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.