31 January 2005

KILL BILL Vol. 2

I have just one word:

"Why, why, why, WHY, why.... WHYYYY?"

My husband says that given the least opportunity, the third grade boys in his class tend to write about murder, mayhem and violence. Obviously Quentin Tarantino has found a way to make it pay.

I admit that I fell asleep about 1/3 of the way through. But as I was drifting off, pretty much all I heard of dialog was Ms. Thurman's grunts and moans. I thought it was about as boring and pointless as an extended car chase scene.

And what is it with those nostrils?

I did think that "Pulp Fiction" was a great work -- it at least provided context for the violence and was frequently LOL funny. But Kill Bill 2 was just an indulgence of an auteur who's become big enough that he's not subject to editorial review (sort of like Stephen King, who never says in 10 pages what he can say in 200).

"Two nostrils down" from me.

THE SWIMMER

Cautiously recommended as a dated but touching tale of Big Romantic Ideas (what Don and I used to call Le Grande Bullshite) and how they play in the real world. See Also A THOUSAND CLOWNS.

This is a small film from 1968, and could almost be a TV movie given its production values. (As interesting side notes, it's the first full score credited to Marvin Hamlisch and the IMDB lists Stanley Pollock as an uncredited Director on one scene.)

THE SWIMMER is based on a John Cheever story of the same name, and was directed by Frank Perry, who a few years earlier did DAVID AND LISA (a film which I believe was well thought of by my sister Sue). Burt Lancaster is the tragic hero, who on a fine Spring morning appears out of nowhere at the home of a neighbor, wearing a pair of swim trunks and a smile. He accepts a drink, gazes into the distance, and observes that there's now a chain of pools forming a metaphorical river all the way to his house. He tells them he's going to swim home, something that may be both an adventure and a form of penance. "That's more walking then swimming," another character tells him later. "Not walking...portaging," he says.

By the time he reaches the headwaters of his Lucinda River (named for his wife), he's not quite the man he was. He expects everyone along the way to be glad of his company. He expects to be remembered, even loved and at the very least forgiven. It doesn't always work out that way.

I remember seeing this film for the first time maybe 30 years ago, on a 12-inch black-and-white Sony TV, probably late at night. I found it then both Deep and Significant. Now I'm not so sure it's either, plus I was shocked, shocked to see that it's actually in color. I think it was bigger in black and white.

SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW

SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW
** 1/3 - Mostly, but not completely, Lame

I must begin with a disclaimer: I did not watch the entire movie. I fell asleep the first time through. When I asked Matt, who had stayed awake for the duration, if I should bother watching the rest, he said no... but I was curious enough about the film to give it another shot.

The second time through I stayed awake, but missed about 20 minutes, partly because I went to get something to eat and didn't bother to pause, and also because the disc skipped quite a bit.

The film is an impressive technological achievement: everything on screen (except the actors - well, most of them) is a digital effect. That combined with 0the retro-future, mostly b&w noirish look makes for a visually attractive film.

But as we've heard dear old Robert McKee say... if people come away from your film talking about the cinematography, score or costumes... you have failed as a writer.

Is it too much to ask to have a concept film be more than just concept? In this case... yes. The story has something to do with a robot invasion and the efforts of some stock characters, zealously played by Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Giovanni Ribisi and Angelina Jolie, to thwart said sinister robots... but really, neither the story nor the characters merit much more analysis than to say... yawn. There isn't a single twist or spark of originality to any of them.

So I would not recommend watching this film in its entirety, but it could be worth it to watch a few minutes just to appreciate the look of the CG world. Maybe turn the sound down and choose your own score instead.

