Tuesday, June 29, 2010

New to the Store: Week of 29 June, 2010

Bonnie's Kids
Crazies, The (2010) (also BluRay)
Don McKay
Eclipse, The
Green Zone (BluRay)
Hot Tub Time Machine (also BluRay)
Love Games
Night Train to Munich
Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief
Petit Nicolas, Le (Little Nicholas)
Pretty Bird
Red Desert
Submission of a Woman
White Ribbon, The (also BluRay)

Maggie 2010: An Emphatic Recommendation

#85. Venus

I have such a tremendous backlog of films to write up, but it keeps getting pushed aside by the occasional piece I watch that elicits more immediate, passionate response in me, negative or positive.

Venus elicits the latter. Oh heavens, does it ever. I have passed this film week in and week out at Gen X for years now, wanting to take the plunge but always hesitating at the last. The pull? An usual relationship between an elderly actor and the great-niece of his friend. Rare is the film that navigates more complex human relationships with compassion, understanding, and wisdom, but something about this work seemed to promise all three. The hesitation? The apprehensive way this relationship was coddled in all promotional material. Strenuously labelled as the story of a friendship developed between two people at different points in their lives, I feared that for all this film's promise of complexity it would ultimately descend into a saccharine, superficial wash.

However, while older-male, younger-female love affairs are still fairly common in contemporary cinema, I can happily confirm Venus offers something more nuanced and diversified than either the terms "love" or "friendship" can adequately describe. It helps especially that the central interaction, between Peter O'Toole as Maurice and Jodie Whittaker as Jessie/Venus, is by no means the only one: in strokes varying from elaborate to light and deft, Venus also traverses the strange intimacy of a marriage long fallen from grace, and the tenuous fealty upon which lifetime friendships are, in the course of late-stage elderly care, occasionally forced to hang.

To give some comparison, I'd easily place this film in the vein of Once, Paris, Texas, and Away From Her, all of which test the breadth, depth, and even use of intimacy in human affairs. (Obviously the aforementioned films are very different in subject, genre, and execution, but their unusual treatment of central relationships is still a uniting thread.) However, even as I write this I feel I should emphasize that, of all things, this English film from 2006 is a comedy, and merits that title absolutely. For every familiar gesture there is an uncommon follow-up; for ever anticipated outcome there is a markedly slapstick dashing of expectations. And while this film's characters ultimately negotiate an intricate balance between hurt and pleasure, and so come to haunt you long before the last scene is through, opportunities for laughter crop up where least expected. That, after all, is just what happens in real life.

A final word must also be set down for director Roger Michell, whose use of light and dark is at times in this film truly inspired, helping in early scenes to create experiential complexity where lesser hands would go for easy objectification, and providing such delicate theatricality in later scenes where more blatant meaning might otherwise have been infused. Venus is a swan song for human frailty, and for the immensity of lived experience necessarily endured by any of us who have both the pleasure and misfortune of walking this strange, tired earth. I heartily recommend it for anyone seeking truly humanistic fare.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Wendy's Films of 2010 #85 and #86: The Streetfighter (1974) and The Streetfighter's Last Revenge (1974)

I had sort of mixed feelings about these films, particularly the first (The Streetfighter), mostly because I was torn between loving the action and violence and not liking Sonny Chiba's character (Terry Tsurugi) whatsoever. Am I wrong to dislike someone who ends up killing the brother of a man he rescues because of payment issues? And what about the completely unnecessary selling of their sister into prostitution? Then he decides to protect another woman from being killed for the rest of the film! It's one thing to have a dark character, but geeze, you'd think his sense of morality wouldn't be so schizophrenic.

I did quite enjoy the fighting though. Sonny Chiba's defeats are always thoroughly entertaining, I particularly enjoy the punch that knocks out nearly all of one man's teeth. The deplorable acting and dubbing makes it even better. I usually hate dubbing, but sometimes it improves a movie far, far beyond its original potential.

