Saturday, September 8. 2007
Catching up on my movie notes, which by now cover quite a few months. Bill Warren sold his "Premier Palace" -- which had a virtual monopoly on films with intellectual merit around here -- off to a Baptist church group, promising to keep showing some such films in his other theaters, if for no better reason than because his wife likes them. But then he also divorced his wife, so we've lost even that thread.
Movie: The Namesake. The trailer was pretty good, but we saw it so many times the jokes all went stale and the exotic color turned ordinary. By the end I hated it so much I was reminded of the trailer for a movie with Kevin Kline a decade-plus ago which turned out to have excised every single good scene in the movie. This one turned out OK, although it does suffer from its schematicism, like trying to film the Cliff's Notes version of a bigger and richer novel. The story line, after all, involves two generations, two countries, a lot of people, and not enough time. Given all this, I was susprised (positively, if not pleasantly) that it proceeds chronologically with few flashbacks, so we get most of the parents' stories before having to deal with the children. B+
Movie: Grindhouse. Double feature by Roberto Rodriguez and Quentin Tarrantino, with extra trailers and missing reels. The former is a tolerable horror film, something I rarely grant the possibility of. The latter is a car-driven action film that is even better when the two sets of women are just talking. A-
Movie: Away From Her. Julie Christie plays a woman with Alzheimer's. It's a slight storyline, and a waste, of course, but the details work well enough, the treatment is horrible most of all in its coarse economy, the husband is credibly flawed, the end is temporarily kind. Throughout the movie we see brief glimpses of young Christie. I kept flashing back to when I saw Darling as a teenager. It's been a long strange life. B+
Movie: Waitress. Saw this on Father's Day, a pure accident -- as an orphan, and not a father myself, I pay no attention to the occasion, nor have anyone close who does. It's not a very nice movie to fathers, or to men in general, going way beyond the usual suspicions and complaints into the realm of pure caricature. I don't generally have much beef with that, so maybe it's just the occasion. Maybe it's just that the waitress at the center of this attracts such men: she certainly gives them plenty of opportunity to take advantage of her. B+
Movie: A Mighty Heart. Angelina Jolie as Marianne Pearl, wife of martyred journalist Daniel Pearl, in a film shot for realism and relatively free of cant. One thing that comes through is the privileged life of these well-connected journalists in poor Pakistan, and how the power structure bends to their will. B+
Movie: No End in Sight. Bush's Iraq war documented, emphasizing the disastrous failures of the first year of occupation. Draws credible witnesses from the occupiers, including some of the perpetrators -- with others refusing to be interviewed duly noted -- and some remarkable footage, like the inside of the bombed UN quarters. Main problem is that it leaves the impression that it could have gone better with saner figures than Paul Bremer in charge. I doubt that, in large part because the US military is mostly out of sight here. Their mission and their training made gross collateral damage all but inevitable, which most likely would have ignited the resentment even if the CPA had a clue. A-
Movie: The Bourne Ultimatum. Third movie with Matt Damon as trained CIA killer on the loose, broken free of his programming if not in full control of his senses, and therefore in need of killing to protect the bureaucratic bigwigs. First two installements were pretty good, and this one got raves, but I found it claustrophobic -- so tightly wound it's all increasingly preposterous action sequences. Moreover, the closer Damon gets to his source, the more ridiculous the story becomes. Also don't care for the way they build up the CIA's capability -- such lean efficiency has never been evinced in history. Even though they screw up here, they come much closer than they ever would in the real world. B
Movie: The Simpsons Movie. An early joke shames the audience for paying for something they could get for free, which is the ontological problem with this movie. Still, the storyline is a cut above the usual TV episode (or two, counting the "to be continued" break joke). But the usual big screen magnification and glorification is impossible, given their set look and feel. B+
Movie: Ratatouille. Pixar toon. I remember going to SIGGRAPH back in the '80s when the desk lamp animation was state of the art -- a giant leap forward over the usual run of teapots. Haven't seen the full set of toons they've released since then, but this one is remarkable both technically and for its story line. Both rats and people retain their essential characters, which are none too flattering in either case. The "little chef" succeeds without selling out, and his recognition doesn't upset the general order of things. Possibly the best chase scene ever, too. A
Saturday, April 7. 2007
Haven't written anything about movies since Marie Antoinette and The Queen in November. That was actually the beginning of the decent movie season here in Wichita, which winds down a few weeks after the Oscars. So we've seen a lot of stuff lately, but I haven't been keeping track. In looking back over the early notebooks, one thing I noticed is that a lot of times I just jotted down a grade. Too bad, given that I can't even recall some of the movies listed, but that's a precedent for the lapses that follow. Can't swear that I've seen them in this order, but this works as a first approximation. The first note was written at the time and squirrelled away in the scratch file. The others are catch-up quickies.
