28 February 2005


Not as bad as VAN HELSING. Five minutes shorter. And the music was nowhere near as loud or bad.

Not as bad as VAN HELSING, and therefore, less memorable. Less instructive.

Never at any moment a more terrible experience than VAN HELSING. Never any out-of-body overwhelming paroxysms of disbelief that any movie can be so bad.

Never actually entertaining or persuasive. Only for a few minutes, just at the beginning, when the creeping assurance that Very Stupid Things Were Happening was only a low background rumble, did I see something that I thought might be fun or interesting. A guy is hit by a car in a New Way. And then the movie returned to a uniform flow of complete lack of interest.

22 February 2005


Highly recommended, as a field trip to a place you'd never want to be.

This is a Brazilian film released in 2002, directed by Fernando Meirelles. It's an episodic view of life in a Rio slum -- a place where everyone is poor, the police have only theoretical authority, the economy is based on drugs and prepubescent boys get to have real life shoot-outs. Think GANGS OF NEW YORK, with a Latin beat.

The stories of Cidade de Deus are told by Rocket, who's found a way out and become a press photographer. His chatty, self deprecating narration tells us how things came to be the way they are now, and he presents a Runyaneske bunch of characters which includes the Tender Trio, Benny & Li'l Dice and Knockout Ned.

The background narrative is consistently horrifying, but the film is not. It just watches, closely. Every year the gangs get younger, and by the end of the piece, they've evolved into "the Runts," feral children with sidearms and an attitude.

You should see this one.

It also gets high marks for technique. The first thing we see (and hear) is a knife drawn over a stone. Chickens are being slaughtered for a cookout by Li'l Dice's gang. One chicken escapes and runs down the alley. The gang pursues, taking potshots at it along the way. They chase the chicken into an avenue where Rocket and a friend are walking toward them. The gang yells "Catch that chicken!" Rocket crouches to grab it, and behind him, police cars pull up to block the end of the street. The gang draws its weapons, the cops draw theirs, with Rocket and the chicken frozen between them.

And so the movie begins.

18 February 2005


Mildly recommended for historical interest.

No, it's not a motorcycle movie; it's a 1930 film credited to Howard Hughes. I haven't seen THE AVIATOR yet, but I understand the making of this film is featured in Scorsese's piece. It came up in a conversation with friend Mike Agranoff, and I checked Netflix, et voila!

What passes for a plot involves two brothers who are students at Oxford. We have high-minded and courageous Roy (who will fight a duel on his brother's behalf, just to help him save face), and sybaritic whiner Monte (who gets to moan a lot about how he wants to live, live!).

When WWI breaks out, Roy enlists in the RFC and somehow Monte ends up in the same squadron. Roy is terribly in love with Helen, brought to the screen by Jean Harlow, the only name I recognized in a fairly large cast. It was her first film, in fact, and in the big party scene she's wearing a dress that would still seem daring today. She's no damn good, and everybody knows it except Roy.

Harlow's chest notwithstanding, the airplanes are the real stars, and we get to see lots and lots of them in many interesting variations. Some are miniatures, others are real, but in either case, they're pretty good. The burning wreckage of a dirigible falling slowly to earth looks amazingly like newsreel footage of the Hindenburg.

So while the story is unlikely to hold your interest, and the performances are broad enough for vaudeville, and the English characters all have American accents (although unusually, the Germans generally speak German, without subtitles) it's not without its moments.

15 February 2005


A merry, thigh-slapping action romp involving quite a lot of muay thai boxing, Buddha heads, amazing stunts replayed for us several times from different angles, a villain with no voice box smoking through a hole in his neck, a crazed Burmese bad guy [my local expert on Far Eastern movies assures me it wouldn't be a Thai film without a wicked Burmese guy for us to hate], a 30-mile-an-hour chase scene with many three-wheel motorcycle rickshaws, and a lot of other thoroughly foreign stuff going on. Alternating entertaining for its window on another culture and for its cheerful cheesiness. And I'm going to say it didn't feel very violent, despite the fact that there was some serious beating and bashing going on a lot of the time, because the good guy doesn't kill people [to keep him pure and honorable]. It was very nice and earnest and innocent in an endearing way.

14 February 2005


Things I'm glad I was spared in the shorter screen version:
1. Clumsy denouement for Wormtongue and Saruman -- particularly the impalement and rotation-on-the-wheel.
2. The Mouth of Sauron as a poster child for bad dentistry.
3. Aragorn's unchivalrous beheading of the Mouth of Sauron.
4. The cumulative debasement of the characters of Sauron's henchmen. They seem silly rather than terrible and evil.