Chiba isn't quite as morally contemptible in the forth film: The Street Fighter's Last Revenge. In it, he's hired to retreive the second of two tapes which together reveal the secret to making cheap heroin. Sure, that might sound a little morally reprehensible, but at least he's not forcing anyone into the slave trade. He also adopts disguises and goes badass on the guys who hired him when they double-cross him. So, not exactly something I'd recommend to someone looking for a seriously good martial arts film, but rather something with a bit more senseless violence and poorly dubbed humour. I even read somewhere that the original isn't even about heroin. Now that's classy dubbing.

You can find both films in the Streetfighter Collection if you dare...

Chris 2010 Viewings #40: The White Ribbon

OK, so the backlog is cleared. So I'm ready to embark on the bold movie-watching experiment discussed here: to only watch movies I am virtually certain that I will love. None of this namby-pamby taking a chance on something that I might like B.S. Very few video store customers these days browse and take chances, so I won't either! I don't know why I didn't think of this before.

The object is to get me enjoying movies again, instead of the oh geez do I have to, I'd rather listen to music/read/eat/watch my kids sleep/go to sleep myself response that the idea of watching a movie has occasioned in me for almost a decade. But also to write up the results here on the blog, which can be as much as a deterrent to watching movies as watching the movies themselves. So, because I am fundamentally lazy, I will be borrowing a page from the Dude Movies book penned by our beloved K-Cog (not that he is lazy, he writes a blog called Sloth after all). The page dictates that all of my Moviepalooza (as I have informally dubbed the Experiment) reviews will be written in template form, for lack of a better expression I am too lazy to remember.

Movie: The White Ribbon (2009, Michael Haneke)

Credentials (why it seems like a sure thing): Haneke directed two of the best films of the 1990s, Code Unknown and Caché, and even his misfires are of interest. This one won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, so seems to not be one of the misfires. Nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, but did not win, which is another plus as the Foreign Film Oscar winners tend to be the blandest of the nominees. Seems to be about creepy, if not outright evil, kids - always a good time at the pictures. Trailer and clips I've seen are in drop-dead-gorgeous black & white.

Stolen Plot Synopsis: Strange events happen in a small village in the north of Germany during the years just before World War I, which seem to be ritual punishment. The abused and suppressed children of the villagers seem to be at the heart of this mystery.


Not Caché-caliber, but very little is, in this viewer's opinion. The theme seems to be the seeds of fascism and extremism, how a succession of small (and not-so-small) sins, as well as the absence of a reliable moral compass, eventually lead to a torrent of evil. In this case, we only see the initial manifestation of the evil, with the historical timeframe of the tale virtually guaranteeing that many of the children in this village will become Nazis. The White Ribbon documents the creeping unpleasantness that penetrates the calm before the storm.

Lest this make it sound like a dry history lesson, it should be emphasized that the events themselves are entirely fictional, and - it is strongly implied - unreliable, being the hazy memories of the town's schoolmaster, at more than a half-century's remove. Haneke does have the streak of a didactic scold to him, which showed itself nowhere as much as his love-it or hate-it assault on the movie audience and its appetite for screen violence, Funny Games. In his best work - and I'm lumping The White Ribbon in there - this tendency is tempered by a moral and narrative ambiguity that poses many more questions than it raises. As a result, viewers seeking a cut and dry story that ties up its loose ends will find Caché and The White Ribbon immensely frustrating. But not having all the answers makes these two films infinitely more unsettling and thought-provoking, not puzzle films exactly, but ones that leave themselves open to multiple viewings and, most importantly, infinite re-considerings of the moral questions that the films pose.

This is a creepy, creepy movie. The children are perfectly chosen - a couple of dud child actors in there and all of the disturbing ambiguity and atmosphere that Haneke creates here would go up in flames. But they're perfect: convincing, and hard to accurately read. When the schoolteacher confronts the town's minister with his theories, the scene would be outright ridiculous if these were Village of the Damned-type embodiments of evil. Haneke's work is more nuanced and troubling than that.