Movie: For Your Consideration. A Christopher Guest movie, with Eugene Levy co-writing, and the usual cast of characters working out. The setting is Hollywood during the filming of a '40s period movie called Home for Purim, with a pair of has-been or never-was leading actors at the center of a large cluster of roles -- supporting actors, director, writers, producers, agent, publicists, makeup, media flacks, and so forth. The movie, with its melodrama -- a dying mother hopes to reunite her family for one last Purim dinner -- and mix of Yiddish with southern accents, is deliciously off base, which makes the the outer film's central joke -- the buzz that the cast could be in line for Oscar nods -- a non-starter. That infects most of the jokes that follow -- some of which are still hilarious, although Catherine O'Hara's surgery is just painful. B+
Movie: The U.S. Versus John Lennon. The soundtrack itself is great, and very useful in the way it mixes Lennon's agitprop songs within his bedrock philosophy, an anti-religion pacifism. The film itself is less compelling. B+
Movie: Blood Diamond. Got panned for being preachy, but that's really only the last couple of minutes. Leonardo Di Caprio is terrific, and Africa is gorgeous and horrifying. A-
Movie: The Good Shepherd. I meant to dig up a quote from Lewis Lapham relevant here, where he recounts his job interview with the CIA. The real story of the CIA is one of those stranger than fiction tales: who would believe that the whole organization would have been so tightly wound around something like Skull and Bones? Yet it fits; it even helps explain some of the weirdness. Matt Damon is unusually wooden here, his brilliance often attested to but rarely demonstrated. B+
Movie: Children of Men. Anglo dystopianism, set in a near-future world lacking children, waiting to die. Seems to me it would have been better with less of the violent action that distracts from its philosphical heaviness. Also could have used more eccentrics, not that anyone else could top Michael Caine. B+
Movie: Charlotte's Web. Went twice to see Casino Royale only to find it sold out -- never did get back to it. Saw this as a second choice. I don't recall the classic story, which both pleased and annoyed. Not much impressed by the pig. Suggested we go for BBQ afterwards, but Laura opted for sushi. B
Movie: Babel. Don't see what's confusing here. The model is global north-south, how both fails, but the north forgives its own faults while the south suffers. Each of the stories involves two generations, so that's another dimension. Doesn't simplify or moralize: each fate speaks for itself. A
Movie: Dreamgirls. The problem with this as a Motown saga is the lack of great, or even good, music -- even Beyoncé kept her best shit out of this movie. Eddie Murphy gets a pass for pre-Motown grease. Sets were great with period details shined up to museum level. I wouldn't have given Jennifer Hudson that Oscar. B+
Movie: Flags of Our Fathers. Saw this late, on its second pass in support of Letters From Iwo Jima. It's roughly three movies in one, of which the least important is its chronicle of fearful assault -- what Spielberg started to do in Saving Private Ryan before he made his feel-good move. Eastwood finds no romance and no glory in that assault. It is, rather, a mere consequence of the decision of others to go to war -- the brunt suffered by people who had no say in the decision. Eastwood is equally unromantic about the home front -- a take that's even more unprecedented. The third is a riff on accidental fame and human fragility. The three Iwo Jima heroes provide distinct case studies, none viable. Along the way we see how the media simplifies and trivializes events that are nearly unfathomably complex. A
Movie: Letters From Iwo Jima. The view from the other side of the beach, the pillbox, the tunnel -- a view never before filmed by an American director. Eastwood wants to humanize the enemy here, which makes this a little softer, more sentimental than Flags, but he's right to recognize that we need help. Two officers have American connections, which plays nicely, but also rings true. The main enlisted man is a drafted baker; another is a flunkee from what seems to have been Japan's SS. One major difference is that for the Japanese impending doom was an endstate rather than a temporary terror. Hard to know how one should face that, especially given that it's so rare in American experience. A
Movie: Volver. Average Almodovar movie -- takes a while for that to sink in. The women are central; the men disposable, necessary props, or maybe even incidental. In the end, I was struck by the absence, indeed utter irrelevance, of the police in a movie that involves a killing. Very un-American thing to do. A-
Movie: The Last King of Scotland. The Idi Amin story. Plot got a little creepy toward the end, with the Scottish doctor tortured more by the writers than by the thugs, but no complaints about Forest Whitaker's Oscar. A-
Movie: Notes on a Scandal. Weak spot here is that I can't see this as much of a scandal, but then I recall a fondness for older women myself. Thought Cate Blanchett was better here than Helen Mirren was in The Queen. B+
Movie: Pan's Labyrinth. Didn't care much for the fantasy sequences as this got going, although they paid off in the end. Don't know whether the fantasy made the reality more credible, but this etches the face of Fascism in starkly realistic terms -- the Capitan is a complete monster, right down to his watch. He produces fear even when he shaves himself. A-
Movie: The Painted Veil. W. Somerset Maugham novel, a powerful story told a bit too sketchily. The rotten core of the west's exploitation of China is clear to behold even if it factors little into the story. B+
Movie: Venus. Same role Peter O'Toole played in My Favorite Year, but much older, of course. His old buddies are a plus. The young tart finally figures that out, and we all learn with her. A-
Movie: The Good German. So odd you suspect you're missing something. Looks ugly, deliberately so. Title seems to be ironic, but the case is too muddied to be sure. Also, I've never seen a leading man get into so many fights and get creamed so consistently -- even when Clooney kills someone near the end he winds up looking like a loser. Ending looks lifted from Casablanca, ignoring the more plausible one: Clooney should have left with the girl; either way would have been humiliating, but the separation leaves it all in vain. B
Movie: Breach. Spy vs. Spy. Taut enough as a movie, but could be better as history, if anyone cares what makes people like Hansen tick. Chris Cooper is very good. Too bad the movie's about the other guy, and the creeps in the background, including the clueless asshole who got to announce the sting. B+
Movie: The Lives of Others. Two pivot points here, each tuned precisely in terms of how they personally balance their ethics and their loyalty to the Communist order: one a writer, the other a Stasi spy monitoring the writer. The order itself fares less well, as secrecy breeds corruption backed with stifling violence. The story wouldn't be half as powerful, or half as damning of the GDR, without the idealism, nor would the idealism be credible without the personal quirks: the two may be Good Germans, but not always, or even principally -- Bertolt Brecht haunts the background, reminding us of the primacy of bestial acts. Movie of the year, even before the last line, which may be the best ever. A+
Movie: Zodiac. California murder case from the '70s, an era before caller ID. Killer managed to avoid identification, or prosecution at least, despite tweaking of the press. I like the strict chronological structure, which spreads out over decades, following a book by a cartoonist obsessed with the case, and featuring a journalist and a police detective who spend substantial parts of their careers with it more/less on their minds. Police work strikes me as realistic. Some echoes of personal experience, but also critical differences. A-
Two of the above (Breach; Zodiac) are 2007 releases. The others are 2006 releases. The following sums up the 2006 releases I saw and wrote about:
A list of 2006 movies I didn't see but more/less wish I had, in roughly descending order: Idlewild; Little Children; Casino Royale; Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story; The Science of Sleep; Borat; United 93; A Scanner Darkly; Fast Food Nation; Who Killed the Electric Car?; Hollywoodland; L'Enfant; World Trade Center; 49 Up; Factotum.
Tuesday, November 21. 2006
The Wichita Eagle has a little feature every Tuesday listing select new DVD releases. Seems a strange sense of priorities that they don't do anything similar for CD releases, but never mind. The thing that struck me today was that two of the movies I've seen but haven't gotten around to noting here are now out on DVD. I don't see a lot of movies, but I haven't written anything in this slot since July 21. So at least I need to stub this, even if I don't have much to say.