Things that held up well:
1. Frodo, Sam, and Gollum in Mordor [Frodo and Sam's suffering and burden; Sam's unsuccessful attempts to recall the Shire; Gollum's profoundly human monstrosity]
2. Shelob
3. Theoden's death scene [he won't be ashamed in the halls of his fathers]
4. theme of Arwen's forsaking immortality for mortal love

Things I will be forever bitter about:
1. Making Gimli into a clown
2. Making Legolas into a ninja-acrobat


Thanks, Chris.

Chris loaned me this DVD, and shared his favorite part with me... the first seven-or-so minutes. It is a great example of exposition. Something strange is going on. You see it very clearly. And you have no idea how to interpret it. It perfectly produces the encounter-with-the-unknown feeling necessary to make the story work.

Kudos also to the performance by the dog. Understated, precise, and otherworldly.

Apart from a couple of nice plot points... particularly the hot-wire-blood test scene... and the general air of intrigue, distrust, and manly-problem-solving throughout the movie, nothing is so fine as the opening minutes. But it is very watchable and entertaining all the way through.

I'm told by my pals that the computer game based on the movie is notable for two features: 1. a grotesque and embarrassing [and funny, if you are a Bad Person like me] presentation of Black English in one of the characters, and a genuine sense of paranoia and reckless violence, since you never know which of your companions is going to start twitching and and start sprouting spider legs and eyestalks.

11 February 2005


Okay, it's a comedy, but none of the comedy bits make the film worth seeing. In fact, they are pretty weak, both in the original text and in this production.

Al Pacino's Shylock, on the other hand, is a lot of fun to watch.

The trailer was unappealing... probably because there's not much in the play a trailer maker can work with. So I came with low expectations. And was pleasantly surprised when it was not painful, and was, in fact, riveting when Shylock was on screen.

As a costume period drama, it's fine. It begins slowly, with too much music... always a bad sign. But once Shylock gets on the screen, it's absorbing. I guess he's the villain. But I sure was rooting for him more than the silly protagonists. He's sympathetic and mistreated, and we're in the Jew's corner in a way that neither Renaissance Venice nor Elizabethan England would appreciate. I only wish he'd gotten a good lawyer. "I will not take a drop of his blood. Does anyone have a cup? I will save every drop, and feed it back to him."

Here is a good opportunity for a sequel. THE REVENGE OF SHYLOCK. I figure he makes a golem, and it goes on a rampage in Venice. I am also sure that it appears in disguise before the Duke as a young doctor of law. In the end, however, Shylock is overcome by remorse for his creation and enslavement of the golem, and his displacement of his vengeful cruelties upon its innocent 'soul'. He sets the golem free, after creating a 'soul' for it [a la WIZARD OF OZ]. Then Shylock goes off and kills everyone involved with the screenplay and production of 'VAN HELSING' and 'LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN'.

09 February 2005

Is the blockbuster the end of cinema? [excerpt]

On blockbusters making their profits in the first weekend:

The big features now open on three thousand-plus screens, in order to maximize the benefit of their promotion. Before the word of mouth has made it around the block, the movie has already taken in, from the opening weekend, typically somewhere between twenty-five and forty per cent of its total gross. “Hulk” set a record with a seventy-per-cent decline in ticket sales between its opening and the second weekend, but the average drop-off for all movies is fifty per cent, and it is almost the definition of a blockbuster that the first weekend is a make-or-break proposition. Marketing costs for the “Matrix” sequels exceeded a hundred million dollars. The reason that those movies had such enormous grosses, despite terrible reviews and negative word of mouth, is that each opened on eighteen thousand screens simultaneously worldwide. As Shone says, about the typical blockbuster, “By the time we’ve all seen that it sucked, it’s a hit.”

Comparing 'successful' midsize films and blockbuster turds:

Every once in a while, there is talk about the return of the midsize film—the picture that costs twenty million or so to make, and that attracts interest and attention on its own merits. “Sideways” is this season’s poster child. “Sideways” is reported to have cost around sixteen million dollars to make (exclusive of marketing costs). After ten weeks, it had grossed twenty-two million dollars. You might be able to get Tom Cruise to walk across the street for twenty-two million dollars, but that’s about it. “Elektra,” a widely panned fantasy adventure which opened in the middle of January, the deadest month in the business, grossed twenty-two million dollars in two weeks. “Sideways” was unbranded by stars or title (and was not, in marketing parlance, “toyetic,” susceptible to merchandising deals). In those first ten weeks, it was shown on three-hundred and seventy screens. “Elektra” was based on a comic-book character, and it opened on thirty-two hundred screens. To put both pictures in true blockbuster perspective: “Troy,” which is considered a failure, has grossed just under half a billion dollars. The poor reviews for “Troy” didn’t matter, because seventy-three per cent of its box-office revenue came from overseas.