28 January 2005

COFFEE AND CIGARETTES

A Jim Jarmusch film. His DOWN BY LAW is a Recommended Entertainment... maybe even a must-see. STRANGER THAN PARADISE was a wonderful independent when I saw it, but it has since faded in my memory. MYSTERY TRAIN is fun for me mostly because it features Tom Waits, who is an unforgettable face and character... a Humphrey Bogart for me. GHOST DOG and NIGHT ON EARTH are disappointments for me. I enjoyed watching them, but they paled by comparison with the impact of the earlier films. And I would have to see DOWN BY LAW again before touting it too highly. It may have been exotic in its day, but less effective than I remember... though Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Roberto Benigni are still fresh in my mind as amazing and vivid characters. [And I love black and white films.]

So COFFEE AND CIGARETTES is black and white, and has some fine characters and performances. It's a set of short comic sketches, and some I fast-forwarded through. It's the sort of thing I'd rent for a Rolston movie night, then show only two or three of the segments like cartoons before the feature. That's how I'd recommend it for netflix viewers. Watch it on the same night as some other film, and fast forward to the Iggy Pop-Tom Waits sketch, the Bill Murray sketch, the Cate Blanchette sketch [remarkable], and the very last sketch with two actors I don't know, but which I found irresistibly delicious. Treat it like a film festival of short films. It's challenging, in that it yields up its rewards not from easy narrative and fast pacing. And I also think its themes are too light to justify more than a 'entertaining' label. And it may have a special appeal to anyone who has once smoked but who has abandoned the habit. [I never smoked, so I may not appreciate the film's true savor.]

27 January 2005

THE SNAPPER

Recommended as a closely observed view of an exotic foreign locale, with well realized characters and buckets of entertaining chit-chat.

THE SNAPPER is a Stephen Frears film from 1993, and to my reckoning lies somewhere between the lands of comedy and drama. It's the second installment in Rody Doyle's Barrytown Trilogy, a set of novels (and films) which begins with THE COMMITMENTS and ends with THE VAN. All three take place in the same Dublin neighborhood, and feature many of the same characters. Colm Meany (a.k.a. "Star Trek's Colm Meany") is in all of them, and is arguably the star of this one.

It's the story of an oversized Irish family stuffed into a small, one-bathroom flat in a self-contained country village that's masquerading as a modern city neighborhood. Sharon is the 20-year-old eldest daughter who discovers she is pregnant, and the anticipated arrival of her little "snapper" is the basis of the plot.

No one seems to wrestle that much with the abortion question, which is perhaps a function of being Catholic and Irish. In fact, all involved take the situation pretty much in stride, and no one mentions the Magdalene alternative. There's an element of mystery in Sharon's refusal to identify the father, although people get used to that too, given time. Even Dad (Meany) is more interested in the details of the pregnancy itself, buying a book about women's sexuality that has him trying out some new tricks with his wife. ("And where did you learn that!" says his wife, giving him a slap to the head. "Out of a book, Kay! Out of a book!")

That's pretty much it, story wise. This is a film to see for its characters, who are warmly drawn if sometimes flawed and foolish. Even Sharon's man-eating friends are not too bad, since they're having so much fun at it. The folks in Barrytown are not as cute as the ones in WAKING NED DEVINE, but on the whole, that's probably a good thing.

One of the joys of NetFlix is the way it lets you program your own floating film festivals. This film is part of my ongoing Stephen Frears Retrospective, recently inspired by seeing DIRTY PRETTY THINGS for the first time. The festival will continue with MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE, a film to which Ken and Pat introduced me back in the day. That one is still down the queue a ways, and it'll be interesting to see how I feel about it 20 years later.

Of course, THE COMMITMENTS is now on order, and THE VAN is on my watch list. The former is from Alan Parker, and the latter is also from Stephen Frears. Not available on DVD yet.

And all of this reminds me in a perverse way of the teachings of William Bly, who once said to me: "Everything is hypertext."

25 January 2005

THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU

Recommended Entertainment

This is one of few films I've seen in the theater in the past several months, but wanted to send it some praise in response to Ken's dislike of its trailer.

