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.

08 May 2007

It’s the eponymy, stupid!

So here I am configuring Word 2007, and I discover that it can make blog posts. So I set it up to post on Blogger, and discover that I'm a poster on this blog—a fact that I had completely forgotten. Gee, says I, I guess I should post something.

Turns out that a few nights ago, Barbara and I saw a movie named—you guessed it—The Usual Suspects. In case I'm not the last person in the world who hasn't seen it, I won't reveal the plot, but I will recommend that you see it if you haven't already done so.

And once you do, you too will know who or what Keyser Söze is. Here's a hint—it's not a sled.

PS: I stole the title of this post from James Taranto.

04 May 2007

Conquest of Space

Science Fiction fans take note. All others, well, read at your discretion.

As a kid, I didn't make it to the movies all that much, so I always looked forward to the science fiction offerings on TV. Many of the 1950s examples came from producer George Pal, perhaps best known for his adaptations of the H G Wells classics, "The War of the Worlds" in '53, and "The Time Machine" in '60. I also have fond memories of his "Destination Moon," from '50, perhaps the archetype of the goofy, adventurous space romp. It was touted as "Two Years In The Making!" and tried to be scientific, and for its day it did a pretty fair job.

In those days, all of these movies ran on TV several times a year. They were standard Saturday afternoon fair on Channel 5, and I watched them often. But there was one movie from this bunch that disappeared: "Conquest of Space," made in 1955. I saw it on TV when I was about 8 years old, but then it seemed to sort of, well, vanish.

"Conquest of Space," at least as well as I can remember, was a great movie for this genre. It was based on the space travel conceptualizing in a non-fiction book of the same name. This book featured illustrations by Chesley Bonestell, a respected space illustrator. Remember, this is way before Apollo, Mercury, even before Sputnik. We knew virtually nothing about space, or what spacecraft would look like, or how objects would behave in zero g. For these film makers, it was pure speculation, and I give them much credit. "Conquest of Space" was the first movie to feature a rotating, wheel-shaped space station, and a Mars rocket with separate fuel, descent, and ascent stages. Quite visionary for the mid-50s.

So... if it was such a good movie, why did it disappear from TV programming schedules around 1964? Well..... maybe it's because the general commanding the spaceship turns into a HOMICIDAL, RELIGION-OBSESSED, BIBLE-SPOUTING PSYCHO!!!

I mean, Holy Crap!

Last week, I saw that Netflix had added "Conquest of Space" to their collection. I was delighted, and popped it to the top of my queue. It is an excellent digital mastering job, extremely clean, with beautiful contrast and detail. I didn't remember much about the story... only that it involved a space station and a mission to Mars. I had absolutely no memory of the psychotic transformation that afflicts one of the central characters. He begins to feel that God doesn't want man to explore the planets, that a mission to Mars is the worst sort of blasphemy. He sabotages the mission, and even shoots his own son!

I mean, Damn! The scenes of his raving are intense, really dark, and make it clear why this movie faded out of the public eye. The greater question is how it was ever made in the first place. It is astonishing that a studio would have green-lighted such a script in the early '50s, especially considering that such films were aimed at a young audience.

As good classic science fiction and as a Hollywood curiosity, it's worth a look.

13 April 2007

Who has time for movies? Me, once in a while...

I'd like to thank Netflix and some recent insomnia for allowing me to see a number of movies recently... and whatever luck that most of what I've seen recently has been pretty good. Quick rundown:

The Departed ****
I'm generally not a fan of Scorsese or DiCaprio, but I thought this was excellent. A dizzying spiral of who's-working-for-who and who's-betraying-who. Loved the parallel stories of the Matt Damon and DiCaprio stories - nice to see Damon has some range, here playing the bad guy for a change - with increasing tension as you know eventually they're going to come to a head. Jack Nicholson is over-the-top as ever, but there's a very nice understated Martin Sheen to balance him out. Pretty bloody, but not so much as a lot of gangster movies.

Children of Men *** 1/2
Dystopian near-future story, fabulous cinematography. Well-done overall.

Casino Royale ****
Worth watching for the few seconds Daniel Craig is in the blue bathing suit. Just kidding, husband of mine! Seriously, the best action movie I've seen in a long time, as it's just as character-driven as action-driven. The riveting opening action sequence involves "Free Running", starring the founder of this unique sport himself. The film tells the story of Bond just after he's been made a 00 agent, and he's a very different Bond... gritty, physical, ruthless, street smart, tough. Not so much the buttoned-down tuxedo-wearing martini-drinker of later films. Nice to see a smart, quick-witted Bond babe, too.

