Don't fuck with the Wiest

I may have been alone or among a few who thought that was the original intention with Becca and Jason (a perfectly awkward but amicable performance from Teller), as opposed to the one between Howie and fellow counsling-goer Abby (Sandra Oh) as the two bond over doobies in her car and giggle in counseling meetings inappropriately (this is one of those laughs to had, by the way, a moment right out of Curb Your Enthusiasm in terms of cringe comedy).  The chance for affairs are there in the air, but I really appreciated how the writer didn't take the material to predictable areas.  How each character navigates through seemingly simple, but complex, and then simple again territory is engrossing.  We don't know what the other might do, or when a breakdown might occur, or how long the apparel and things on the wall in the boy's old room will stay up before it's all taken down for the realtor selling their house.

Memories and pain, sadness and loss, it's all here, but it's all treated with an equal amount of reverence and reality.  I always believed in the characters and felt for them, sometimes despite their misgivings and their faults.  And I felt for them when they cried, but it wasn't so much a "I'll cry when they cry" thing.  It's just a mutual understanding of where the pain lies and how to grapple with it, and Mitchell gets at that with tact.  I could see a lot of people finding something to relate to here, and without being pandered to or with that sappy music that distances the viewer into abstraction.  There isn't anything abstract in Rabbit Hole.  The characters deal with the pain as we all do, whether it's a sudden and very tragic accident, or a 30's junkie.  But that the movie is wise enough to make distinctions and grapple with the gray areas is very brave.  It's some of the best acting and writing from an American film this past year.



There was barely a moment that I didn't expect what was coming in this anthropomorphic tale of owls who escape the imprisonment of (no joke) Nazi-indoctrination via Owls of "pure Owl-hood" at St. Aggie's in order to join up with 'The Guardians' or Ga'Hoole, legendary fighters who will combat against St. Aggie's.  And yet I enjoyed it far more than I could have figured.  It's ostensibly a children's movie, and directed by 300/Watchmen visual-CGI-fucker Zack Snyder, and I thought it might make for some goofy but disinteresting stuff, like a side project as Snyder keeps work on his upcoming Sucker Punch, his first original work.  What surprised me was how much it was a good fit, and that Synder has made a movie for kids that can be enjoyed viscerally and visually as much for adults.  If Don Bluth were still working steadily and had some balls and guff for CGI he might come up with something like this.

It's also a British-dominated pic, with some Australian voices thrown in there for good measure (among the heavy hitters there's Helen Mirren as one of the main villainess owls at St. Aggie's, and Geoffrey Rush as the old bad-ass warrior owl Ezylryb (sic), and among character players, Hugo Weaving, Sam Niell and young Jim Sturgess).  And it's also rather violent in some places, perhaps expected from a man who directs mostly adult-oriented pics with blood-leashing as a big component, whether to start with (300, Dawn of the Dead) or not (Watchmen).  But it's not so violent that it should be unappealing or make kids too 'scaredy'.  On the contrary, it's good to have a work that doesn't talk down to kids with its darker themes and characters.  Not to mention the, you know, early history lesson on how some people in the world are more than evil, they make other people just as evil.  Ah, brainwashing, for the kids!

As Snyder is perhaps honestly directing in a sense just pure animation this time and getting to use his slow-motion (which isn't a deterrent as much as in the past - sometimes you got to see how these owls fight and get down with their flapping and clawing selves), as a visual stylist he gets the most points with his animation director and fellow animators best at creating a world that feels rough and ragged and dark and also joyous and fun and fluffy and cute.  It's a gorgeous looking picture, one of the best animated movies to come out of the studio system in the sense of immersion in a specific style which is not the cutesy kind from Disney or even Dreamworks.  No pop-culture jokes, nothing of the sort that seems like thirty-odd hack writers took shots at writing various scenes ans set-pieces.

As it's a film more indebted to fantasy stories (based on one of those myriad of children's books that have 20 titles via Harry Potter-like), it's not concerned with the usual exteriors of entertainment like we usually see.  It's high-flying scenes are breathtaking, the detail in the owls and architecture of the tree-civilizations are intricate (and best seen on HD TV or, if you saw it in theaters, IMAX), and This is more like something that would've come out in the 80's, and could have revival screenings for nostalgic middle-aged hipsters ala Krull or something.  This isn't to denigrate its quality, it's what it is: dark-and-light pulpy work that a family can have fun with, and possibly ooh and ahh at the detail of what's on screen, the fun of the British/Aussie cast with such fun-stock characters, and occasional cutesy but grounded comedy from a character like 'Digger'.