Movie: An Inconvenient Truth. In the end, Al Gore reminded me why I like him so little, but also impressed me with an earnestness lacking in other patrician politicians we can name -- more so in reference to the world than in terms of his own ego. The images are particularly striking. The science seems sound, and the facts accumulate. I have a friend who saw this and started making plans to leave the country. Evidently, he's not betting that we'll take Gore's remedies to heart. Or that they'll work. A-
Movie: The Devil Wore Prada. More entertaining than it has any right to be. B+
Movie: Scoop. Back to funny movies, even if Allen's not done with Britain's tiresome upper crust. A-
Movie: Little Miss Sunshine. Spent too much of the movie wanting it to move differently. In retrospect, all those missteps seems to work out anyway. A-
Movie: The Illusionist. Makes me think we could do with more movies about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and fewer about magicians. B
Movie: The Black Dahlia. Not just overdetermined; downright overresolved. Thought the two female leads were miscast, but the boxer-cops did well enough. B
Movie: The Departed. Another case where the plot was problematic -- especially the extreme body count at the end. But near great, especially Leonardo DiCaprio, who had the toughest role. A-
Movie: Half Nelson. The big problem with drugs is watching other people on them, especially in movies. Couldn't much relate to the dialectics nonsense either, but there is a payoff in the end. B+
Movie: Infamous. The box office loser of the Capote sweepstakes -- gayer and weirder, but slightly off. The New York social trivia is more fun than Capote, perhaps because it plays up the artifice; but that approach is rough on Kansas, especially given the harsh light and rough surfaces given the killers. Sandra Bullock is fine, but Catherine Keener is a natural; Toby Miller matches Capotes physically, but Hoffman gets the anguish right. So acting wins out. B+
Movie: Catch a Fire. After the Americans in Iraq, the biggest surprise is how good South Africa's intelligence was on this case. Not so surprising is that it didn't matter. B+
Movie: Marie Antoinette. The ahistorical music and attitude was expected, but the most striking thing was how the set overwhelmed the story. It's like the rare opportunity to shoot in Versailles demanded such deferential treatment. B
Movie: The Queen. This makes two Elizabeths for Helen Mirren, neither worthy of Prime Suspect. B+
News of Robert Altman's death today. His A Prairie Home Companion is still my top movie this year.
Friday, July 21. 2006
The heatwave broke today in Wichita, following four or five days with high temperatures in the 106-109F range, including at least two all-time records. When I went out to a movie last night, after sundown around 9PM, it was still 102. Got up this morning and it was overcast and near 80. Forecast was for 98, but it looks like it only got to 83. Didn't even get the thunderstorms predicted.
In honor of the weather, we'll take a day off from the war -- a luxury we still have in Kansas, but one not available everywhere. In particular, I'm reminded that Gaza is if anything hotter, with no electric power available for air conditioning even for those few normally able to afford it. Much the same is true in Baghdad, which in three years has never managed to restore appreciable electric power. Trying to get some work done here, writing my Jazz Consumer Guide -- finally making some progress there -- and reading about peak oil. More on all that later. Meanwhile, let's take care of some movies.
Movie: The Notorious Bettie Page. Mary Harron's movie on America in the '50s and the nation's mass confusion over female skin -- one hesitates to say sex, although not for lack of confusion. The film was mostly shot in black and white: there are many strange and rather perverse things about the '50s, but one is surely that cinematographers feel obligated to use black and white. One wonders whether this will change once moviemakers are young enough not to remember the era's primitive television. I suppose one could also point to the prevalence of black and white photography in the light porn magazines of the day, before Playboy caught on as some sort of class act. Page was a fairly light, shallow character, which may be why she reflects the era so well. B
Movie: Don't Come Knocking. Wim Wenders movie of a Sam Shepard script about a cowboy actor who goes AWOL from a movie set to get away from who know what and/or in search of who knows what. Still, if it shows anything, it's that motivations are overrated. Far more interesting what he finds than what he might have been looking for, and it scarcely matters that Shepard's character himself may have no clue at the end as to what he found -- the idea behind watching is that we get to see. Terrific small parts: Eva Marie Saint as his bemused mother; Jessica Lange as a fling who bore an unknown son; Gabriel Mann as the surly, confused son; Fairuza Balk as the son's flapper girlfriend; Sarah Polley as the mystery presence who puts it all together; Tim Roth as a bounty hunter hired to track Shepard down. Fine scenery. Just gets richer and richer as it all adds up. A-
Movie: Water. Deepa Mehta's movie, set in India (Rawalpindi?) in 1938, a point of disjunction between old ways bound up in religion and caste and the coming revolution led by Gandhi. Reportedly the third installment in a trilogy -- haven't seen either of the others, so no idea how they fit. In this one, a 7- or 8-year-old child bride is packed off to an ashram after her unmet husband dies, to live a life of forced denial until she too dies. The ashram has other women of different ages but same fates, and four or five figure largely in the movie -- especially an attractive, fair-skinned young widow who is pimped to support the ashram. The child attaches herself to the woman, the woman is courted by a young Brahmin lawyer who himself is a follower of Gandhi; tragedy follows, ultimately providing a breakthrough for the child. It's all a remarkable thing to watch. Needless to say, between the river and the monsoon, there's no lack of water. The class sketches and religious binds are laid out precisely and elegantly. A-
Sunday, June 18. 2006
Movie: Thank You for Smoking. The local theatre chain has been opening their shows with a "voice of the announcer" chortling about how Summer is coming and that's when Hollywood brings out their finest products. The net result of this is that the actual number of films showing here in Wichita is down about 25% from the dull days of winter, mostly because the same mega-crap is being shown in multiple theatres. We've been hard up for anything to get us out of the house. Went to see this one on the rumor that it might be funny. It is, mostly, although the smart aleck son seems likely to turn into a major public nuissance. B+
Movie: The DaVinci Code. Didn't know anything about this going in -- haven't read the book, but have read several of the reviews about how deadly dull the film is. Turns out it's not deadly dull; more like ordinarily dull. Turns out it's not about much of anything either, other than the notion that a genetic line of descent actually means anything after 2000 years -- an issue that could be cleared up with a whiff of numeracy. I thought the flashback scenes to the middle ages were an interesting effect, as if there's another movie lurking somewhere trying to get out. But content-wise those images could have been clearer about what vile motherfuckers the Crusaders were (and for that matter still are). As it is, they leave the vileness to the principals in the present age, who take this nonsense way too seriously. B-
A Prairie Home Companion. Again, I approach a movie from a strong position of ignorance about what it's about, except that's not really true: I have some idea about Garrison Keillor even though I've never listened to more than accidental moments of his show, and I know a good deal more about Robert Altman, the top dozen or so actors here, and the music they draw on. All of these elements are completely marvelous. Even the side story with Guy Noir and the lady in white rain wouldn't touch weave in nicely -- Kevin Kline hasn't been this funny since A Fish Named Wanda. Saw it on a huge screen in a theatre packed for a first matinee and loved every moment of it. Note that it's the only screen in town showing this movie. Must not be one of Hollywood's Best. A
Sunday, May 21. 2006
Movie: Neil Young: Heart of Gold. A Jonathan Demme concert film, tightly focused on the performers, especially Young as he debuts his recent Prairie Wind album at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. Young assembled a large group of performers: a core band led by pedal steel guitarist Bill Keith, an array of backup singers featuring Emmylou Harris, a horn trio, a string section, and a gospel choir -- the latter three used spottily, to mixed effect. The new album songs eventually give way to old ones: "Harvest Moon," "Heart of Gold," "The Needle and the Damage Done," "Comes a Time," etc., mostly working in Young's country vein. Shot just before Young went in for surgery on a brain aneurysm, there is a sense to it that he might be writing his own epitaph. Opens with interview snippets of the musicians in cars on the way to the auditorium. Closes with credits running as Young alone on stage doing a song in an empty auditorium. I'm not a music video person, nor for that matter much interested in live music, and that's pretty much it here. Everybody's looking old these days, but still sounding pretty good. The featured album is his best in a while, although it recycles much of his country kit. Behind that his songbook, his catalog, is extraordinary. B+
Young has a new album out -- as Christgau remarked, it's as notable a news event as a record. I've had mixed feelings about it, finally jotting the following down in my notebook:
I did stick "Impeach the President" into the songs list I'm collecting. (Never do manage to come up with such a list come ballot time, so for once I'm trying to be prepared.) Thus far, the only other song on this list is Bill Sheffield's "I Don't Hate Nobody," from Journal on a Shelf.
