Thursday, June 30, 2005

Land of the Dead (George A. Romero)

Anyone looking to find out what life is like in the United States could do a lot worse than check out George Romero's zombie trilogy (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead). These films, besides being great horror movies and hilarious satires, are populist, common-sense histories of America's cultural and political failures. Pessimistic though never cynical, Romero's zombie movies have a lot to say about racism, classism, consumerism, militarism, multiculturalism, and human nature without preaching or losing sight of the pleasure a good horror movie can provide. Now comes the fourth installment twenty years later, and it's pretty damn good. Land of the Dead delivers mightily on the zombie gore, and throws political isolationism and "terrorism"-as-buzzword into the satirical mix. It also amps up the class issues: Dennis Hopper plays the owner of a high-rise complex called Fiddler's Green that includes all the amenities of the world outside minus the zombie invasion (it's protected by high-powered electric fences and armed guards); Fiddler's Green is full of rich whites, while poor whites and minorities live in a sort of shanty town nearby; the zombies slowly get smarter, relearn how to use the tools and weapons of their pre-undead lives, and organize a revolution. It's an ambitious film and largely successful, but it's damaged by the short running time of 93 minutes. The previous three living dead films were longer, more developed. There are ideas in Land of the Dead to fill out three more movies, but its truncated length sometimes frustrates. Characters' relationships to each other are set in motion but not fleshed out, and Fiddler's Green is an intriguing setting that is not explored in as much detail as I would have liked. At any rate, it's great to have Romero's zombies back again, and the film's strengths far outnumber its weaknesses.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

East of Eden (Elia Kazan)

Elia Kazan was practically canonized when he died a few years ago, though it was only a few years before that when his Lifetime Achievement award at the Oscars set off a fireworks display of controversy because Kazan had ratted out his peers during the McCarthy witchhunts in the 1950s. I thought both reactions were a little stupid. Kazan was respectably unapologetic about his hatred of Communism and his earlier, naive flirtation with it, but anti-Communist idealism usually doesn't involve fucking your friends for the benefit of a dangerous liar's electability. Kazan was a cowardly creep who saved his own ass at the expense of his friends, and his "undisputed" classic, On the Waterfront, was not only a rationalization for his naming of names, but also a celebration of his "heroism." If it had been a good film, I wouldn't have cared as much about its political ideology, but On the Waterfront is one of the most overrated "classic" films in the canon. It's the most egregious example of Kazan's heavy-handedness, especially in Karl Malden's character and performance. Kazan doesn't hint about his messages or themes, he crushes your fucking skull with them. Why was it stupid to boo him at the Oscars, then? Well, Kazan may have helped to ruin several of his peers' lives and stomped on the audience with "respectable liberal" (conservative) (what's the fucking difference) boots, but he got some of the most important performances in film history out of his actors and had deeper respect for the settings of his films than most mainstream directors before or since. Kazan's films have a palpable sense of place, and a deep respect for the atmosphere, spirit, whatever you want to call it, of the location used. He cares about the places he films, and it shows up onscreen. He also gets some amazing performances out of his leads. Brando in On the Waterfront murders the rest of the film. His scene with Eva Marie Saint in the park, pulling on a glove, is a deep wound from which the film can't recover. How can this challenge to feel something new survive such an artificial apologia of cowardly betrayal? East of Eden kicks Waterfront's ass. Most of the film's heavy-handedness comes from Steinbeck's novel's Biblical allegory. The film makes you forget it is a Biblical allegory from the strength of its setting and the nutzoid beautiful performance of James Dean, in the first of his three starring roles before his early death (and the only one released while he was still living). This is the most secular Biblical fable I've seen. Forget that allegory. This film is earth. You can smell it. You can feel it. It's human. I got excited early in the movie when Timothy Carey has a few scenes with Dean. Both of these guys act so honestly, they can trick you into thinking they're lousy actors. People get embarrassed by these performances and laugh sometimes, thinking the actors are hammy or bad. But the audience is embarrassed because it's being forced to feel something. We're forced to confront how much of what we see in the movies, what we read in books, what we listen to in music, what we say to our wives/husbands/boyfriends/girlfriends/kids/parents/siblings/friends/coworkers is just bad acting. We lie too much, mostly without knowing it, and it hurts us when we realize it. That's why we laugh at the "bad acting" we think we're seeing. Kazan blew it, though. He was pissed at Carey and dubbed his strange, deep, mumbly voice with another actor's. Carey still tapdances on Kazan's face, voice or no voice. God, this movie is good. It's so flawed, but so good. It makes me feel like I saw something. I didn't just waste a couple of hours ducking my own existence, wasting my time. I saw something. What a fucking waste that James Dean had to drive like an asshole.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Howl's Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki)

