14 August 2007

Two remakes

I saw two movies remade recently. Before I say what I thought of them, I'd be curious to know others' opinions.

Remake 1: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946, John Garfield, Lana Turner; 1981, Jack Nicholson, Jessica Lange).

Remake 2: The Big Clock (1948, Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Maureen O'Sullivan), and No Way Out (1987, Kevin Costner, Gene Hackman, Sean Young).

Strictly speaking, the latter pair isn't really a remake; it's two separate movies based on the same story. Still, it's interesting to compare them.

Your thoughts?


03 July 2007

Kingdom Hospital and The Lost Room

I hate giving qualified recommendations.... "A great movie, you gotta see it, but the first ten minutes suck!" And yet that's what I'm about to do. Why? Because the finer aspects of the miniseries "Kingdom Hospital "and "The Lost Room" are absolutely worth putting up with the weaker.

Kingdom Hospital began life as "The Kingdom," a 1995 miniseries for Danish television. Most of it was written and directed by Lars von Trier, a well known figure in European film and TV. I have not seen the original - by all accounts it was a very fun, odd, surreal piece of work. But one person who did see it was Stephen King. He was so taken with this series that he re-wrote it and produced a new version for American TV in 2004.

In a nutshell: Kingdom Hospital (guess which state it's in) is a mid-sized suburban facility that happens to be built on the site of a 19th century factory, where many child laborers died in a fire. Nasty. You could say this hospital has issues. It offers enough oddball characters and peculiar goings on to make David Lynch grin ear to ear to ear. At times, this series offers the best cinematic material Stephen King has ever written. At other times, it is achingly weak, and you'll be reaching for the remote to scan ahead. But that's okay. Just enjoy the good bits. They are worth it. If you only watch the scenes with the anteater, you will have fun. Yeah, the anteater. See him, know him, love him.

One more point, especially for the visual artists among us.... Kingdom Hospital has perhaps the best opening title sequence of any TV series - mini or othewise - I've ever seen. Very much inspired by the surrealist photography of Jerry Uelsmann (see his work at http://www.uelsmann.net/ ) it is absolutely gorgeous. I watched it all the way through for each episode. Just delightful. Most movies should look that good.

(By the way, the original Danish series is also available from Netflix.)

A very different animal is "The Lost Room," produced by the Sci Fi Channel in 2006. This miniseries has one of the most interesting premises I've encountered in a long time....

There are these objects... They look quite ordinary: a comb, a bus ticket, a watch, a ball-point pen, a clock radio, a scissors, a pair of eyeglasses. About 100 objects in all. But they all have strange magical powers. The comb stops time for about ten seconds. The eyeglasses inhibit combustion. The bus ticket transports anyone who touches it to the outskirts of Gallup, New Mexico. The watch cooks eggs. Some of these powers are useful, some silly, some dangerous. But most important of all is the motel key. It makes any door a door into the lost room.

The lost room? No one knows exactly what it is, only that it disappeared out of our reality in 1961. But all these objects originated in that room. They belonged to somebody. No one knows who. In the first episode, a man who knows about the objects shares one theory with our protagonist (Six Feet Under's Peter Krause). He says, "Some people believe God died in that room, and the objects are all pieces of his corpse." Damn....

The story gets going like this: Peter Krause, a police detective, finds himself in possession of the key. He figures out what it does, though he doesn't begin to understand it. Then his 8-year old daughter gets hold of the key. She lets herself into the lost room, and closes the door behind her. When Krause reopens it, she's gone. So begins his quest.

He runs afoul of others who want the key, indeed, who want all the objects, for various reasons. Some want to destroy them. Others want to collect them all, believing this will let them communicate with God. This latter group is the scariest, by far.

We tend to rate movies with a sense of their overall quality: uniformly great, lame, whatever. It's much harder to approach a work that is so uneven, as these two series are. Some scenes leave you wanting to immediately jump back and watch them again (I know, because I did, more than once). Others leave you scratching your head, thinking, "How could that scene be the product of the same writer and director?" A good question. I don't know the answer, but I do know these series are just the thing for a weeknight, when you aren't in the mood for anything more "serious." Give them a look.

23 May 2007


Recommended for colorful small-town creepiness and old-fashioned visual excess.

This is a film from first-time director James Gunn, a Troma Entertainment veteran who (among other things) wrote the screenplay for the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. I rented it partly to see what Nathan Fillion was like when he wasn't playing Malcom Reynolds, Captain of the Serenity. And in fact, he’s a lot like Mal, even when he’s the sheriff of Wheely, a little town someplace in the heartland.

Wheely is the kind of town where they welcome deer season with a beer fest, and where the police have a hand grenade in their arms locker (taken from someone who was going to use it to do a little trout fishing). The lonely hearts hang together at the karaoke bar, and the high school is named after Earl Bassett, one of the heroes of Tremors. These folks are average in an aggressively average, inbred way.

There are few surprises as far as the plot. Strange meteorite lands in woods, little slug-like thing crawls out, local is infected and proceeds to lay the foundation for general world domination. In that sense, you’ve seen it all before. What makes it lovable and different is the way the characters take things in stride. The way the local's lovely wife (Elizabeth Banks) still looks at him fondly when he’s more squid than human. ("You’re just sick, is all, honey...)