Conclusion: A strong start for Moviepalooza, with another new movie (and Oscar nominee!) on deck next.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Dude Movies: An American Werewolf In London

What's it about?
Dumb-ass American backpackers fail to heed the advice of drunken British farmfolk only to end up as lycanthrope kibble.

Any chicks in the movie?
Not just any, but Dude Movie goddess Jenny "Logan's Run" Agutter, who here performs a rare Dude Movie hat trick: She's great in the movie, she's hot, and she gets really, really naked. Honestly, that's way more than you deserve.

Awesomeness factor?
Seminal. The career of John Landis has a pretty severe drop-off point* but you can't fault the man's early career. The Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House, The Blues Brothers - his late 70s / early 80s run reads like a primer for Dude Movies 101**. But Landis' peak is inarguably An American Werewolf In London, a movie so painfully wicked that it made a generation of dudes wonder why Griffin Dunne was never a major star. *** The plot has the grim inevitability of a classic EC comic, but this isn't a movie about plot so much as an excuse to enjoy the gleefully psychotic details Landis pencils in, like how Dunne keeps decomposing throughout the movie or the clever use of moon-themed pop songs. But the true star of this monsteriffic movie is Rick Baker, makeup artist of the gods. The on-screen transformation of David Naughton into a werewolf (set to Sam Cooke's "Blue Moon", for maximum juxtaposed weirdness) blew our collective geek minds like a firecracker stuffed into a Cheez Doodle back in 1981. Rightfully infamous, that scene is such high-octane cinematic badassery that it knocks the rest of the movie off-kilter, as if Landis himself couldn't quite believe how awesome it was. Landis isn't the greatest with endings anyway, but it speaks volumes to the aforementioned badasserythat a last act packed with public nudity, reanimated corpses, triple XXX porn parodies and a fucking decapitation seems like a soft denouement.

Mitigated by?
Last act be damned. I present a bold Dude Movie proclaimation: An American Werewolf In London is the best monster movie of the 80s. Suck it, C.H.U.D.!

* Let's call it about halfway through Coming To America when I, along with the rest of the continent of North America, suddenly noticed Eddie Murphy wasn't funny.

** aka Intro To Dude Movies. It's mostly essays with the occasional multiple-choice. Example: "Comedies are funny, sex is funny, and the French are funny, so why is there no such thing as a funny French sex comedy?"

*** Remember the movie Me And Him? The one where Griffin Dunne's penis suddenly starts talking? That's why.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Chris 2010 Viewings #39: Different from the Rest

The following review was written for the newly launched GLBT publication, Proud. Everyone at Gen X pitched in at least one. This one was rejected. I do not blame them one smidge as it is dry as dust and what I might generously call "strained". Anyway, publishing it here gets me one movie further in the great Gen X watch-off. Now my decks are truly cleared and Moviepalooza can begin in earnest.

Different from the Rest

Germany, 1919. Directed by Richard Oswald. Starring Conrad Veidt.

The preamble to the recent restoration of Different from the Rest claims that it is the first film ever to deal with homosexuality head-on, rather than allude to it. It's heartening to report that the film is enlightened, even by today's standards, taking an activist stance against Germany's rigid anti-homosexuality laws. Ahead of its time, to be sure, as it wasn't until 1994 - 75 years after the film was made - that the last remnants of the laws were abolished. The film was banned outright in 1920, and only exists today in a fragment discovered at a Russian film archive. Not even a continuity script survives, so the restoration of the film had to rely on contemportary reviews of the film and scholarly papers either affirming or decrying the film. Needless to say, it's not a film on which one can make a definitive stand - enough of the film is missing that one of the three most important characters, one of the gay men's sister, does not exist in the extant footage, and only appears via two production stills.