I'm not totally down on "America the Beautiful" -- it shows up constructively in two recent Carla Bley projects: Looking for America (ECM) and Not in Our Name (Verve, look under Charlie Haden). I live in the "amber waves of grain" part of the country, and always enjoy a drive up to Coronado Heights when the winter wheat ripens.
Tuesday, May 16. 2006
Saw two movies after the last such notebook entry. Figured since I had been ganging the movie notes up that wasn't enough. Then never quite found the time. Now it seems like it's been so long -- last report was actually dated March 7 -- that I've forgotten much of what I've seen. So I expect this will be patchy. But if not now it'd only get worse.
Movie: Caché. Not as clear as it could be, but a powerful testament to how strange and subtle blowback can be. Daniel Auteuil plays a minor television personality -- has a program about books -- who is stalked, taunted, and haunted by an Algerian he drove away from his childhood home. The significant thing here is not whether he was wrong then but how self-righteously aggressive he acts now -- the old best defense is a good offense ploy. Denial, after all, is not just a way to hide from responsibility; it makes sure no wrong is redressed. A-
Movie: Mrs. Henderson Presents. Was prepared for yet another dull exercise in the British notion that nudity is good for business. Found instead that the immaculately posed nudes were their own best critique. Also got some humor at the expense of the British upper classes, and an antiwar speech that strikes me as fundamentally correct, even if narrowly conceived. Like the British notion of the business of nudity. A-
Movie: Why We Fight. The title comes from Frank Capra's WWII propaganda films, but Eugene Jarecki doesn't do much with that. Instead, he spins what Gore Vidal calls "perpetual war for perpetual peace" around Dwight Eisenhower's lecture on the military-industrial complex. There must be a million ways to slice up this story -- James Carroll's new book is one I plan on reading soon -- but this one seems as valid as any. I could have done without the 9/11 blowhard, but even that story has some interesting twists. A-
Movie: V for Vendetta. This has a reputation of being pro-terrorist, but the terrorist in question is as tangible a product of horrific state-implemented torture as one can imagine. Where he differs from your garden variety terrorists is in the uncommon elegance of his vendetta and the gentlemanly grace with which he accepts his own flawed doom. But then, this is fiction; one should never forget that, or lose the knack of separating it from fact. As for the government that unleashes biological warfare against its own people to promote a panicked embrace of fascism, that's fiction too. But I still want to know who sent all those post-9/11 anthrax letters out. Those were fact, as was the mad rush to war that followed, not to mention the NSA snooping and other aspects that this fiction runs the risk of understating. A-
Movie: Inside Man. Clever caper, although I have all the usual caveats -- Nazis in the closet, remarkably principled and skilled Jewish crooks played by WASPs, Denzel's girlfriend confusion, whatever Jodie Foster was supposed to be. Spike Lee could grow up to be Sidney Lumet, if that's what he wants. B+
Movie: Friends With Money. Let's face it, money's wasted on the rich. B
If there was another, it's slipped my mind. Maybe I should go back to one short entry each time out. Not that there's been anything to see in several weeks.
Tuesday, March 7. 2006
I meant to do a quick movie catch-up before the Oscars, but didn't find time. Here's what we've seen lately:
Movie: Pride & Prejudice. AMG lists no less than eight versions, including a 1995 TV miniseries that I've seen before. One thing this demonstrates is that public utility is enhanced when pieces of literature enter the public domain. Jane Austen has come to rival William Shakespeare as one of Hollywood's prime storytellers. I've argued before that Austen's recent vogue has to do with return to favor of a class system in which fortune depends purely on the inheritance of property. The later Dickens seems to have entertained some doubts about what kind of world that gives us, but with Austen it's just cheerfully assumed. Her real interest was in bright, young, cheerful, witty girls determined to assert control over their love lives -- if successful, of course, they marry into fantastic riches. Back in my grade school days I developed a rather nasty prejudice against all the established literary standards taught there -- the sole exception was Shakespeare, no doubt because the plays were relatively short and I managed to read a couple of complete ones before being taught how great the bowdlerized versions were. I've never read Austen or Dickens or any of that lot, but lately various film and TV versions have never failed to delight me. This one is no exception. Necessarily more compact than the 1995 series, I'm sure it misses threads worth pursuing, but Matthew MacFayden makes a darker and more troubled D'Arcy than Colin Firth ever could, Keira Knightley's adolescent excitability works splendidly, and Donald Sutherland is always welcome. A-
Movie: Walk the Line. "Ray with white people" sums up what is uninteresting in it -- aside from the sheer glory of the music, but we all knew about that -- and misses much of what matters. For starters, black and blind Ray Charles brings more self-confidence to his game than white Johnny Cash, in large part because Charles' mother built him up while Cash's father tore him down. Both the music and the love (or whatever) stories flow out of this security differential -- and in Cash's case this lets June Carter's character emerge as his redemption. (Charles, on the other hand, hardly needed women, even though he was plenty fond of pussy.) On the other hand, the drugs and the tedium of kicking them just seem to be occupational hazzards. This ends with Folsom Prison in 1968 -- a long ways before the story ended in 2003, and there's plenty more in those 35 years that could have been worked up (unlike Charles' same 35 year gap). But that lets them frame this as a love story -- thankfully, they didn't overdo the Nashville royalty angle. One thing I found surprising was that the leads were cast with actors uglier than the people they were playing. Can't remember that ever happening in Hollywood, but Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon did superb acting -- the latter looking more like the young June Carter sounded than like she looked. And neither were as far off base as Shooter Jennings trying to play his dad. A-