Since they went for the R rating, we also have the kind of language that’s appropriate to the situations, instead of the usual PG-13 stuff. So when the sheriff is confronted with a particularly horrific moment, he can express himself with great honesty: "Now that is some fucked-up shit."

16 May 2007

The Battle of Algiers

Recommended for historical interest and relevance to the news of the day.

A famous Italian film from 1966, directed and go-written by Gillo Pontecorvo. It’s one of those famous films I never got around to seeing until now, and has been high on my list since I read that the Pentagon had screened it for an Iraq study group.

In a very even-handed, documentary style, it takes us through the pivotal events in Algeria’s failed revolution of the 1950s. You’d swear you were watching newsreel footage, with crowds shot from a distance, on location, through smoke, using extras who were actually involved in the riots that were recreated for the film.

Its politics might not be what you’d expect. The revolutionary leaders are calm, thoughtful and articulate. But so are the French. The paratroopers are just doing a job, not happy about their role as policeman but accepting that it must be done. And despite the torture and the assassinations and the bombings, neither side comes off as crazy, or even as extreme. Ruthless, perhaps, and willing to do evil in the name of a greater good.

In the first scene, we open in silence to see a wizened old man, shivering in his underwear, with two or three troopers around him. The interrogator speaks: “You didn’t have to hold out for so long, you know. It could have been easier on you.” They make him a cup of coffee, and more paratroopers come in, patting the old man on the back, helping him stand and telling him everything will be OK.

Later, there’s a scene with a recently-arrested rebel leader, speaking with the French Colonel. They’re discussing their relative strategies in a calm, philosophical way. There’s no hatred here, no shouting, no wild eyes. There’s even respect. They’re both professionals, and you have the old-fashioned notion they would have been friends, except for being enemies.

You can’t watch it without thinking about Baghdad and Abu Ghraib. And you can’t help thinking that while so much of the apparatus of revolution remains the same (torture and assassinations and bombings), we’ve lost something important in the knee-jerk extremism that’s taken over since 9-11.

15 May 2007

Four stylistically related films

There is a kind of storytelling that I have not seen until fairly recently: following around a bunch of seemingly unrelated characters whose lives intersect in surprising ways. I've seen this style in four films, all of which I think are excellent:

Short Cuts (1993). Robert Altman starts with helicopters spraying for Medflies and continues with the intertwining stories of a bunch of Los Anglinos.

Magnolia (1999). Paul Thomas Anderson directs a story about a former quiz kid, a current quiz kid, a rich man dying while his nurse searches for his (the patient's) estranged son, who has made his fortune teaching the art of seduction.

Lantana (2001). Ray Lawrence directs this story of a psychiatrist gone missing. One of the cops investigating her disappearance turns out to have been having an affair with a woman who sees her next-door neighbor disposing of a key piece of evidence.

Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (2001). Jill Sprecher directs in New York. Characters include a physics professor having an affair, a defense attorney who gets into an auto accident while drunk, and a manager determined to wipe the smile off the face of one of his employees.

So…aside from recommending all four of these films to people who like this kind of storytelling, I wonder what others are out there in a similar vein.



10 May 2007

Quick Cuts: Departed, Shallow Grave, Last King, Brother's Keeper

Not seeing a lot of films lately, and remembering fewer. The only video narratives I've actually enjoyed lately are 'The Wire' and, to a lesser extent, 'Heroes', two TV series. 'Heroes' is just kinda fun, but 'The Wire' engages me in the stories of all the MANY different protgagonists and antagonists... actually, hard to decide in my heart which is which, sometimes.

The Departed: Entertaining, but not absorbing... except when Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg , the uncover top cop and second-in-command, grill the two green detectives, one after the other. Real tension and anticipation in that. Yeah... probably Nicholson's fault [over-the-top... always something to catch the eye, but not the heart or mind]... and the plot being so involved that it over-shadowed the morale dilemmas.

Shallow Grave: Vivid characters, engaging plot, real sparkle. Something Bad happens to a prospective roommate, and the sharing roomies find a LOT of money. Hilarity ensues. Hmm. Not light-hearted hilarity, so not a recommended comedy for sensitive souls. But grimly light-hearted irony for more jaded among us.

Last King of Scotland: Interesting subject and theme... not-so-persuasive plot and protagonist for exploring the subject and theme. The 'Special Feature' documentary on Idi Amin was more interesting and affecting, less marred by narrative dissonace [my just-now-made-up term for the oppressive sense that the screenwriter is jamming in events rather than letting them flow from setting, theme, and character].

My Brother's Keeper: Riveting and affecting.

This acclaimed documentary explores the odd world of the four elderly Ward brothers -- illiterate farmers who have lived their entire lives in a dilapidated two-room shack. When William Ward dies in the bed he shared with his brother Delbert, the police become suspicious.
- netflix

The brothers and the community members are as amazing and unfamiliar as Spielberg aliens, and at the same time as real and remarkable as possible. A wonderful journey into the mysterious realm of Other People -- Brothers Under the Skin.

You don’t need him to know which way the wind blows

Saw The Weather Man last night. Engaging movie, though sad. Nicolas Cage and Michael Caine were outstanding.

The sadness was in the theme: An important part of being an adult is knowing when to cut your losses. None of the major characters was truly happy; the decisions confronting them were how to avoid making the situation worse when nothing would make it good.

So I wouldn't call this an uplifting movie. On the other hand, I can't stop thinking about it, because of course most of our daily decisions aren't between black and white but rather between various shades of grey.