Synopsis: A Wes Anderson film, featuring Bill Murray as Steve Zissou, a documentary filmmaker whose latest films focus on some very unusual marine specimens, and who is surrounded by some zany folk, played by Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon, Anjelica Huston and Bud Cort.

The film did not receive many good reviews (49% on Rotten Tomatoes) but I find this to be yet another example of finding that my sense of humor does not correspond to that of most of the rest of the world. The plot does take some bizarre turns, and there is some unsettling and unexpected violence... but I felt the whole film took place in a slightly bizarro universe. And so I forgave its zigzag narrative. And I also forgave Zissou's numerous obnoxious and immature qualities, also because I found Bill Murray's deadpan performance to be hilarious. I don't think I can say too much more without giving anything away, but for Wes Anderson or Bill Murray fans, I definitely recommend this one.

24 January 2005

re: good vs bad trailers

Kenny, the trailer to Fight Club was just horrible... kept me from seeing the movie for a year. The trailer made the movie look like some kind of wierd violent gang film. I loved the movie!

20 January 2005

THE BLIND SWORDSMAN: ZATOICHI

THE BLIND SWORDSMAN: ZATOICHI [87%] ***

The best thing about this samurai film is the tap dance finale.

It was completely unexpected. I don't feel I'm revealing a plot element. The Riverdance-scale performance with the whole ensemble has the air of a stagecall in a stage play. The evident pleasure on the faces of the dancing cast is really winning. It is Competely Out Of Place. And so I celebrate it.

I bring a lot to any samurai film viewing. From the first time I saw a PBS series of Japanese films hosted by Edward R. Reischauer [no idea how it is really spelled -- bluffing here, perhaps misremembered], including SEVEN SAMURAI and IKIRU and HARA-KIRI and YOJIMBO, I have associated classy and exotic foreign films with Japanese samurai epics. Because of my first experiences, I want all samurai films to be stark, in black and white, grim in tone, dark but touchingly human in theme, gloriously stylish in film style and composition.

So seeing this latest in a series of over twenty Zatoichi films, featuring the blind masseur-and-master-swordsman, must disappoint, because it is in color, and often high-key lighting, and just not ancient and venerable enough to match my expectations. And modern films don't exhibit the leisurely... well... langorous pace of development of the Good Old Days.

But within five minutes, I was warming to this modern version because it had the same charming cast of characters, factions, and human themes of the older films. It also tells the back stories of the protagonists and the bad-guy-gunslinger -- a ronin turned bodyguard -- through generous flashbacks. It was like comfort food... all the old flavors, familiar and satisfying.

The tap dance scene builds out of a Shinto dance which follows a climactic house-raising in the tradition of John Ford communal barn-building rituals. When it slips into tap-dance, the rhythm and enthusiasm is infectious. The director is Doing the Wrong Thing, but I don't mind. I actually like it.

It's a good film, but I can't recommend it, except to samurai fans, who will be well-pleased. [Samurai fans are starved for choice. I even enjoyed THE LAST SAMURAI... a film of dubious charm... just because it had the costumes and pagentry I long for. This is a Pretty Darn Good Modern Samurai flick, and a respectable addition to the Zatoichi tradition.] I was kind of surprised by the high Rotten Tomatoes freshness rating, so it may be better than I think, but I suspect that it's just that film critics are often samurai fans with a deep affection and respect for the Zatoichi tradition. For any pals who are interested, I have video tapes of both ZATOICHI - THE LIFE AND OPINION OF MASSEUR ICHI (1962)[the first and arguably finest Zatoichi film] and ZATOICHI MEETS YOJIMBO [1970] [yeah, Mifune reprises his great role, but it's Just Okay] for loan.

19 January 2005

Rotten Tomatoes' "%"s and *K*e*n*s*

In the spirit of inquiry...

Chris' post on BUTTERFLY EFFECT brought up the concept of personal tastes at variance with the mainstream. He referenced Rotten Tomatoes ratings as a point for comparison. [BTW: the Rotten Tomatoes webstie rates movies on a percentage scale of 'fresh', with 100% fresh very good and 0% fresh as not good in any way.]