Curse of the Golden Flower ** 1/2
Thought this was going to be an Arty Kung Fu movie, along the lines of Hero... was disappointed that it was mostly Arty, not so much Fu. Depressing, tragic, full of opulent cinematography.

Cars ****
My 2-year-old son's favorite movie, I think he would watch it twice a day if I let him. Fortunately it's quite good, with two very nice voice performances by Paul Newman and Owen Wilson, and a little lesson about stopping and enjoying life rather than racing through and focusing on fame and glory.

The Devil Wears Prada ***
Light little movie, lots of fashion and a silver-haired and silver-tongued Meryl Streep.

The Prestige *** 1/2
Well-done, suspenseful, great performances by Michael Caine and Christian Bale. Rival magicians in 19th century England sabotage each other's careers and personal lives. I was shocked that I figured out the big twist of the end partway through the movie and turned out to be right. I never see these things coming but I thought this one was telegraphed... still a good movie. Disturbing the lengths to which a man will go for his art/career.

Munich ** 1/2
Very, very violent. Moving on some levels, but not sure it really worked. Seems like it wants you to sympathize with the Israeli assassins hired to retaliate for the murder of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists, but that didn't work for me. Sort of questions the wisdom of retaliation and the endless cycle of killing the other side, but not enough.

08 April 2007


A nice look into a different culture, and a small but engaging story about childhood.

Children of Heaven is an Iranian film from 1998. The director is Majid Majidi, who has over a dozen films to his credit, several of them festival winners. This one was up for an Oscar, in fact, but lost out to Life is Beautiful.

It's the story of nine-year-old Ali and his younger sister Zahra, who live with their parents in a poor part of what I assume is Tehran. Chipped paint, ancient buildings and open storm drains in the street. We're talking poor, here: a single room, carpets but no furniture, some crockery, a cooking pot on a camp stove. The landlord comes by when Dad is out, to scream at Mom about the unpaid rent. Mom is sick, Dad is angry. There may be love in this home, but not much in the way of laughter.

Behind the opening credits, we watch a cobbler repairing a torn pair of pink sneakers, and the story is set in motion when Ali loses them on the way home. They were his sister's only shoes, and now she has nothing to wear to school. He suggests they share his sneakers until they can figure something out. She'll get them in the morning, he'll get them in the afternoon.

There are some side excursions from this narrative, but that's the main line. Of course, she'll be embarrassed, wearing dirty boy's sneakers that are much too large. She'll be delayed, so he'll be late. The Vice Principal will see him, ruler in hand, and demand explanations.

What struck me most was how consistently grim, authoritarian and unreasonable was the world of the adults. They almost never smile, are suspicious of the children and quick to anger. Think Oliver Twist in Persian. I wouldn't want to be a kid in the world of this film, and I can't remember if that's how adults seemed to me when I was a lad.

One of the few bright moments comes when Dad and Ali bicycle to the rich part of town, to find work as gardeners. Dad is as humbled by this world of money, mansions and faceless intercoms as his son is by the adults of his own neighborhood. But one old man agrees to put him to work, and Ali spends an afternoon playing with this man's grandson while Dad mulches flowerbeds and sprays fruit trees. Dad gets to do good work that he enjoys, and Ali gets to be a kid.

The big finale is a foot race, in which the third prize is a new pair of sneakers. It's beautifully shot, and great to watch as Ali tries desperately not to win, but to come in third. Winning would be comparatively simple, when you think about it. Third is much harder.

I don't know if I'd call it "heartwarming," which is a word that appears in many reviews. But it was watchable and sometimes touching.

17 March 2007

On the Great Low-Budget Drama

Let us reflect briefly on the simple, unpretentious drama. The anti-blockbuster. The kind of movie that no one lines up for, and that often is never advertised on TV. Yet these small, humble, overlooked films are sometimes the best examples of film making.

What am I talking about? Well, "Monsters Ball" and "The Woodsman" are great examples. A powerful story, light-handed direction, and a group of fabulous actors. That's what it takes. But these are the movies that don't get much press, and even less buzz among fans. Such movies rarely draw major stars, and unless they do, they are sure to get little financing. (and there's a sort of uncertainty principle at work here.... when such films DO draw major stars, and big money, they often become too Hollywood... and then fail to realize the script's original potential.)

I've recently seen two films that got it right.