The plot concerns an esteemed concert violinist, Paul Korner, played by Conrad Veidt, Cesare the somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (made the same year) and Major Strasser in Casablanca. He and a younger male student fall in love, an affair torn apart by a vicious blackmailer. One of the film's central theses is that the existing laws could not prevent homosexuality, being biological rather than a choice, but would create a boom in blackmail.

The extant footage sticks pretty closely to Veidt's home, where much of the drama takes place, thus reducing the dramatis personae who exist strictly in subplots. Extensive intertitles and use of stills help fill in the blanks, of which there are many. The acting is quite fine, with little of the over-the-top angst once expects from many silent films, remarklably missing given that the footage we are left with is primarily concerned with angst.

In all, Different from the Rest is a curiosity. It is inarguable that what we are left with is primarily of historical interest, but one can't fault the filmmakers for that. Some of the production stills suggest a touch of expressionism to a series of dream sequences that depict a parade of historical figures destroyed by society's cruel intolerance of homosexuality (Oscar Wilde, King Ludwig II, with Paul Korner joining the ranks when the parade appears again at the end), which makes one even more anxious to see the footage denied us by history.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Maggie 2010: +1 Nelson Mandela, -1 Clint Eastwood

#84. Invictus

It's been a long few weeks of soccer news. Longer still, I assure you, when you have zero interest in the sport, let alone incessantly-posted vuvuzela memes. But, you know what they say--if you can't beat 'em, join 'em--so with this in mind I set to watching Clint Eastwood's Invictus, hoping this great cinematic mind, with the help of an inspiring true story about rugby in post-apartheid South Africa, could spark more interest in me towards field-based team sports as a whole. However, I am sad to say even the great Clint Eastwood, directing a movie with Morgan Freeman as Nelson-freaking-Mandela, with a title named after a poem of all things (this matters because I enjoy poetry immensely), wasn't up to the task.

I was in fact so stunned by the failure of this film to rise above the more tedious attributes of the Heroic Team Sport genre that I had to sit in silence awhile trying to figure out what had gone wrong. Here was a genuine case of a country uniting, after gross tragedy and decades of racially-motivated oppression, through shared appreciation of a national sport, as celebrated on an international platform. How hard could it be to make a real story that awesome, under Eastwood's more than capable hands, into cinematic gold?

My conclusions on this score come down to four key points:

1) Clint Eastwood intentionally leaned on common devices of the genre, but not consistently. You can see this in the way he uses slow motion to try to intensify the final, key minutes of the film's central rugby match. The problem is, these moments aren't joined with the usual adrenalin-pumping fare (i.e. the mad-dash fast-forward, giving viewers a sense of the dizzying immediacy felt by players "in the zone," or consistent rapid cutting of player shots to establish the various tensions between individual opponents in the throes of specific plays). This omission gives the whole of the rugby match a kind of belaboured quality, beating us over our heads with the significance of the game. Also, right down to the final kick, the very musical accompaniment tells us the outcome of each play, so all the agonizing slow motion leading up to those goals doesn't stir fear and hope in our hearts like it should.

2) Clint Eastwood is a master of signature moments, key instances where a character is distinctly drawn within his or her context, but for some reason -- perhaps, again, as a matter of leaning too much on genre expectations -- he offers perhaps one such moment, at best, in Invictus; and for a minor character! (I'm thinking of the scene where a white security detail presents itself to a new black official, who thinks he's being arrested and responds accordingly.) Matt Damon can drink all the cans of defeat he wants, and tour all the prisons he wants, too, but his character revelations in this piece are still nothing, nothing compared to the interior worlds Eastwood so artfully conveys in films like Changeling and Unforgiven. Meanwhile, was it the weight cast by still-living Nelson Mandela's shadow that made it so hard for Eastwood to provide Morgan Freeman, a long-time fellow actor and friend, the direction necessary to draw out more depth in Mandela's portrayal? Or simply the limits of the genre Eastwood elected to work within? I can't answer that question. All I can say is, Eastwood's signature moments just weren't there.