Now say it altogether: AAAWWWWW!  Good, now don't ever do it again!

If you got a hankering for a story that has good vs evil pretty tightly lied out, with only some almost-gray area like with Soren's brother who doesn't get out of St. Aggie's and becomes the star Stormtrooper pupil, this is a good ticket.  Only one sequence midway through the movie, a training montage for the young Soren on Ga'Hoole as he prepares to become a young warrior owl, is tainted immeasurably by an Owl City pop song put on it.  It's repeated in the end credits, and it should have just stayed there; it takes one out of the action and story, which is straightforward but absorbing on a solid fantasy-storytelling level, and we're suddenly made aware of the cynical tactic of a Hollywood executive going "Yeah, well, the owls are all good, looks shiny and cool, but... where are the pop songs?"  Ugh.


FAIR GAME (Doug Liman)

It's always said about the tragedy of the attacks on 9/11 2001, 'Never forget'.  This is a given, and it's certainly impossible for anyone especially who lived near NYC (no more towers to look at from afar or up close) or for those who lost their loved ones.  Fair Game is also a 'Never forget' story, about the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame, but one that you may have forgotten already unless possibly reminded.  And no one ever should as it's a story that is immensely tragic in its own dimensions, and a crash course in the wicket, corrupt power of people in high places like the White House.

Luckily for some it's impossible to forget such a story that occurred only seven years ago - I mostly speak to those who have attention spans of crickets, of whom I can guess are many who pay attention to the news in its current 24-hour cycle - and happened to the wife of a man who was a public figure, an ambassador, Joe Wilson, and whose wife was outed chiefly because Wilson wouldn't back down from calling the obvious bullshit on the Bush white house in the lead up to the Iraq invasion.  But what's pleasing about Liman's film, based on books Wilson and Plame wrote about this time period, is that it gives such a long amount of screen time on what Wilson and Plame were doing; I don't think the 'main conflict' of the film really comes to fruition until halfway, perhaps more, into the story.

In disguise as movie star Naomi Watts, Valerie Plame goes to lunch.
Up until then we become invested in Valerie and to a lessor extent Joe as they go about what they do in this immediately post-9/11 landscape: Valerie has contacts throughout the world, and is an actual honest-to-goodness spy, trained to be immovable by emotions when under her given tasks, which are usually communication with terrorists and finding them out, or trying to assist professional people like in Iraq in the lead up to the war.  She goes at her work with dedication and formidable skills, and can communicate with someone very simply: as she explains to one of her contacts, an Iraqi woman who comes to help her as she is made to trust her, she can lie so well because "she knows the truth of why she's lying."

Joe's work is more on-the-level, and originally made by a basic recommendation from her wife (though never by name at this point), and is sent to Niger to check out a serious claim of yellow-cake.  As we all know now, there was no yellow-cake in Niger as it would have been too big to produce and move around not to be noticed by someone or with some semblance of a paper trail.  It was a serious matter handled seriously by Wilson, though it didn't stop Bush and his administration on their own path to war.  There's a chilling scene that, while dramatized, feels very much like out of a real moment in time, as Dick Cheney's chief of staff Scooter Libby meets with a CIA official and has a very nasty conversation about what they "do" know or what they "don't" know, and how intelligence is gathered and what percentages mean in the risk of terrorism.  One can feel, via the actor playing Libby, pure immovable conviction in his own "doubt", which is frightening.

In disguise as Sean Penn, Joe Wilson pontificates about the disaster of Bush's... wait, what disguise?

As Wilson finally resolves to go on the record with the media to let his side of the story out, first via op-ed and then on TV, the White House fights back, their way, and lets loose Plame's identity.  What's so engrossing here is that we've spent so much time with Plame and seeing her work that it's totally dis-heartening to see her hard work totally and irrevocably erased, and her life put into a flux as being outed (it's one thing to fear the phone calls, it's another for a best friend to find out, "Really?", one would remark).  It's around this point, in the second half to third act of the film, that the story takes on a quality kind of life The Insider: now that Plame has this put upon her, will she go public with how screwed over she was, how it was, in fact, illegal, or keep to herself and still not make waves through her embedded-in-her CIA training to not talk and not give names, especially her own.