Miyazaki's films obliterate the conventions of children's animation by their refusal to supply heroes and villains and their reluctance to follow a heavily plotted narrative. Howl's Moving Castle may be the most confusing, tangential, and illogical of the Miyazaki films I've seen, but that illogic has a weird cohesion that takes us along if we let it. Some critics have complained that children won't be able to follow this movie, but I think some adults have a harder time accepting fractured narratives and ambiguous characters than children. Why criticize someone for not treating kids like idiots? Instead, he's given children and adults a beautiful, detailed, visually expressive fantasy about a giant, magic castle that walks, a fire demon forced into indentured servitude, an ennui-filled wizard, and a young girl turned into an elderly woman by the massively overweight Witch of the Waste, who is carried around in a coach by oily, amorphous blobs wearing frightening masks. All these characters are flawed, complex beings and so is the movie.

I've been tagged

I've been tagged by Mary P Pants so here goes:

1. Total number of films I own on DVD: 101 (this also includes TV series and my wife's DVDs)
2. The last film I bought: I bought two at once at Walgreen's. They have $2 DVDs that are probably of inferior quality. Anyway, I bought One-Eyed Jacks and a Charlie Chaplin compilation that has The Kid and a couple of short films on it.
3. The last film I watched in a theater: Land of the Dead
On DVD: Mission: Impossible
4. Five films I never get tired of watching (not necessarily my favorites, most of my favorites I can only watch once every couple of years because the experience is so intense for me):
a. Minnie and Moskowitz
b. Dawn of the Dead
c. Mikey and Nicky
d. Fast Times at Ridgemont High
e. Gummo
5. Tag five people: I don't know who to tag, so I'm just going to tag anybody who reads this and has a website.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Mission: Impossible (Brian De Palma)

This is a big, dumb action movie with an incoherent plot, but, with De Palma directing, it looks better than it should. Tom Cruise grins a lot and is pretty weak as an action hero, though the rest of the cast is more effective. A lot of stuff blows up real good, the plot twist at the beginning is clever, and the action scenes are well-done, especially the final chase scene on the train, but it amounts to nothing and I'd already forgotten it a few minutes after it ended.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli)

I used to hate musicals, though I don't remember ever watching any except for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. (The Wizard of Oz is a musical, too, but it's so many other things that I never thought of it as a musical.) So my opinion of an entire genre of film was based on one movie, huge cult notwithstanding, that pretty much sucks. I was under the impression that perfectly fine narrative films were being unfairly disrupted by a lot of artificial singing and dancing. When I started watching musicals about five years ago, I was surprised to find out that those "artificial" interruptions of song and dance were, in the best musicals, pure and honest emotional expressions bursting out of the truly artificial constraints of the rest of the narrative, lived experiences clawing their way out of fake emotions. The best musical numbers in The Band Wagon are great pieces of art that show up the falsities of the otherwise entertaining non-musical sequences. I don't know much about dancing, but I do know that when Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse dance in this film, the audience is seeing joy, attraction, and melancholy, not Hollywood approximations of the same. If I were stuck in a cell or on a deserted island for a number of years, but was somehow able to see Astaire and Leroy Daniels dancing in the "A Shine on your Shoes" number every day for the duration of my confinement, I could get through it.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (Terry Gilliam)

Fittingly, for a movie about a notorious embellisher, I remembered a scene from this movie that didn't actually exist. I kept watching it, waiting for the scene that has become my favorite since seeing it for the first time as a child, before realizing, halfway through, that I had combined elements from two other scenes and placed them in a landscape invented by myself. Oh, well. If memory is that untrustworthy, why not embellish the hell out of it? At any rate, Munchausen is still funny, imaginative, and entertaining, though a little uneven. Sometimes the huge budget and fairly conventional plot plod along dully or unfairly speed things up when they need to take their time, but mostly, this film looks like a child's fever dream and, in places, seems like Gilliam's most tender, personal film. Even Robin Williams isn't that annoying. And Sting's in it for five seconds, which is the closest he's ever come to (intentional) humor in his life.