3) The music. Heavens, the music was so uncharacteristic of Eastwood I was gobsmacked. This facet more than any other made me suspect that Eastwood truly wanted to make a sports flick, as opposed to a film in which sport is one of many devices conveying deeper truths about the human condition. Which is fine! Go genre flicks! Except that Eastwood still chose a high-brow approach to the sports film genre by picking a sport and sporting context heavily steeped in resonant ideological context for his North American viewing audience (this should go without saying, so it will), and just as heavily informed by a completely different cultural background. This isn't American varsity football: it's post-apartheid South African rugby! So here more than ever we needed those signature moments, those pronounced entrenchments of central character in original South Africa, to fully understand the difference between this true story of sports-heroism, and the spate of fictionalized instances already over-saturating existent sports film annals. And no, sorry, getting famous Hollywood actors to use South African accents, then tossing in an exceptionally token bus trip through rural slums, just wasn't enough in my book to count.

4) While so many of Clint Eastwood's directorial choices in this piece scream "intentional effort to make a sports film!" so much about the lead-up to the actual sports action seemed a completely separate beast -- and also just plain dull and uninspired, if not wholly tangential. It felt in many parts like Eastwood genuinely was trying for more depth; but so many of those meagre initial plot and character developments simply fell apart about halfway through, leaving me exhausted and without a clear sense of reward long before the main rugby games began. In short, I don't think Eastwood had really made up his mind what kind of movie he wanted this to be; and it showed.

Yes, Invictus is racking up all kinds of award nominations at present. And yes, a lot of Gen X viewers genuinely enjoyed it -- so maybe you will, too! But a) as an avid Eastwood fan, I have to say this wasn't anywhere near up to his standard, and b) despite not being keen on field sports I can already think of one biographical field sport film that, despite lacking the same juicy historical resonance from events like apartheid, and contemporary superheroes like Nelson Mandela, proved one hell of a lot more exciting to watch:

Harvard Beats Yale 29-29. Yep, I said it. It's in Gen X's documentary section, and it even stars Tommy Lee Jones as one of the actual players (Harvard offensive tackle) in the epic 1968 American football game! So if you're hankering for a field sport biopic tonight, consider Invictus, sure! But for the love of whatever on earth is actually exciting about these field sports, consider this alternative, too!

Maggie 2010: Descent into Porn!

#83. Focus/Refocus -- When Porn Kills

A friend of mine has struck out a few times now in his selection of soft-core films from Gen X's LGBT section*, so I decided to take the reins and check out a new release flick so laughably titled I just had to see it for myself.

Ladies and gentlemen, When Porn Kills is exactly that: A hard-core gay porn flick about a porn addict who makes porn, views porn, and gets to the bottom of a murder mystery surrounding (surprise!) porn. Obviously, the acting is bad, but to our collective shock and awe, it could really have been a lot worse. Ditto goes for the man-candy: While the protagonist was neither my nor my male friend's cup of tea (receding hairline plus excessive chest hair [the video box downplays the shag, believe-you-me] against an altogether lanky physique), and at least one of the men in this film had a truly hideous mug (you'll know when you see him!) the majority were decently built and sufficiently well-endowed. More importantly, good heavens, does this film actually have a plot?

Ladies especially, I just want to take this moment to point out that everything you've been told about being "unique" in your desire for narrative to accompany your smut is wrong. Much like hetero-favourite Pirates, When Porn Kills is about 50/50 storyline/porn. Also much like Pirates, the sex scenes themselves are pretty much 50/50 for believable premises. Two boyfriends shacking up in front of the camera just to add some kink to their routine? Believable. One of the guys hooking up with randoms to satisfy his filming fetish when his boyfriend tires of the stunt? Believable, if sad. His boyfriend, upon discovery of this illicit activity, proceeding to bend a coworker over a desk and engage in hard-core penetrative sex? Not as believable. The protagonist having intense, bottoming-from-the-top penetrative sex with the central rapist/murderer because the killer essentially tells him it's sex or death? Uh. Sweet Jeebus, I hope that's not believable.