There are things in the film itself that work very well, and some not quite as much.  Fair Game gives its actors generously material and characters, as real people in real-dramatized situations, scenes and moments that are real, have complexity and depth, and combine the personal with the professional in their character's lives.  Naomi Watts especially makes Valerie a believable, tough presence and as Plame is broken down by the powers-that-be it's amazing to see how Watts takes her to be tender (one scene especially as she finally has her cry as she's brushing her teeth makes for a moving moment - Valerie where she's vulnerable and alone).  But equally, or sometimes more-so, impressive is Penn in a secondary lead (not to be confused with supporting player) that this and Milk seem to make him a master at 'playing' at real people.  As Joe Wilson, a figure I've seen often on TV (not as much as Plame for obvious reasons) he makes Joe just as tough as his wife if a little more 'normal' as a person.

There's a moment between the two of them that characterizes what made Valerie and Joe, and likewise Watts and Penn, so endearing as figures to watch in the film, as they become less like media figures we know from TV and like people we know.  As Valerie goes out once again on one of her 'missions', of which like many she won't tell her husband where she'll be, Joe staggers out to the stars as she's by the door.  He's tired but makes his points coherently: he's worried sick that he won't know where she is or of she's dead somewhere.  This could be a usual worry for husbands with wives, not so much when the wife is an honest-to-goodness spy whose confidentiality is to everyone (and, ironically, when she's outed by the White House, she has little cover).  It's a short scene but so important to understand them as people, in a marriage, that could be torn by media exposure and stress in the public eye, as defenders in a story that makes All the President's Men look tame by comparison.

While some of the rest of the picture may not be shot all that great- my 'not so much' comment from a few paragraphs ago- as Liman continues the Bourne-style (he shot the first film by the way) with some hand-held work that is too noticeably hand-held to stand it in some scenes, the people in front of us are raw and immediate, even supporting players.  And as history that is so immediate it might seem for some to be 'too soon' or 'nothing new'.  This is a fair criticism, and if someone weren't to see it right away because of that I might not begrudge them, albeit I would then go on to praise Penn and Watts and the screenplay as many better reasons to see it as a straight dramatic thriller that strips away much of the usual veneer of what a spy or ambassador does in the world.  But in ten, even twenty years, I would hope this movie could last as something, anything, as a reminder of the bad times in this country, where people got away with a lot of big bad stuff, and some worse smaller things.  It's a flawed but brave effort of theatrical recollection.

Netflix-a-thon (#16) TALES FROM THE SCRIPT

1) Not *Crypt*

2) I've had a kind of crazy couple of past days where I had watched things on Netflix, but I couldn't quite count them as movies (there were two comedy specials I watched, one I had not seen, an Eddie Izzard Live at Wembly Stadium which was uproarious, and one I'd seen many times, George Carlin's 'It's Bad For Ya', his final and one of his very best specials).  Maybe there was some lack of initiative, or maybe Irreversible kicked my ass the other night.  Or just because I also watched Resnais' Wild Grass, the Golden Globes, which was a mixed-bag of amazing (Gervais) and not so amazing (most of the rest of the BS show).  Then yesterday I had a pretty intense film shoot where my camera operating skills were put to some extremes of work, going through 50+ shots in just about five hours in freezing cold.  Suffice to say I was wiped, however able to watch this documentary before konking out.

So, in short, I have a make-up film to watch, or two possibly.  But there's still another week or so in this Netflix-game, so I'll try and keep up a little better.  Sadly Kevin Murphy wouldn't approve, but, fuck it, he doesn't know me, I don't know him, whateversville.

I might be crazy, just a little bit.  No, not a little bit, a lot-bit.  I do want to be a screenwriter, or more importantly a filmmaker, but firstly someone who can put down some good words and a decent story to type and then go off and get that made into a movie, if not by myself than someone else.  But it's also a livelihood that is not very ideal for someone who to hear "NO!" in the kind of words "Yes, we'll get back to you," is soul-crushing.  Or as Paul Schrader puts it in this documentary, as advice for those who ask him about getting into writing or making movies, that if something else makes you happier do that instead, because "you should only do this if you have no other choice."