I was surprised by the rough equivalence between the Rotten Tomatoes scores and my own *K*e*n*s* star rating scores. Rotten Tomatoes is a survey of film journalists [I think...] and probably not a particularly persuasive model of 'mainstream'. I think I'd measure mainstream in terms of box office. So I'm guessing Chris is thinking 'critical mainstream' in this context.

Anyway, I noted that my paradigm examples of horrible films received Very Low freshness scores.

Van Helsing [22%] :0
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen [16%] :0

[The emoticon ":0" represents 'no stars' on the *K*e*n*s* scale.]

An interesting case is NORTHFORK, a film I have loved and praised, and foisted upon Don. Northfork has the lowest freshness rating of any film I have praised [56%], and therefore may be a case to compare with Chris' appreciation of BUTTERFLY EFFECT in contrast to the mainstream critical response.

Below I append a long, tiresome list of my recently reviewed and recommended films, with freshness and *K*e*n*s* ratings. [I will go back and add these to previous posts, and will use them in future reviews, because it has been fun... so far.]

Being Julia [77%] ***
Hotel Rwanda [89%] *****
House of Flying Daggers [88%] **** Entertainment
I Heart Huckabees [60%] ***
The Incredibles [99%] **** Entertainment
National Treasure [42%] **
Sideways [96%] **** Entertainment
Spongebob Squarepants [68%] **
Vera Drake [89%] **** Exploration
A Very Long Engagement [78%] ***
The Woodsman [85%] *****
The Return [96%] *****
The Circle [93%] **** Exploration
Spring, Summer [96%] *****
Triplets of Belleville [96%] *****
Touching the Void [93%] *****
Zus & Zo [44%] ****
Medea [80%] ****
ExplorationHero [94%] **** Entertainment
Nowhere in Africa [84%] ***
Control Room [96%] *****

The Vagaries of Software Development

I use Mozilla Firefox, and in that browser, comments do not appear. Sometimes a link indicating comments appears, but clicking on it does nothing, and missing comments stay missing.

Sigh.

In Explorer, the comments appear.

THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT

This is a 2004 thriller written and directed by the team of Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber, and I liked it quite a bit.

Our protaganist is a successful college student (Ashton Kutcher) who's had an unusually traumatic life. I mean, like a LOT of bad stuff happened to him. So as a child, he developed a tendency to experience blackouts under stress. One blackout led him to a helpful pyschologist who suggested he keep a journal of his life, and he's done so ever since. He's made it to college and he's OK. He meets a woman (Amy Smart) he knew as a girl, and she's very much NOT OK.

Kutcher discovers he can travel in time by concentrating on his journals, casting his adult self into his childhood body. So he decides to go back, find the moment when poor Amy's life went sour, and fix it. But as the title implies, it's perhaps not possible to fix one thing without breaking something else. Therein lies the story, and by the end, the final fix really had me by the short hairs, even though there was a sort of inevitability to it.

When a film grabs me in some way, I often pay a visit to Rotten Tomatoes to see what the critics thought, and every now and then I find I'm very much out of the mainstream. That happened here -- most of the pros trashed this one.

But I think it's worth a look. I've never seen Ashton Kutcher in anything else, so I don't have an issue with him. And yes, it's violent, but not in an up close and personal way. And I suppose its story is also implausible. But hey, we're talking time travel, here! It maintains its inner logic just fine, and I think talking about whether time travel is possible is sort of missing the point.

At least one of the big boys agreed with me, and if you like you can read Michael O'Sullivan's review in the Washington Post.

Operating Principles

Thought about this last night, but not soon enough to get in at the top of Kenny's enthusiastic contributions (sigh).

I'd like to suggest that we review only one film per post, and that we use the title of the film as the title of the post, in ALL CAPS. That will make it easier to browse the listings and see what's been reviewed. If you want to review a film, take a look at the listings first, and if someone else has already covered it, add your comments as Comments (with the Comments button), instead of starting a new post. That way, our collective thoughts will all hang there in one place.