Summation and final paragraph:

The blockbuster is a Hollywood tradition, but blockbuster dependence is a disease. It sucks the talent and the resources out of every other part of the industry. A contemporary blockbuster could almost be defined as a movie in which production value is in inverse proportion to content. “Troy” is a comic strip, but what a lavish, loving, costly comic strip it is. The talent, knowledge, and ingenuity required to make just one of the battle scenes in that film, or one mindless James Bond chase sequence, interchangeable in memory with almost any other Bond chase sequence, would drain the resources of many universities. But why doesn’t anyone put more than two seconds’ thought into the story? The attention to detail in movies today is fantastic. There is nothing cheap or tacky about Hollywood’s product, but there is something empty. Or maybe the emptiness is in us.

08 February 2005


Recommended, if you like to see a lot of scrabbling, ant-like robots swinging from the rafters.

Most of my Quality viewing these days comes to me via Netflix. However, when I'm between shipments, or in the mood for something lite, I still resort to the video store. (They won't be with us much longer, I suppose. Like the slot-car parlors of my youth...)

I, ROBOT delivered exactly what I expected, so I have no complaints. It was "inspired" by Isaac Azimov's story of the same name, and it gives a lot of attention to his three laws of robotics (while crediting them to one of the film's characters). We see these laws as text in the opening credits, and are told about them in detail and get to read the slogan "3 Laws Safe" emblazoned on the trucks of US Robotics. If you've seen the trailer, though, you'd not be surprised to find these laws being violated. Why else would they need Will Smith?

Smith is the very model of a certain kind of smart-ass movie cop, who insults other cops, his boss and the CEO of US Robotics ("Wow, the richest man in the world. I've seen you on TV!") without serious consequences. The story is not particularly surprising, but it moves along at a brisk clip, and has at least one action sequence that was worth watching twice: Smith in his Audi, pursued through a tunnel by two gigantic automated vehicles, each one carrying hordes of robots.

I liked the irony of Smith as the robot-hating bigot, and I liked Alan Tudyk (who played Wash in the Firefly TV series) as the voice of a thoughtful robot named Sonny.

So it met my expectations throughout, and exceeded them once or twice. It's interesting that the same story also inspired an episode of the original Outer Limits. There, it was a courtroom drama, considering whether a robot could be charged with murder. That's the fundamental premise here as well, but in the film, the question is explored without benefit of judge and jury.

02 February 2005

Clint and the Critics

Million Dollar Baby . . . is not Rocky, but it is an archetypal boxing movie. Can I string any words together on its behalf without thinking (a la Coen Brothers masterpiece, Barton Fink), "Wally Beery, B-Movie, Wrestling Picture, Big Men in Tights!!!"? No. But this is a personal weakness of mine, and I realize that.

Now, I have no problem with "archetypal" movies . . . and MDB is archetypal. But, although not a true B-movie, it's archetypicality is (at least in some ways) a weakness of the film. So, what we get is the full gamut of "Boxing Movie emotions" . . . which, again, because I am demented, reminds me of Barton Fink. What we also get is a glimpse of Eastwood's character, Frankie, that "transcends" or at least sidesteps the genre. Think of it as Clint working the Rope-a-Dope on the B-movie premise.

I love complex and conflicted religiosity in a character (I tip my hat to dearly departed Firefly's Mal Reynolds and godsend, Joss Whedon, who bravely eked out his TV space western steeped in Existentialist philosophy for nearly a season). We have a very simplistic conventional view of religion in America, which has it that religious feeling is either a matter of blind, compliant faith (God conquers us) or bitter dismissal (we conquer God). Most movies follow one of these paths, and the dichotomy serves to define American religiosity, at least as far as it's reflected back to us in the media. But in this climate, Eastwood's film making has always been defiantly about irreconcilable divides in morality and indefinable moral positions. I definitely applaud him for that.

Frankie brings some of that irreconcilable conflict inside a more or less conventional Catholic scenario. My favorite parts of the film were the ones in which Frankie displays his compulsive priest-stalking (and baiting) during daily attendance of the local Catholic church. I could choose to see this more simplistically (i.e., the proverbial "need for atonement"), but instead I like to see his attempt at "getting religion" as more genuine. He doesn't want to be shepherded. He wants to play the role of the black sheep, the devil's advocate. But the characterization in MDB states that this is indeed a spiritual role. Frankie is an integral part of the church and of the Christian philosophy. The development of his character throughout the movie is the evolving self-definition of the Luciferian, black sheep role. That is, he is growing, becoming more conscious . . . but in a manner contrary to the teachings of the Catholic church. In fact, when he is forced into the climactic dilemma, the "path of light" that the Church offers is insufficiently complex to suit the infinitely more complex moral ambiguity inherent in the situation (apologies for the abstract language . . . which I apply out of respect for the "no spoilers" policy).