Movie: The New World. Terrence Malick picked a tough subject for a movie. We all know about the late 19th-century plains Indians -- at least those of us old enough to have caught the heyday of the postwar western and its genre-busting post-Vietnam denouement. However, before the 1830s and especially before the 1770s the Eastern half of North America was still Indian country, and Europeans treaded lightly on that country, with skill and cunning, but without the overwhelming power that Andrew Jackson and his successors wielded. Malick pokes at a small part of that story: the Virginia expedition of 1607. I don't know whether he does this because he gets to play off the recognition of the Pocahontas-Captain John Smith story, or just because it represents the beginning of the end. But in doing so, he plugs into a framework we find strange -- we have little if any past visual references for comprehending the natives. Moreover, the English and Powhatan's tribe is a simple two-way exchange, not typical of the European conquest. That conquest happened mostly because the Europeans were able to exploit fault lines between the hundreds of Indian tribes in America. (E.g., Samuel Champlain got his toe-hold by allying with one tribe to wage war on another.) Also, by starting so early, Malick misses the profound impact of disease -- which was already prominent a few years later when the Mayflower landed. Whether Malick's vision of America is off or not is hard to tell. On the other hand, when he returns the story to England, he winds up exaggerating the wealth and sophistication, partly because the available period sets are so often castles. The cinematography is, of course, wonderful. The acting is secondary -- or in Colin Farrell's case, tertiary. B+
Movie: Transamerica. I wasn't looking forward to this one: figured it would just be stupid gender tricks. But it's mostly a road movie, done two-lane across some of my favorite parts of the country, where everyone they meet is slightly off center, and few are much the worse for it. Plus it turns out that Stanley/Bree's newly discovered teenaged son is kinkier than he/she is, and he/she's got enough sense not to push the difference between propriety and reality too far. The stopover in Dallas works due to its normality. The only mishap -- a stolen car -- significantly advances the plot. The "meet the parents" scene is much better than anything the Byrnes or the Fokkers could dream up. A
Movie: Match Point. Woody Allen's new Woody-less, New York-less, funny-less picture -- a throwback to Interiors, if you can still recall that dreary thing. It moves slowly, getting us acquainted with people we have no reason to like, then descends into an affair that smells like disaster from the start. Fortunately, by then nobody cares -- we're thankful for any plot we can get. In the end, it does pack a moral message. Not a happy ending, of course: the entire upper class getting garrotted just isn't in the cards. But at least a brief glimmer of conscience and consciousness. And it does lay bare the notion that it's better to be lucky than to be talented. Fact is, it's better to be born with the cards stacked in your favor -- or if you're not, to crawl into bed with someone who is. B+
Movie: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. This at least is a movie about justice, at least in the sense of punishing a wrongdoer just enough to strip him of his illusions and bring him to face his crime. Barry Pepper plays a trigger-happy Border Patrol who shoots a Mexican cowboy (Melquiades Estrada) in a cock-up bad enough that he could have appeared in a buddy movie with Pat Tillman in Afghanistan. The Mexican had been befriended by another cowhand, played by Tommy Lee Jones, leading to a promise to make sure Estrada, if he dies in the US, is buried back near his home in Mexico. When the Border Patrol and the Sheriff ignore the shooting and bury Estrada in an unmarked grave, Jones acts, taking Pepper to do the dirty work. A dusty town, lots of desert, several side stories which all pay out. Very satisfying movie. A-
Watched the Oscars Sunday night. I had no idea how inspired the opening introduction of the MC was until I saw the rest of the show, at which point the most vivid memory was Whoopi Goldberg yelling "Hell! No!" Cintra Wilson at Salon pretty much got it. Sure, she always says it sucks, but she's never been so right. And this isn't about which movies won or lost, although as best I recall everything but Crash beating Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture and Three 6 Mafia beating Dolly Parton for Best Song was pre-ordained. (It's hard to say whether Brokeback Mountain being busted back to two inescapably obvious Oscars was a sudden case of the chickenshits or whether the voters finally succumbed to the studio's classic love story advertising and figured who cares?)
By my count, Jon Stewart only got one relevant shot off: something about how all the socially relevant problems explored by the movies this year had bravely tackled decades-old problems. I've never seen him so dull or uptight before. And while George Clooney's acceptance speech -- the first of the night -- seemed like a modest point in the right direction, it lost whatever courage it suggested when it turned out to be the theme du jour, before they descended into a deep pile of doo about how the industry that gave us Birth of a Nation stood up to racism and how the industry that blacklisted Reds and faintly pink "fellow travelers" stood up to McCarthy. And that was just the content-oriented stuff. The whole thing was so streamlined and buttoned-down they left nothing to chance. The presenters lost half their front time and three-fourths of their jokes. Most of the nominee naming was canned. Many categories were down to three nominees, including the always dreadful songs. Even the normally silly dresses were prim and proper, and nobody had one of those dumb ribbons. The whole thing ran as smooth and fast as Mussolini's trains. You'd think nothing else was happening in the world. Certainly nothing to get alarmed about, with Hollywood steadfast on the job as the conscience of America.
Before the show the big controversy was about why none of the really popular movies released last year got nominations. Nobody talked much about how the nominations themselves are nothing more than niche marketing -- in other words, "good" movies are a mere niche, just like horror and action and teen romance and all those other niches that never get an Oscar marketing budget because they follow a different business model. But within the "good" movie niche, the nominees did pretty damn well, as usual -- eclipsing plenty of other good movies without "good" marketing budgets. The obvious question about the Oscars is why do so many people who never see "good" movies still watch the show. But a better question is how long will people still interested in "good" movies about decades-old problems will waste their time getting bombed out by commercials between which there's nothing but a bunch of stuck up farts congratulating themselves?