For other kinds of non-review posts (like this one), call them whatever you want, and put the title in Initial Caps.

I think that will work for us. Also, if you haven't already, see Kenny's Rules for film criticism in The Usual Suspects.

18 January 2005

To date... I forgot...

Where the Buffalo Roam [1980] Bill Murray plays Hunter S. Thompson. I saw Terry Gillam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas [his screenplay], and liked it somewhat. Johnny Depp was very satisfying. And I remembered loving Where the Buffalo Roam when I first saw it many years ago. I was so wrong. It is Bad. I'm sure I would profit by reflecting on why I liked it then. Maybe it was odd. Maybe I liked the Counterculture then. But it's just unwatchable.

2005 Viewing to Date...

Note on Ratings:

Must See: Five Stars. Has a good chance of being on the top ten recommended at the end of the year.
Recommended Entertainment: Four stars for fun.
Recommended Exploration: Four stars from making you a better person.
Good: Three stars. You'll never be sorry you saw a good film.
Lame: Two Stars. Hire the handicapped. Usually not actually so much bad as silly or predictable or pointless or manipulative or Hollywood crap.
Bad: One Star. Waste of time. No redeeming features. Not noteworthy in its lameness.
Awful: No star. Surprisingly bad. Bad on a grand scale, or in an original way. Stunning. Inspires rage or anhedonia. Examples: Van Helsing, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Jan 03: The Return: Russian Father suddenly appears after many years absence and takes his two sons on a very odd fishing trip. Minimum of dialog; lots of character and storytelling. Absorbing characters. Lyrical photgraphy. Enigmatic story poetic resolution. Remarkable 'about the film" feature. Must see.

Jan 04 [tues]: House of Flying Daggers: A love story with beautiful wide-screen and costumes; fine dance and bamboo forest set-pieces. I think it is probably Better than Hero. Very pretty. But mushy and romantic... not in a bad way, but in a way that a Hong Kong martial arts epic really shouldn't be. So I liked Hero better, for pretty juvenile and manly reason. Plenty of entertainment, though. Recommended entertainment.

Jan 05 [wed]: The Very Long Engagement: French, Tatou, World War I; five men condemned to die for self-mutilation to avoid service. Good.

Jan 12 [Tues]: Hotel Rwanda. Honorable. Terrible. Wrenching. Bad things happened in Rwanda. I read "We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda" by Philip Gourevitch, so I knew the plot. It was pretty tough watching, but not so tough that you can't stand it. And very good. A Must See.

Jan 16 [Sun]: the Circle
Director Jafar Panahi; women in fundamentalist Iran. Frustrating. Doesn't tell you what's going on. But the director did it on purpose, so stay patient. The frustration is worth it. Strong characters and themes, and strong, intelligent filmmaking. Recommended Exploration.

Jan 18 [Tues]: The Woodsman
[netflix blurb] After spending 10 years in prison on charges of sexually abusing small children, Walter (Kevin Bacon) is released and works hard to regain some sense of normalcy in his life. He lands a job working in a lumberyard and beings a halting romance with a woman he meets named Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick). Co-stars Benjamin Bratt, Mos Def and David Alan Grier. Kevin Bacon. Exquisitely creepy. Not pretty creepy. REAL creepy. Not Wes Craven creepy. REAL creepy. Very human. I was afraid it would be forced to develop according to predictable expectations, but I didn't see it coming. Recommended Exploration.

Film 2004 Recommendations

For those who haven't already been gifted with this list, a reference copy.

These are the movies I saw in 2004 that I want all my friends to see so we can talk about them. Or I'd like to force my friends to watch with me so they can admire my good taste.

