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.