Friday, January 13. 2006
Laura took Christmas week off and wanted to go see movies damn near every day, so we saw a bunch of them. Here's what I thought:
Movie: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. With its movie within a movie recapitulating a movie based on a series of noir thriller books meant to be movies, this is too convoluted to deconstruct. Fortunately, it's funny enough often enough to enjoy anyway. Does seem like an awful lot of people get shot. B+
Movie: The Ice Harvest. The Wichita this is set in doesn't strike me as all that familiar -- a couple dark shots of downtown, a (possibly Oldtown) restaurant I'd never go to, a plausible albeit ridiculous (possibly Eastborough) house, some strip joints I know nothing about, a wintry pond that I suppose could be a sand pit (most of which have been turned into virtual Florida housing tracts). Also don't know anything about crooked lawyers and mobsters, but someone in this town seems to be taking in more money than honest work pays. This is really just a broken down film noir, and setting it in Wichita has got to be cheaper and less cliched than setting it in Hollywood. The cliched femme fatale also comes cheaper, as does Randy Quaid's mob boss character. Picks up a bit at the end, when it improbably turns into a buddy picture -- too late for Billy Bob Thornton, I'm afraid. B
Movie: Syriana. People say this is overly complicated, but it strikes me as underdeveloped. The thread with the Pakistani oil workers recruited for a suicide mission could have been cut without losing anything other than the vague hint that there's more to the world than the schemers who populate the rest of the story. Of the latter George Clooney's CIA agent and Jeffrey Wright's lawyer (or whatever) go through their motions without making much sense -- the former is presumably conflicted, the latter just dull. Matt Damon's business analyst is appropriately glib and cynical -- he gets the best lines in the movie when he taunts an oil prince on what his patch of sand will amount to once the West sucks it dry -- then briefly turns idealist with results that will make him all the more cynical. Only the Texas oil bosses seem to know who they are and why they do what they do, while the government people who do their bidding and rationalize it as being in the national interest come off as the most clueless of all. A big part of the value here is the cinematic breadth -- how much territory it covers, and in that at least the oil field shots are most interesting. But as a story, and hence as a critique, it's underdeveloped. B+
Movie: Jarhead. When I was draft bait back in the Vietnam era I hated war and injustice and all that, but what I really feared was boot camp. That was well before it became a staple of cinematic sado-masochism, of which this movie is state of the art. On the other hand, there's little reason to think that anything here rings false. (Last night I saw a clip on the news where the Navy was recruiting Seals using remarkably similar footage, including crawling under barbed wire while drill masters shot guns overhead, but they didn't include the bit where the soldier raised his head too high and had it taken off.) The 1990-91 war against Iraq seems on the mark too, at least from one vantage point -- on the ground, close enough to the action to see the charred remains but quick enough to get a shot off. Trained to kill one on one, Swofford is an inexperienced anachronism. For my money, that makes him a fool. Likely he would agree. A-
Movie: Munich. This is Steven Spielberg's remake of a HBO movie called Sword of Gideon -- same book, same events, bigger budget, less pointed message. The story is about one of Israel's covert assassination teams sent into Europe following the 1972 when a group from the Palestinian Black September organization abducted and killed eleven Israelis at the Munich Olympics. The team was given a list of Palestinians, allegedly responsible for Munich, and a large budget to practice their revenge. They shoot one guy easily, kill another with a relatively neat bomb, then another with a messier one. They in turn become the prey of the Palestinians, although this is much more muted in the Spielberg version. They also start to harbor doubts, although this is handled differently in the two versions, with the earlier one both more plausible and more pointed. Another advantage of Sword is that it spares us the Avner-debates-Ali scene, which while fair enough is an odd touch for a cold-blooded killers movie. But the big difference between the two movies is expands the context to include the whole Munich incident in the hypergory style he's developed lately, and not just as prologue: it reappears periodically, even spliced into Avner's nightmares. (He was safe at home in Israel at the time, happy with his pregnant wife, so his nightmares are mere transference -- a handy substitute for the violence he was actually involved in.) The problem with adding the Munich scenes is that it only adds part of the context -- Avner's motivation, but not Ali's. Black September itself was a short-lived offshoot of the PLO named for events in 1969 when the PLO was routed by Jordan, forcing them to flee first to Syria then to Lebanon, and its primary intent was revenge against Jordan. But context is a game that can be extended way back -- at least as far as the sainted Trumpeldor (d. 1920). The problem with the limited context here is that it distracts from the assassins' responsibility for their own acts. One thing that made Sword a much more powerful movie was it forced Avner to think for himself: his first surprise was how easy it was to kill at first, then later how complicated it became; he further learned what it meant to be a target, and got a sense of how Israel was using him. Ultimately he makes a distinction between being a soldier (a tank commander, but in Munich he was Mossad) and a killer. Sword doesn't overreach. On the other hand, Spielberg expands the story in several ways. Usefully, he includes several events not in Sword, including a commando raid in Beirut where we briefly meet future Israeli PM Ehud Barak. And he includes one scene that sums up the program perfectly: they snatch a Greek hotel manager who before they blew up his place had been friendly and generous to them, who when they dumped him was furious at how they had used him -- he stands for Europe, the victim of both sides, the victim both times. Going into this I didn't expect much from Spielberg but hoped writer Tony Kushner might pull something out of it. It's a mixed bag. But the fact that I can remember Sword of Gideon so vividly two decades after the only time I've seen it testifies to its power and importance. Hegel was the first to show how the master-slave dialectic destroys both -- a profound insight that applies just as well to these killers. B
Movie: Smokers. Not in general distribution, but it's not every day that we get a world premiere here in Wichita. And I suppose some disclosure is in order: my nephew Mike Hull, working with Axel Foley, wrote, directed, and acted in this DV film, and I put some money into it. Also I've read the script, and seen rough cuts of it before, but this is the first time I've seen the final cut. The plot is: dumb young kid from Wichita moves to New York, where he tries to buy reefer on the street. Hooks up with a local dealer in the park; later hooks up with another dealer, who specializes in primo buds, also originally from Kansas. Several other dealers do business elsewhere, with connections to the first two, and most of the film consists of routine daily business including connections with other smokers. In due course, one set of dealers decides to rob the Kansas dealer, and the schlemiel from Wichita gets caught in the middle. Not much of a plot, but enough to get by, with the film scoring most on its slice of life details. The editing has a lot of split screen effects, which underscores the steady movement. It was shot dirt cheap, but a lot of care has gone into putting it together. I may be biased, but I had more fun watching this than any other film in this batch. [website] A-
Movie: The Squid and the Whale. Production-wise Noah Baumbach's Sundance-winning film doesn't strike me as any better than Smokers. But it does have some name actors, and a more rounded, nuanced story. Set in Brooklyn in the '80s, two writers (each a Ph.D. in literature) divorce and divvy up time with two teenage sons. Beyond that, it's character development, or perhaps more accurately, character deconstruction. Presumably the story started out as autobiographical, with Baumbach the elder son, but the father comes off as such a pompous snob it may have wound up as parody. Or maybe not. A-
Movie: Breakfast on Pluto. A comedy of manners, I'd say, about a cross-dressing Irish orphan (Cillian Murphy) bending genders in the midst of Ulster's troubles. I didn't find it very interesting in watching it, but numerous little bits resonate in memory. For instance, the hero (Paddy, aka Kitten) is nabbed in a London disco bombing, then brutally interrogated by a hard-nosed cop who suspects him of planting the bomb, but later takes pity on on him and sets him up with a job in a house of prostitution, visited by his unacknowledged father, a priest played by Liam Neeson. B
Looking back through my notebook, these are the movies I saw in 2005 (*including a few 2004 releases that we got to late, or got here late), in approximate rank order:
Several movies in town that we might get around to: Brokeback Mountain, Pride and Prejudice, Walk the Line. That the grade list stops at B shows I did a pretty good job of avoiding crap this year. (E.g., Laura went to see War of the Worlds and Rent without me.) Needless to say, some things just don't get here, and others don't get here very fast. For a further roundup, see what Wichita's top film critics have to say.
Postscript: Laura thinks I overrated Hitchhiker's Guide, Capote, and Sin City, and underrated Hustle & Flow, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Syriana, The Ice Harvest, Breakfast on Pluto, and possibly others.