When Porn Kills is bizarre. Though I play for both teams I'm not really the target demographic for all this beefcake action, so it fell to my friend to decide if the strange balance of plot-line and hard-core sex pulled off a memorable flick on the whole. To my delight and surprise, he ultimately shared my conclusions: Namely, that this film serves both as an effective vehicle for pure sexual pleasure, and also as an hilarious, plot-driven romp into the realm of porn that can be enjoyably experienced in the company of friends-without-benefits, too.

*Please let the record show, by the way, that the LGBT section is NOT all porn, and it irritates the HELL out of me when people assume an LGBT sticker on Gen X content automatically makes it R-rated. Want some recs for quality LGBT films that aren't indie soft-core? Ask me when I'm around the store! You'll be making my day!

Wendy's Films of 2010 #84: Kick-Ass (2010)

I wasn't quite skeptical when I walked into the theatre to see Kick-Ass, but I wasn't sure that the film would live up to the hype that it had been pretty constantly receiving from those around me. That and I've learned to be weary of Nicholas Cage.

That being said, I walked out the theatre with my mind completely changed. Little did I know that little Chloe Moretz would barge in and shoot her way into my giddy, excessive action loving heart. I expected a movie about a kid who decides to suit up, call himself Kick-Ass and beat down crime in his neighbourhood. He might fall in love, he'd probably be successful at proving to everyone that all it takes is the heart and the training, and I would probably walk out slightly dissatisfied but not unhappy. This, luckily, ended up being only a fraction of the story. Without revealing too much, let's just say that I think there should be more 12-year-old school girls toting guns and blasting away the dirty scum that pollutes their cities. (Just in the movies of course.)  Not only is Moretz charming and full of spunk, but she handles guns and weapons with more pizazz and know-how than 90% of the grown men and women in action films these days.

This one hasn't been released to DVD yet, but GenX will certainly be getting it when it is. I like that it's a story about the underdog, and I love the amount of purely insane action. I've always been a sucker for action-packed thrill-rides with a twist.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Ryan Watches A Motion Picture #41: The Crazies (1973)

Get this hippy restrained!

Before checking out the remake I thought I'd give the George Romero original a shot.


It's annoyingly edited, and operates at a break-neck and confusing pace. Shots seem to be made up mostly of close-ups. You might see a cut to a close-up of a guy talking to someone, which then cuts to a close-up of a guy shouting at him from somewhere, which then cuts to a close-up of an arm picking up a gun, followed by a close-up of somebody running, or a car parking, or whatever. You don't see the motion that connects the images, which leaves you really disoriented.

The dialogue is delivered at ridiculous speeds as well - the moment one line ends someone else pipes up with another. And everybody's yelling at each other all the time. Conversation quickly ramps up into panic and anger, which makes the movie feel really emotionally forced and especially unjustified, since very little of the viral outbreak is actually seen for the first half of the film. It's pretty much just people yelling at each other in offices about what to do. No, wait, not what to do. It's not really conversation. It's more yelling out unreasonable reactions. Usually in the form of exposition.

I guess you could argue that the camera work and editing is meant to...well, make you feel as crazy and disoriented as the characters succumbing to the virus that drives them into delirium, but if that's the case, the techniques are used where they shouldn't be, and not used where they'd do good work. And the film actually abandons its style and slows down during the last third of the film, which just makes it all seem like bad audience emotion management.