"The Trip to Bountiful" (1985) was written by Horton Foote, adapted from his stage play, and directed by Peter Masterson. It's not a great movie, but just see it for Geraldine Page's leading performance. She's an old woman, living with her son and daughter in law, desperate to see her old home one more time before she dies. Ms. Page won the best actress Oscar that year, and it's easy to see why.

Sadly, the movie as a whole never really feels like a movie. It is very visibly a stage adaptation, and at times you can darn near feel the proscenium just off camera. A better director would have made it more cinematic, and that would have helped. But don't let this deter you. The story is outstanding, and the actors are all first rate.

Horton Foote (also of Tender Mercies fame) has a very recognizable world view: "Life goes on." There are never any dramatic turns of fate in his stories, no miracles. The cavalry never comes to the rescue, and there is never a Hollywood ending. His is an honest view. He believes in what seem to be very small victories, which nonetheless are very large for the characters involved.

But now, a real gem.... "Affliction" (1998), written and directed by Paul Schrader. Wow.....

This is a "must see" film, in my opinion. Consider...
- A fabulously real character study
- probably Nick Nolte's best performance ever
- great roles by Sissie Spacek and James Coburn
- scene direction that is so simple and fluid it's virtually invisible

If I had to pick a perfect example of a a truly GREAT low budget drama, this would be it. It's not a perfect movie, but it's darn close.

I'm reluctant to say too much about it. It's dark, disturbing, and brutally honest, and just a great, great movie. High art, this film. Please give it a look.

PS: ...and I just thought of another one: "The Sweet Hereafter," 1997, writen and directed by Atom Egoyan, adapted from the novel by Russell Banks. If I had to compare them, I think this is an even stronger film than "Affliction."

12 March 2007

Why Do Movies Suck?

This isn't a review of my own (I regret to say), but it is a pointer to a David Weinberger article that was published in the March 2007 issue of the Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization (JOHO). I've been a fan of his writing for years, and am sad that his newsletter has largely been replaced by his blog. I haven't quite evolved into the person I want to be -- a person who will be able to keep up with things in the blog world. But I'm trying.

Anyway, it's an interesting observation. It would be a good conversation starter, especially with some snacks nearby, and a glass at hand. You can read it here.

07 March 2007

Six Feet Under

Six Feet Under was an HBO series that ran for five years, completing its run in 2005. All of the episodes are now available on DVD and if you've never had the pleasure of indulging in this provocative drama, I heartily recommend that you do so. I recently watched the entire series and continue to find its all-too-human characters and all-too-realistic situations invading my thoughts.

The series centers on the Fisher family, who run an independent funeral home in LA. The scripts are laced with wit, philosophy and black humor. With the central characters constantly confronting death, how could it not be? All of the characters, both major and minor, are fully realized human beings with endearing qualities as well as frustrating ones, flaws as well as virtues. They are some of the most three dimensional, complex characters that I have ever encountered in any medium. And they are depicted by marvelous, nuanced performers from the actors.

Nathaniel, the patriarch of the family, meets an untimely demise in the first few minutes of the initial episode. However, he still appears to his family members from time to time to chat with them and give them his take on their current situations. These visitations are not depicted as paranormal phenomena. Rather, they are projections of the living characters, imagining what the late Nathaniel might have to say to them at this time. It may sound hokey, but the device is seamlessly integrated into the narrative. Other deceased characters also take advantage of the opportunity to berate and advise.

Nathaniel's widow, Ruth, is an amazing admixture of middle-aged confusion, longing, whining and at times, a surprising wellspring of maternal strength and warmth. It is actually her sons, David and Nate, who run the family business. David begins the series as a closeted gay man and over the course of the show he slowly emerges. He and his partner, Keith, have more than their share of ups and downs. But they are the most realistically portrayed gay characters that I have encountered on the screen. The youngest Fisher is daughter Claire. We meet her in adolescence and watch as she grapples with rebellion, angst and hormones to become a quirky, talented young woman.

The series is laced with dark humor and each episode opens with the last few minutes before the death of a character. This is usually someone we have never seen before, but somehow the death will be integrated into the plot before the final fade to white, which is utilized in the series instead of the ubiquitous fade to black.

Before I began viewing, I had heard nothing but accolades for the final episode. I was not disappointed - it was nothing short of magnificent, building on everything that had come before. It is well worth your time to check out this series and at this date you have the advantage of never having to wait months for the resolution of a cliff-hanger, as those who viewed it over the course of five years often had to. It's a big commitment in terms of time, but well worth the investment.