Tuesday, December 6. 2005
Haven't seen many movies lately, but haven't written about the few I've seen, so here's some catching up:
Movie: Lord of War. The opening sequence sums the movie up more economically than the rest does. It starts in a factory with the manufacture of a bullet -- stamped, assembled, inspected, packed, shipped, received, unpacked, loaded, fired into the skull of a teenaged boy, probably in Liberia or Sierra Leone. The subject here is the arms trade -- especially the arms from the defunct Soviet empire that flooded into Africa. Nicolas Cage plays a dealer from New York's Little Odessa with an uncle in the Ukraine Army -- as I understand it he's a composite of five real arms dealers. (Ethan Hawke plays a composite of even more Interpol agents, always on Cage's tail.) Told in flashbacks highlighting Cage's close scrapes over the years, the seduction of his wife and the destruction of his brother, whatever action occurs is anomalous -- an inadvertent breakdown of everyday business, which on rare occasions gives us a glimpse of the destruction such business facilitates. The dearth of feeling is both the film's power and weakness -- there is no human interest here, even of the victims. The visuals, on the other hand, can be interesting -- aerial shots of Africa, the remarkable disassembly of an airplane. B+
Movie: Broken Flowers. Also starts with an opening sequence, this time tracing the path of a letter through the USPS. Bill Murray plays a retired computer executive, who in response to the letter and prodding from nosy neighbor Jeffrey Wright is sent on a search for four old girlfriends who might have sent the letter -- anonymously, warning of an unknown son assumed to be seeking Murray out. The four women run the range of possible reactions, almost stereotypically. More satisfying for its nuances than storyline. B+
Movie: A History of Violence. One thing you got to give Hollywood is that they can make violence more attractive than it ever is in real life. Cafe owner Viggo Mortensen gets pushed too far three times, and responds with breathtaking accuracy and economy. Of course, he's got experience, but his son levels a bully with the same effectiveness. These are dream sequences, and it helps that they happen quicker than anyone can signal. This is classified as a "thriller," but unlike all the others it doesn't dwell on the omens -- it cuts to the chase. Maria Bello has a very tough role as Mortensen's wife. She handles it well, and thankfully doesn't have to kill anyone. Ed Harris and William Hurt get the easy roles as villains, and add something anyway. Peter MacNeill, as a smalltown sheriff, should be remembered for Supporting Actor come Oscar time, but won't. A
Movie: Good Night, and Good Luck. Shot in black and white, interweaved with newsreel footage of Sen. Joe McCarthy doing his thing. David Strathairn is note-perfect as Edward R. Murrow, but his role as McCarthy's nemesis is hard to judge. The self-importance of the backstage news production always threatens to overwhelm the story, so merely showing it runs the risk of exposing the hubris the networks are famous for. In fact, CBS has become such a kick toy for the right these days that it's hard not to see what's coming when you watch this. So parallels between then and now cut both ways. One thing I was struck by was how emphatically Murrow could defend his own anti-communism -- something that Don Hollenbeck, a newsman hounded to suicide, could not do. Given how discredited McCarthy is these days, I came away wondering when someone would come up with the guts to mount a sympathetic movie in defense of real communists. Like Ethel and, especially, Julius Rosenberg. A-
Movie: Capote. Despite growing up in Kansas at the time, I have no memories of the Clutter Family killing -- only the occasional references back to the crime, which became vastly more famous once Truman Capote published In Cold Blood. On the other hand, I remember Capote's appearances on the Tonight show rather well -- his voice, his hands, his haughty insistence that his sympathies were with the victims. Never read the book, but much later I saw the movie, which covers the killers enough. So, at least personally, this this movie, by concentrating on a writer far more enigmatic than his subjects, closes the circle. Philip Seymour Hoffman has a tough job doing Capote -- he gets the mannerisms close enough, but is so large compared to Capote that he comes off as an ungainly monster whereas Capote was more like a dilletantish dwarf, his mannerisms projected from his body rather than trapped inside. Moreover, Capote's crippling self-obsession as the execution looms doesn't quite jive with my remembrance of him after the book's publication, but perhaps there's something to it -- as the movie points out, Capote never wrote another book. Catherine Keener as Harper Lee helps out immensely. Yet despite the unease I felt at the time, this movie continues to gain stature in my memory. Saw the trailer for it again later, and it added to the depth of the movie. A-
Movie: Paradise Now. A film by Hany Abu-Assad, who previously did Rana's Wedding. He has a sharp eye for the everyday hardships of Palestinians under occupation, but he's not heavy-handed about it, and he's at least as interested in how life goes on despite the hardships. But this time the problem he tackles is how to fight back. On one side, there is a woman, the daughter of a local "martyr," who argues that violence surrenders the moral high ground. On the other, underground political operatives plot their response to a previous attack by setting up a suicide bomb attack in Tel Aviv. In between are two young Palestinian men, the designated bombers, who get a second chance to think it over when the original plans go awry. One, Khaled, is caught in the usual economic trap. The other, Said, is haunted by his father's history as a collaborator -- a "weakness," for which he was killed. Said gives a tightly argued speech on why he intends to go through with the plan -- the key point is to make them feel the pain we feel. The operatives may be more cynical, or more manipulative, but one senses they understand the difficulties of the choice all too well. In the end the screen fades to white -- the focus is on intentions, not on consequences. Similarly, the Israelis are mere faces without words -- this is a debate in and of the Palestinians. While those are fair artistic choices, they are blind politically, in large part because no possible choice works. Kind of like the trap Israel has set for the Palestinians. B+
Monday, September 26. 2005
Movies: Haven't seen many lately, but haven't written about the few I have seen. Here's to catching up, before I forget even more.