Perfect Love (Catherine Breillat)

This is the second Breillat film I've seen (the other with an equally dispassionately sarcastic title, Romance--although maybe Breillat does take these titles literally, which is even more troubling), and while I think she's a visually skilled filmmaker and the two films are successful in that Breillat's vision seems intact, I don't take much pleasure in her work. Maybe I'm misreading her films, but I think Breillat takes a dismal view of long-term sexual and romantic relationships, seeing them as repetitive, sadistic routines. I find her characters either obnoxious jerks or mega-bores, and her clinical, graphic sex scenes are simultaneously a salesman's attempt to court controversy and a distanced, academic remove from real transgression. Her films proceed like academic theses, not lived experiences. By Perfect Love's end, all we're left with is a character we dislike robotically stabbing another we don't care about, filmed as yet another dispassionate penetration.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles)

Welles' second film will probably never be seen the way it was intended. The studio, unhappy with Welles' final edit, had the film re-edited without his permission while he was filming a documentary in South America, trimming it from 131 minutes to 88. To add insult to butchery, they replaced the original ending with a horribly saccharine new one that Welles never even shot. The excised footage was later destroyed by the studio, though rumors (originating from Welles himself) exist that he left an intact print behind in Brazil. Hopefully, someone will find that print someday, but I'm not holding my breath. The film, as it exists, is a compromised one, a partial glimpse of Welles' vision. Amazingly, it's a great film, anyway, and I prefer it to Citizen Kane, except for the terrible final scene, because it's a subtler and more personal movie. A mournful look at the changes brought by the Industrial Revolution to middle America, Ambersons begins as a comedy and slowly morphs into a bleak tragedy. The acting is superb, the tone is remarkably consistent for a film that's been chopped up by a studio, the overlapping dialogue had a thirty-year jump on Robert Altman, and the long, elegant, unbroken takes through the Ambersons' mansion during the ballroom scene make up one of the greatest moments in film history.

Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick)

I'm still not sure what I think of Kubrick, except that he's overrated by his admirers and underrated by his detractors. Whatever my mixed feelings, I admire a handful of his films greatly, especially the pair of films from the mid-1950's co-scripted by Jim Thompson, The Killing and Paths of Glory. My problem with Kubrick is that his films seem so over-thought and over-prepared. He's a perfectionist, and I'm not interested in perfection. Though ominously talented, Kubrick seems resistant to the accidents, changes of mind, and spontaneities the greatest artists are open to while they work. Still, his films look like no one else's and they (mostly) work. His duo of Thompson-scripted films excites me the most because they are filled with a lean, hungry urgency missing from his other work. Both films clock in at a fat-free ninety minutes and the camera glides through their claustrophobic spaces at an elegant, paranoid clip. Kubrick's perfectionism is tempered by both Thompson's jittery, direct prose and a couple of great performances from Timothy Carey. Kirk Douglas is wonderful in Paths of Glory, but compared to Carey, he seems held back by conventional methods of Hollywood acting. Carey, meanwhile, is a wild animal, a wounded beast who goes after his role like a defective lawnmower attacking a patch of weeds. He can't be contained in Kubrick's perfecto-frame, and almost functions as an auto-critique of the director's methods. He's the main reason to see the film, but there are a lot of lesser reasons as well, including the surprising and mysterious final moments and the unconventionally disturbing way Kubrick films trench warfare.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The Flower of My Secret (Pedro Almodovar)

Almodovar's movies, to me, are either silly, forgettable pieces of fluff (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) or deeper, character-driven human comedies (All About My Mother). Fortunately, most of the fluff was early in his career, and he's deepened as an artist as he's aged. Sometimes maturation kills what's good in the artist, making him or her respectable (probably the worst thing an artist can be), but growing up has been good for Almodovar. He writes characters now instead of caricatures, and his films have a loose, free-wheeling ease that leave plenty of room for digressions and detours. The Flower of My Secret, the first break from his earlier style, retains the spirit of the sillier work, but is a lot more substantive. I guess it's a transitional film, but I think I like it more than any of his others.

Monday, June 13, 2005

La Ceremonie (Claude Chabrol)

One of Chabrol's finest films, La Ceremonie is a delicate and frightening examination of class and its effect on the choices we're given. Sandrine Bonnaire plays Sophie, the maid of the wealthy Lelievre family. The Lelievres, far from the stereotypical bourgeois jerks we'd expect from lesser filmmakers, are mostly sympathetic, though occasionally insensitive and complacent. Sophie is illiterate, though she hides this from her employers and is in constant fear of being discovered. Sophie is strangely detached, partly from her illiteracy, partly from reasons we're given hints about but never told. She seems mesmerized by her television set, and often answers questions with "I don't know," even if she does. Sophie becomes friends with Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), a child-like postal worker whose misdirected rage singles out the Lelievres as a symbol of both political and personal oppression. Chabrol is sympathetic to and critical of all his characters, and the film unfolds both mysteriously and logically. Every character has a reason for what he or she does, and Chabrol asks us to accept these reasons, even when we're being pulled in several directions at once. Motivations are another matter. The film is full of ambiguities, hints, and obfuscations that will reward repeat viewing, especially the disturbing final scene. This is a film meant to be experienced, not an economic lesson to be learned.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Sonatine (Takeshi Kitano)