This on-going (and somewhat marginalized) story was, in my mind, part of a "great movie", a movie with edge and depth and guts that refused to acquiesce to the simplifying, archetypal, genre-collared rigidity of the "B-movie, Boxing Picture" format. Part of that format is the duality of victory and defeat. It's like Comedy vs. Tragedy in Shakespeare. If the fighter loses the big one, it's a "tragedy"; if the fighter wins, it's a "comedy". In MDB, regrettably, the complex, ballsy sub-plot line (the challenger) gets knocked out by the Boxing Movie Genre (the undisputed, heavy weight champ). The movie about moral and religious complexity amounts to little more than a short tacked on to the genre flick.

I'm not saying this is a bad movie. It's a pretty decent movie, and well worth seeing. But it disappointed me by letting a young, inexperienced "fighter with heart" go into the ring too early with the soulless juggernaut of the Hollywood Boxing Movie. I'm not sure if this is Eastwood's "best since Unforgiven", but I do know that it is not nearly on par with Unforgiven. That classic was a film which did indeed transcend the genre it was embedded in, illuminating and crystallizing its vague uglinesses and beauties with the wonderful character of William Munny. Munny was a kind of byproduct of the Western genre, its degenerate grandchild, a hero and villain fused together. He "was sent" to divest the Hollywood machine of its power to impose its popular morality onto the Western genre. Instead, we, the viewers, are left to make the moral judgment of Munny at the end of the film . . . and we find ourselves utterly unprepared to accept this responsibility. The conclusion of MDB is a slight shadow of this by comparison. But it is, nonetheless, a solid 3-star movie.

I wonder if the critics have been especially generous to Clint in recent years, because they weren't ready for his earlier films back when they were released. Pale Rider, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and High Plains Drifter specifically come to mind. These are all great films in my opinion, but they each suffered from the same coincidental problems: they were a bit "outside the (Western Genre) box", and they were made in the vast shadow of the Man With No Name Trilogy. For the latter reason, I suspect they might have been treated by some critics as derivative. But those films are better now then they were then (since the baggage is less heavy). The critics are starting to catch up with Clint . . . and they are atoning for old sins.

Eastwood is a much more polished filmmaker now. Everything he's done lately has been solid. But, to my taste, his recent work lacks the transcendent weirdness of some of his older films. That missing quality is impossible to define or quantify, it's true. But it is the searing brand of artistic inspiration . . . that inspiration which is the product of an artist trying to come to terms with an art that is larger than him . . . and more mysterious. The control that comes with mastery is both rewarding and seductive, but it means the artist ends up clearly on one side or the other of a well-defined boundary line. Thus, a sense of safety and predictability can creep in. The old master of moral ambiguity may need to relearn this lesson.

01 February 2005


A Hong Kong martial arts classic with Jet Li. Also known in the US as SWORDSMAN II. I've foisted this and its predecessor [SWORDSMAN] and successor [SWORDSMAN III] on my pals as shining exemplars of the genre. This version was well-dubbed, and for the first time I could figure out what was going on. I've always loved these films because they are purty and busy and wacky and alien. This one has a lovely transgender villain/ess, Asia the Magnificent. Sensible folks with low dopey-ness threshholds should just keep walking. But fans of action films, fantasy films, martials arts films, Hong Kong films, should enjoy this a lot.

Anyone who hasn't seen a Hong Kong martial arts flick but wants to see one should ask me, and I'll try to recommend one. This would be as good as any for that task, I guess, and particularly because it is well-dubbed and comprehensible... virtues I could not have found in my first viewings of any other films of the genre.


A good movie. But slight. HOTEL RWANDA and THE WOODSMEN were my last comparable experiences, and both were stronger and more moving. They kept coming back into my mind the night of the viewing and the day after. Don't think this will.

I don't see what all the fuss was about. Two of three NY Times guys put it on their top 10 of the year list. It truly didn't have much bad about it [though I thought his usual sure touch with soundtracks abandoned him; some of the music in sensitive scenes felt forced and awkward]. Good performances, plenty of folks to root for, and a plot that makes some demands on the viewers. But not rewatchable.

I love his films. He doesn't make bad ones. That's distinction enough. I own and rewatch his genre stuff, like OUTLAW JOSEY WALES. His current work is deep, mature, and persuasive. But maybe not memorable.