Hustle and Flow. Terrence Howard plays a Memphis pimp who takes a shot at rhyme when he bumps into a music soundman he knew from high school. No rags to riches story, no tragedy, no melodrama, this stays real by keeping its ambitions in check, and shooting them down when they threaten to escape. The music is no great shakes either, but DJ Qualls nearly steals the show as a dorky white beatmaker. And the girls surprise in unexpected ways, emerging as more resourceful and complex than often happens. A-
March of the Penguins. Hugely successful French documentary on the emperors of Antarctica and their struggle to survive and reproduce in the world's deepest freezer. The matinee we attended was overrun with parents and young children, the latter not necessarily tuning into the film. The anthropomorphism can be highly suggestive, especially when they blur the marching scene, approximating the queue of pilgrims filing through the desert. Still, this seems like something warmed over from a TV nature special. B
Walk on Water. Israeli film by Eytan Fox, about a Mossad assassin shook up by his wife's suicide -- death does follow him everywhere. He is given a soft assignment: get close to a pair of Germans -- sister and brother, the former living on a kibbutz, the latter visiting -- whose grandfather is an absconded Nazi war criminal, by now a very old man. He succeeds in finding the Nazi, but fails to kill him -- certainly not out of forgiveness, more like the belated realization of what killing has done to his own life. Palestinians fare poorer in the film, but one does manage to interject a key comment: that the problem with Israelis is that they can't forget. In some ways the German storyline seems like a cop-out, but it's more manageable, hence more realistic, than trying to conjure a reconciliation story with Palestinians. The latter, too, have trouble forgetting -- especially what happened in the last few days, months, years, not to mention what's bound to happen again and again in the future. Nor is forgetting the real key. The two Germans haven't forgotten -- they're deeply ashamed of their grandparent's past, and it turns out that the generously liberal Axel can be a stern judge. A
The Constant Gardener. John Le Carré's storyline about the deadly greed of pharmaceutical companies and their skill at corrupting governments may be well deserved but isn't all that interesting or novel. Moreover, its erratic unraveling is hard to follow; the editing is choppy, with bits of handheld camera smearing scenes so much you feel the choppiness in real time. The acting is nothing special, the characters roughly sketched with little flesh. But see this for the images -- the urban squalor of modern Kenya, and the harsh beauty of the landscape. B+
Tuesday, June 7. 2005
Movie: Crash. The overworked metaphor, that Los Angeles is so alienating that crash their cars, or really more than their cars, just for human contact. The instant identification that race provides is every bit as distancing as driving in metalloid shells, and the inevitable crashes there at least as damaging. As a piece of writing, this impresses: a set of arbitrarily interrelated characters, more than a dozen in combos of two to four, crash, regroup, then crash again. Each gets a shot of humiliation, and a shot at redemption, but not necessarily in that order. As withering as the denouements are the grace is gratifying, proving not merely that what goes around comes around, but that it doesn't necessarily have to. But as a movie this isn't especially sharp or slick -- to dark, the lights too bleary, the cold and snow unconvincing. But that doesn't ruin the movie -- any writing that sticks so closely in mind can't be dismissed so easily. A-
Movie: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Afterwards I went back and started to reread the book, just to refresh myself on what came from where, and what got left out. Since this only covers one of the five books, and since they no doubt mean to leave room for the rest of the franchise, the movie leaves out much, but since the books as a whole are so jumbled most of what it leaves out wasn't there in the first place. Actually, the movie cheats and borrows ahead, which is part of why it makes more sense than the first book, and also why it flows better. This helps -- at least it helps make up for the inevitable loss of the unvisual conceptualizing that was the main charm of the books. Aside from the matter of Zaphod Beeblebrox's two heads the visualizations are marvelous -- especially the planet factory, which gives a new and even more disturbing meaning to creationism. If it seems odd that I can't get away from the subject of the books here, it's partly because these are damn near the only novels I've ever read -- it's an angle I never have the opportunity to explore -- but more so because the books were signposts for how I learned to think about life, the universe, and everything: only a small matter of faith prevents me from elevating them to biblical status, but then the main point of them is that even a small matter of faith is a terrible thing to indulge oneself in. A
Movie: Kingdom of God. This one sent me back to the books too -- the encyclopedia, at least. Most of what I knew about the Crusades was Geoffrey Barraclough's theory that the Pope pushed them to try to divert the Normans away from wrecking Europe. But that would have been more like the First Crusade, which wasn't a pretty picture no matter what angle you viewed it from. What Ridley Scott actually focuses on is the fall of Jerusalem before the start of the Third Crusade, roughly 100 years after the Crusaders' initial triumph. That gives us a more moderate, more enlightened Crusader kingdom which is ultimately lost due to the arrogance of incoming Europeans -- I guess you could call them the neocons, the guys who think the enemy is evil and compromise is shameful. Various pieces of history get knocked around to clean up the story -- princess Sibylla makes out the best for the rewrite -- which unsurprisingly doesn't help clarify things. Some prominence is given to Saladin, who evidently has his own neocons to deal with, but that mostly underscores the commercial impossibility of trying to tell this or any story from the other side. Still, it's an awkward story, and the frequent bloodbaths just make it all the drearier. B
Tuesday, April 19. 2005
Movie: The Merchant of Venice. This was the first play I ever read by Shakespeare -- in fact, the first and only piece of classic literature that I ever read in high school and actually appreciated. Most recently, I ran across Shakespeare quoted at some length in Michael Hedges book on war, where he drew fine points on the folly of ill ambitions. Shakespeare's influence on the English language is so profound that his Jewish financier's name here has been parlayed into an anti-semitic stereotype, but anti-semitism is in the mind of the beholder, including its opponents. As I hear this, Shylock has his just reasons for sealing the deal for a pound of Antonio's flesh: the latter's Christian hauteur is so warped by his sense of superiority that he scarcely considers his risk. But in rejecting the plea for mercy Shylock falls prey to his own ill designs, as the power he thought he had under right of law turned against him. Mercy, it seems, is a one-way street in old Venice. In the end Shylock is stripped and beaten, losing his daughter, his money, and his identity, as Antonio's own bigoted sense of mercy insists that forced conversion is a blessing. Michael Radford's movie goes far in framing this story, and Al Pacino's performance is powerful and moving. A-
Movie: Sin City. Too misanthropic, not to mention too gory, for my tastes, even with the artificing filters of black/white cinematography, spot color, and minimizing effects where live action jumps back onto the pages of the comic strip. Unless, that is, the central story of the ruthlessly corrupt politician (Powers Boothe) and his saintly cannibal son (Elijah Wood and/or Nick Stahl) is meant as an analogue to the Bush clan, in which case they've managed to paint an even viler image than I could imagine. Power corrupts, and absolute power is off the scale. Then there's the matter of the amazon whores, which reminds me that this is mere fantasy. B
Wednesday, March 2. 2005
Movie: The Aviator. One thing this biopic of the life of Howard Hughes shows is that Martin Scorsese has arrived at the level where he can afford to stage huge and lavish historical dramas. The Hollywood parties alone would strain many of his earlier budgets, not to mention the airplanes and their fabulous crashes. Hughes makes for an interesting story, especially given that these days he is associated with little more than Las Vegas. But there is also something merely idiosyncratic about his aviation prowess, or for that matter his movie career. The two big planes at the center of this story were advanced in obsolete ways: they lost out to jets, which ironically was the thing Hughes became most famous for at TWA -- and which ultimately cost him control of the company, but that story is past the end reel here. As for his phobias, they are abundantly on display here, but not well explained. The flashback of his mother quarantining him may be emblematic of the problem but in itself isn't much of an analysis. The point, such as it is, could have been made more economically. The Owen Brewster scenes are amusing, especially given how orthodox free market dogma has become, but then this was well before the breakup of AT&T -- a company with a huge vested interest in the idea that monopoly was the most efficient system possible. Aside from the phobia sequences, everything else was well done -- the dinner at the Hepburn manse was one scene that sticks out. But when you're done what more do you have than an extravagantly lurid segment of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous? B PLUS