After the title I have listed the Rotten Tomatoes Freshness Rating [0-100%] and the *Ke*n*s* star ratings [***** Must See; **** Recommended; *** Good; ** Lame; * Bad; :0 Awful]


Film 2004 Recommendations

1. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring [96%] *****

Ken: Visually brilliant. Thematically rich. Full of narrative surprise. Extra Korean.

2. Triplets of Belleville [96%] *****

Ken: Extra French. Don't need subtitles... tells story visually. And brilliantly. Great music. Pure fun and amazement.

3. Yi Yi [96%] *****

Ken: Extra Taiwanese. Great people stories told with charm and delicate irony. But the little kid just kicks ass.

4. Touching the Void [93%] *****

Ken: Great adventure film. Beautiful, amazing, deadly scenery. Men with Gloriously Bad Ideas Live to Tell About It. Kinda English.

5. The Incredibles [99%] **** Entertainment

Ken: Perfect movie. Totally satisying. Not deep or profound. But it has so much charm it throws it away in crates. All American, ina good way.

6. Zus & Zo [44%] ****

Ken: Extra Dutch. Extra Modern Life. Very fine, very sweet, romantic comedy with lots of sour and spicy sauce.

7. Medea [80%] **** Exploration

Ken: Probably my favorite of all, but epic and grim. Not for everyone. I love Greek Tragedy, and Scandanavian gloom. Extra Danish, but made from Greek ingredients. Directed by Lars von Trier from an unpublished screenplay by Carl Theodor Dreyer [The Passion of Joan of Arc, silent, 1928] from Euripides' play.

8. Hero [94%] **** Entertainment

Ken: Hong Kong epic martial hero trappings married beautifully to a charmingly complex narrative of conflicting narrators, with grand themes. Not profound. But gloriously visualized, charmingly exotic fantasy. Yup. You guessed it. Extra Chinese.

9. Vera Drake [89%] **** Exploration

Ken: Mike Leigh is the director. Leisurely, patient slice of life illuminated by a profound theme and touching earnestness of character. Not fun, but grand.

10. Sideways [96%] **** Entertainment
Two men go on an excursion and end up inducing mid-life crises in this comedy-drama. Pinot Noir lover Miles (Paul Giamatti) convinces friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) to enjoy his last days of bachelorhood with a wine country road trip. Miles tries to teach Jack about wine, but Jack just wants a final fling. The pair get involved with two women (Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen) and inevitably come face to face with their past and their present.

Ken: A real nice comedy featuring two not-very-lovable buddies. Purely entertaining and satisfying. Some romance. Okay. Pretty Californian.

11. Nowhere in Africa [84%] ***

Ken: Shortly before World War II, a Jewish couple and their young daughter emigrate to Kenya from Germany to escape the Nazis. Well, THIS one is German and African. Interesting visit to another time and another world. A domestic drama with a difference -- history and high themes.

12. Control Room [96%] *****

Ken: Okay. I don't know if it was MADE by Arabs, but it is an excellent and persuasive perspective on the complex stuff going on over there. Very interesting people with very thoughtful ideas and compelling principles. Glad to know something about Al Jazeera besides what our Government tells us.

Rules

1. No plot revelations unless the film has been out on video for six months. And not even then if it's foreign or weird or otherwise too exotic for Normal People to have seen.
2. This turns out to make it really hard to write about a film experience until everyone has all seen the movie.
3. I'll be seeing a lot of movies before the rest of you will, so when giving descriptions, I'll try to limit myself to stuff I can get from netflix blurbs. They usually indicate major actors, directors, and main themes.

A Blog, by Any Other Name

For at least years, my friends and I have exchanged capsule reviews and or recommendations for films. Ken Rolston, fabled in song and story, has been particularly aggressive in this area. Given my own interest in Knowledge Management, I figured what the heck... Why not capture this valuable movie knowledge (movieknow.blogspot, get it?) in some less volatile form.

So I imagine we'll start posting things here, and I'm not sure what will happen next. I figure we'll make the rest of it up as we go along.