That might be lofty advice coming from him, though he is also an artist in the world of screenwriting and directing.  Others interviewed here may not have quite the same level of artistry- Steven E de Souza, who gives some of the best insights among the many screenwriters and few other professionals (professors mostly) who give their testimonies about life as writers in the movie business, has writing credits ranging from Judge Dredd to Commando- but all of them are passionate about what they do, and have many war stories.  What Tales from the Script is good for is to give a level-headed account of the various facets of the business: how to get in, if at all (one writer describes it as a little crack in a wall opens up, you can wiggle in, but then it closes up and no one else can enter), how to pitch, or how that screws up by the person pitching your pitch, how to talk to producers ("All of them are shorter than you," one writer laughably remarks), and how to survive through compromising situations.

The key word here I would think is 'compromise', but then there are other perks for getting by through the bullshit.  For one thing a screenwriter, writing out a blueprint, gets to see it eventually make it to the screens.  On the other hand, there is an immediate false-hope when it comes for screenwriters.  Firstly that the reputation built over time, and that can be attested to by the late Hollywood B-writer Melville Shavelson, was that the writer was low on the totem pole, barely above the producer's girlfriend in the movie-making scheme.  While one of the key lines ever muttered from Sunset Blvd ("No one thinks movies are written, they just think the actors make it up as they go along.") is not mentioned in the film, it's not something that is too far a stretch to see happen with the process.  Between the studio executives, whom have grown out of control since the 70's and 80's when the business moved to a much more corporate-dominated enterprise, and when the number of people at a studio exec meeting went from two-to-six, not to mention the producers and the stars who look at a script and go "my character wouldn't say that", to say a writer's work would change from the start is an understatement.

Some of the stories are more heartbreaking, while others are just outright funny.  William Goldman, one of those old sacred cows of screenwriting since the 60's, tells of his work on The Marathon Man and The Princess Bride being changed a bit on set, and it is sad but perhaps to be expected (he admits to mostly writing the former so to meet Laurence Olivier).  But Guinevere Turner, previously co-writer of the American Psycho adaptation, tells of writing the original first draft of Bloodrayne, and before this being yelled at on the phone by its director, Uwe Boll, and never wanting to speak to him again.  When she submitted the script, he said (in a bad, awesome Boll imitation), "Good, we shoot in one week", and this from the first draft!  Ultimately she was the only one at the premiere of the movie howling with laughter at the screening, recognizing how butchered it was but that it was okay, to live and let live.  After all it's only a Uwe Boll movie, right?

The main anecdotes of Tales from the Script are told in pretty basic shots so that we just get the stories, interwoven based around some topics; originally (or perhaps concurrently) this was released as a book of interviews, which I read before and is pretty faithful to that.  Writers who have some name recognition- Darabont, Carpenter, Schrader, Goldman, Shane Black are interviewed- and then others who are still eeking it out or have the here-and-there success- Justin Zackham, Josh Friedman, Zak Penn, Steve Koren- all get their say and there's a similar theme running through their testimonies on their work: don't be too precious about your words, but make sure to write the hell out of it, and know realistically what you're getting into on every project, even if (or especially if) it doesn't get made, which is a mathematical probability (350 scripts in development at Warner brothers, only a dozen or so get made each year, what does that tell you for example).

Stuck Inside a Mobile with the Final Draft Blues again
I was glad the tone of the doc was so sobering (if a little sappy sounding from the music track which could have been done away with; movie clips featured from Barton Fink and Adaptation and For Your Consideration are more appreciated), since it's appeal can lie for screenwriters (aspiring or industry professional) and non-screenwriter alike.  For the former you get a first hand account from those that made it, if only by some luck and a little perseverance and a lot of who-you-know which is a big factor in Hollywood, and you see how you have to keep at it, to just keep writing scripts and hopefully one gets made here or there and that draft after draft is kept at.  The writers don't pull any punches and they don't sound full of themselves, even the usually prickish Goldman who has more success than most featured.  And for the latter layman it gives you a peek into a world that is somewhat underrated; they are paid a lot when scripts are made, this shouldn't be forgotten, but it is also as Josh Friedman describes, "A hard way to make an easy living."

To be able to sit and do the work is worthwhile.  The bullshit part of it... that's what is hard to get through.  As for me, I can only hope to keep scratching and writing and do something that gets through, either by selling a script or going it alone myself.  After all, as the documentary more than hints (flat out tells us), Hollywood knows the difference between a "movie" or a "film".  And when they say "ah, that sounds like a movie", it's all about commerce.  The trick is, I gather from all of this, to find the line of commerce and art and skid along it, or at least do something interesting in the meantime.  It's a captivating if basically shot look at an artistic-and-or-commercial process.