This is only the third Kitano film I've seen, but it's enough to make me a huge fan. His films begin with conventional genre cliches and go all kinds of strange, wonderful places from there. Everything about Kitano's films -- their humor, violence, sense of timing, pacing, structure, form, use of music and color, camera placement -- are like nothing else I've seen. Occasionally, something will remind me of Kurosawa, Tati, or Chaplin, but mostly my jaw is open, either in confusion, awe, anticipation, or laughter. I love these films. What other gangster movie would spend half its running time diverted from the action to show several of the gangsters hiding out on a beach, playing practical jokes on each other, or move the camera away from a climactic gunfight to show how the gunfire's light and shadow look from the outside window? Kitano takes his stories to places that interest him, even if they wander further and further away from the plot, and why the hell not? Why don't more filmmakers do that? Sonatine is refreshing in ways so many other films aren't, in ways I haven't even mentioned. As funny and oddball as it is, it also despairs at what can happen to a man who lives a violent life.

25th Hour (Spike Lee)

Spike Lee's career, to me, has largely been a frustrating mess. He's made one great movie, Do the Right Thing, and a bunch of uneven, wobbly monsters full of nice touches and horrible mistakes fighting each other for air. Lee's weaknesses are particularly insidious in that they can trample on his strengths, damaging promising films like Jungle Fever and He Got Game. Leaving out the handful of his films I haven't seen (it's possible there's a gem in there somewhere), I'm going to say that 25th Hour is Lee's best film since Do the Right Thing and his most consistent since the otherwise blandly conventional Malcolm X. Lee still ruins a few scenes by stomping all the life out of them and shoving their Importance down our throats, Oliver Stone-style, (particularly the post-nightclub bathroom scene following Philip Seymour Hoffman down the stairs, which lets the air out of the highly effective scene preceding it and refuses to let the audience come up with a reaction of its own), but this is largely a surprisingly subtle and graceful, character- and mood-driven film. The characters seem to follow their own rhythms instead of a plot, and the slightly fractured narrative, layered with flashbacks, a stylized rant (which may or may not work, I can't make up my mind), and a fantasy sequence, flows like a piece of music. A pleasant surprise.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Late Spring (Yasujiro Ozu)

Ozu's films are demanding and complex examinations of family. His camera is still and removed, eschewing closeups and subjective camera angles, emulating the human eye and its surface limitations, refusing to provide clues or answers for its characters' behaviors. We have to rely on what we see, even though what we see may be limited, obscured, misinterpreted, or wrong. Do the faces of these people on the screen reveal what they're actually thinking? Do ours? Late Spring's story of a widowed professor pressuring his youngest daughter and caretaker, a single woman in her mid-twenties, into marriage, though he doesn't want her to leave and she doesn't want to go, is a deeply mysterious, troubling, tragic, and optimistic film that will hopefully resonate with anyone feeling a push/pull relationship with his or her own family. I wish all the people who spend hours trying to figure out every nuance of The Usual Suspects or Memento would spend their time thinking about Ozu instead. His mysteries aren't about fitting together puzzle pieces or dressing up conventional, pointless entertainments by withholding information or reversing plot expectations. Instead, they are the mysteries of our own behavior, mysteries worth examining not because they can be solved, but because the tiny insights we can partially glean may actually affect our lives instead of diverting us from lived experience for a couple of hours.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

In the Mouth of Madness (John Carpenter)

I've seen a lot of John Carpenter's seventies and eighties films, but, until seeing this movie last Friday, I hadn't seen anything he's done since "They Live." What I like about his movies is his strong sense of place and atmosphere and his obvious debts to his favorite director (and one of mine), Howard Hawks. "In the Mouth of Madness" has none of these attributes. It's a real mixed bag that sees Carpenter the director wrestling a decent horror movie out of Michael de Luca's reeking turd of a script. De Luca starts out with a neat little idea, but seems to think the self-referential postmodernism of his story is clever enough to supersede developed characters and dialogue that does more than just move the plot forward, but what do you expect from someone who's a movie executive? De Luca is a textbook example of a businessman with artistic pretensions. Luckily, he got Carpenter to direct and Sam Neill to play the lead. Carpenter misfires during the opening scenes by amping up the stylistic surrealities from the get-go instead of letting them build, though de Luca's terrible dialogue during the first twenty minutes would have hurt the film no matter how Carpenter set the scene. Carpenter's always been better at evoking the routines and mundanities of everyday life and seems awkward messing with trick camera angles, stylized sets, and exaggerated, frenetic acting. Once the plot is set in motion, however, the film improves greatly. It's still not exactly great art, but the horror scenes are creepy, exciting, and fun, and Sam Neill is very funny as a foul-mouthed insurance investigator. I like an actor who can swear with exuberance, and Neill doesn't disappoint in this regard.

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