21 February 2007

Who has time for movies?

Thanks, Don, for your reviews. 'Red Eye' is on my netflix queue.

But I have seen three movies this year... including DVDs... so am at an all-time low for film commentary.

In brief:

Notes on a Scandal: Pleasant but unpersuasive diversion. Two noted actresses, though I noticed nothing about their acting, really, or the writing.

Children of Men: I rate this along with BLADERUNNER as an effective set design and evocation of a dystopian near-future. I followed the story of this fairy tale with close attention in the theater, but little stuck with me after I'd left beyond the images and the swift and striking changes in mood. I needed a little less fairy-tale-thin premise to get me into the time and place of the drama, so I never got into the characters who lived in it. But scenes taken in isolation were very visually and sensually persuasive... though not emotionally persuasive.

The Banff Mountain Film Festival: Every year Pat and I go to see this road show in Washington at the National Geographic auditorium. It's usually the highlight of my film year. But this year it ranged from pleasant to indifferent.

Asiemut: One film followed a man and woman who biked from Mongolia across China to India. For those of you who can read French [sigh], here's a link to their site. [http://www.asiemut.mine.nu/] It's a simple but eloquent story of two people who, in their own words, wish to go beyond their own limits. They succeed... and the story is enriching and moving.

Patagonia, a travel to the end of the world: The Patagonia icecap lies between the Andes mountains, and is frequently exposed to strong winds and whiteout. Norwegian Børge Ousland and Thomas Ulrich from Switzerland started from a small village in Chile to cross the world’s third largest icecap from the west to reach the eastern shores of Argentina. They had to carry all their equipment und food supplies for the 54-day-long expedition with skis and special kayaks, because they had no outside help. They used their kayaks as sled, and did some admirably manly and ill-advised lashing-together of kayaks to make rafts. Very Huck Finn. And cold and crazy and a tribute to Y chromosones and their epic adumbrations of common sense.

The most accessible films... not very interesting as films, but for their content... are the 'Kids Who Rip' films. These are very young kids doing extreme sports. These films are cute in the irrefutably compelling sense of talking dogs and cats playing pianos. They are fun to watch. Go here to watch a few. [http://www.kidswhorip.com/portal] - download a short teaser in several formats. I am, of course, far cooler and sick-awesome than any of these kids. I am extreme typing now, yeow, in the tube!

I have also been watching 'The Wire' on video. Yeaah! Sweeet! Maybe not as much fun as 'Homicide'. But it's been a slow year for me.

12 February 2007

Altered States

How long since you've seen "Altered States?" If it's been over ten years, time to see it again.

I bought this DVD maybe 5 ago, during a sort of spasm of video acquisition that hit me right after I bought my first player. But I didn't actually watch it until Friday. My, but this is a good movie. "Bladerunner" usually gets the nod as the best sci-fi picture of the last 25 years, maybe ever... and I'd support that. But "Altered States" comes in a close second, for my money, anyway.

Such an interesting pairing: script by Paddy Chayefsky (aka Sidney Aaron), who brought us such sharp dramas as Marty, Network, and The Hospital. Combine with director Ken Russell, better known for surreal, skin-revealing romps like Tommy, Valentino, and Whore. But what a lovely thing these two men created between them. (I heard a story that Chayefsky hated the film when he first saw it, because he felt the actors' machine-gun delivery kept people from understanding the dialogue. Chayefsky wouldn't even put his name on the film, and instead was credited as Sidney Aaron. Interesting that this DVD has both names in the credits.)

For star William Hurt, this has to be a personal best. His portrayal of a driven, somewhat insane medical researcher is brilliant, maybe the best performance in science fiction, ever. Comparable work from Blair Brown, Bob Balaban, and Charles Haid. (It's worth seeing this movie just for Charles Haid's portrayal of medical colleague Mason Parrish.)

The special effects need special mention. This is 1980, remember. Not just pre-digital. Pre a lot of stuff we now take for granted. Russell did something very smart here: he hired Bran Ferren, who was an effects designer for theater, not film. Brilliant! This guy was able to create things that actually happened in front of the camera, often creating immediate, seamless shots that required little or no post production work. This gives the movie a wonderfully honest, genuine quality.

One final note. The musical score was created by classical composer John Corigliano. Awesome music. What a difference it makes when you bring in a pro with experience and talent like this.

In discussing this movie with people over the years, I've realized it's pretty polarizing. I've heard some folks say they absolutely hated it, either because it's too sentimental, or too sappy, or too bleak. Well, okay. It is all of those things. And it's a great movie. Worth a look, if you've not seen it in while. If you've never seen it, then you surely should check it out.

10 February 2007

Wes Craven's "Red Eye"

Nothing quite like finding a movie that vastly exceeds your expectations. Such was my experience with Wes Craven's "Red Eye." I knew it would be at least okay, because the trailer looked quite good. Now that I've seen it, I call it excellent.

Wes Craven? Yeah, Mr. Nightmare on Elm Street himself. Script by first time writer Carl Ellsworth. It is one of the tightest, most cleverly written action thrillers I've ever seen. It's quite short, only 1:20, but it doesn't make one false step from beginning to end. And in the first 2 minutes, it presents so many plot points for the audience to absorb, that I had to stop the movie and just go... "Whoa..." for a few seconds. (I'm sure there were those who urged Mr. Craven to pad it out, to stretch the scenes, or add more backstory, at least to get it over 90 minutes. He didn't. He crushed the edit down as tight as it can go, and the film just flies. This was the right choice.)

It's as good a movie in this genre as Die Hard. Now, to qualify that a bit, Red Eye is a small movie. It has none of the Summer Blockbuster, James Bond-like scale of Die Hard. The entire 2nd act takes place on a plane. But it is just as tight, just as intelligent a film as that 1988 classic. Very interesting, really, to see how a sharp director can create a first rate action thriller on a very small budget. There are only 3 major characters in this whole movie.

If you enjoy this sort of film, by all means check this one out. Really well done.

08 February 2007

Great quote from "Moonraker"

I've been doing a lot of James Bond film research for a client (don't ask), and came across a delightful quote from a movie I've never seen: Moonraker. Spoken by a character named Hugo Drax...

"James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season." Worthy of Patrick O'Brien, that.


04 February 2007

Neil Young: Heart of Gold

Greetings.... some of you know my fondness for concert movies.... this all began with The Talking Heads film, "Stop Making Sense," directed by Jonathan Demme. He truly redefined the genre with this 1984 wonder. I've sampled a lot since then, and with the advent of DVDs, there are many more available. I've watched old concerts and new, from Supertramp to Diana Krall. Many are downright lame, others worthy efforts. The Band's "The Last Waltz" is a gem, thanks to Martin Scorsese's skillful direction, to say nothing for a kick ass band. And a recent favorite is David Gilmour's "unplugged" concert in 2002. (for Pink FLoyd buffs, the "Pulse" DVD is a must have, if only for the 3 encores.)

Just saw Jonathan Demme's 2006 Neil Young concert movie, "Heart of Gold" (aka Prairie Wind). And he does it again. If you are a Neil Young fan at all, even a little, you should see this movie. And if you enjoy seeing a fine musical performance on film, in any genre, by any artist, then you too should see this film. It is tasteful, sensitive, respectful, skillfully directed throughout. The first half (more or less) is new material. The second is a collection of Neil Young classics. All great songs.

Big band: in addition to the expected guitar, bass, drums, and steel guitar, he has a full string section, 3 horns, and chorus on some songs. Very, very lovely sound mix: crisp, deep, layered arrangements. Delightful just to listen to, even if there were no pretty pictures to go with it.

And one more point.... I've found that when a musical artist never talks to the audience, then no matter how good the music is, I feel a bit disappointed. It's as if there's a wall between the artist and the audience, which for some reason the performer is unwilling to cross. Roy Orbison's 1987 "Black and White Night" has this problem. It's a great concert, and a great movie, but it ends up feeling ilke a newsreel. Roy never once does so much as introduce a song, or make a joke, or tell a little story. It comes off a bit cold. Well, that's not a problem here. Neil Young tells lots of little stories. All very short, but enough to really personalize the concert experience. Makes a big difference for me.

I may not buy it, buy I am certainly glad I saw it. Worth a look.

19 January 2007

Me and you...

...and Everyone We Know. Curious to see what movies stay with you. Over the past 6 months or so, I've had many opportunities to pitch worthwhile movies to friends and such, and this seems to be the one that always pops into my head first. Really made an impression on me. Smart, engaging, entirely unpredictable, well produced. In a word: artful. Would love to know more about the writer's process. How on earth did all these ideas gel into this script?

Anyway.... just want to say, if you haven't seen this puppie, do. It's sort of an Anti-Blockbuster. Small, intimate, lots of fun. Hope you enjoy it.