Now Dawn of the Dead is one of my all-time favourite films, and I'm very fond of Romero. But he tends to be pretty hamfisted with his social criticisms, and this movie is no exception. The Crazies is a pretty barefaced hate-on for the Vietnam-era military, and ends up as a mostly hokey and cheap-looking anti-government piece. It works to depict a military and governmental disregard for the rights of civilians so complete that it's hard to take the plot seriously until you remember that Vietnam was a horrific and rights-shattering embarrassment.

I will say this in the movie's defense: it sports a very rare protagonist - a man who wears a mighty unibrow without shame. I've always been wowed by 70s films that weren't afraid to cast unattractive or strange-looking actors into their male roles. Unibrow's comrade has warts all over his boney face. It's incredibly refreshing.

So: Can't say it's worth the watch, but if you're curious about Vietnam-response films don't look this one over.

Ryan Watches A Motion Picture #40: Thrashin' (1986)

Him: Thrashing man - it's just an aggressive style of skatin'. We thrash.
Her: What do you thrash?"
Him: ....What do you got?


This movie is one of the most 80s films I've ever seen. It made me feel so strange.

It also sports a really young Josh Brolin in his second film role - just after the Goonies. Like Goonies, he's a thoroughly unlikable slab of beefcake. Thrashin' basically gives him the same character, but is centered on the California skateboard culture that was, at that time, just starting to pick up mainstream attention. It's filled with girls in bikinis, punks in denim vests, and brightly coloured valley-boy neon t-shirts. It's a skater romance, like West Side Story with boards and without singing, and oddly enough, is directed by David Winters - who worked as a dancer on West Side Story.

According to the film, in L.A. everybody boards. This movie is 40% skate tricks, and Dogtown is a skate park. When you go to a club, say, you bring your board and dance with it. You'll dance with other boarders and do tricks on the dance floor to a mostly not-very-risque New Wave soundtrack. DEVO, thankfully, is on there. At the club you might chance to see a performance by a new band called the Red Hot Chili Peppers, which was the scene in the movie that apparently scored the least with preview audiences. It's really very surreal.

I love 80s films where everyone looks really edgy and metal, but is presented with the glossiest camera work alongside the tamest audience friendly music they could find. It's really dorky and funny. It's forky. So forky that the film eventually steps out of silly land and into absolutely ridiculous territory when Brolin has to 'joust', which means he has to face his enemies on skate boards and swing padded flails at each other. The padded flails are shaped like hearts. Which is about the gentlest and most impractical way you could try to harm someone:

1: It's padded enough not to hurt that much.
2: It wouldn't really knock you off your skateboard.
3: It just degenerates into a fist fight anyway.

So: I love time capsule movies. This one's a wonderfully bad 80s romp. Best part: Brolin brought through a skateboard factory and shown advanced board designs, built to withstand nuclear attack.

Maggie 2010: Day of The Earthquake Edition

82. Volcano

After experiencing my first earthquake of note yesterday, I picked up a discount DVD from Gen X to whet my one-third-world appetite for disaster porn. (I mean, really, most of the world has *real* systemic problems, natural catastrophe- or war-related, to worry about; you think anyone the world over really cares if John Cusack's family gets saved from the ridiculous doomsday scenario in 2012?)

Considering the egocentricism of the entire genre, Volcano is a surprisingly memorable entry therein. Yes, it helps that Tommy Lee Jones was born to play the role of a world-worn man whose troubled unibrow bears the quiet prescience only age and wisdom can. And yes, it helps that a pre-mental-breakdown Anne Heche provides impeccable blonde eye-candy for most of the ride. But there's more to this film's success than that. Despite traversing considerable thematic ground in the realms of tragic loss and sacrifice, race relationships and community outreach, Volcano almost never forgets its roots. Sure, there's a precocious little boy who spews a couple ham-handed messages at crucial junctures in the film, but mainly? This 1997 disaster flick is about a volcano erupting in down-town Los Angeles -- with all the awesome lava trails, building explosions, subway disasters, and people covered in ash or fire you can handle. Living perfectly up to its title, Volcano gives you exactly what it promises; and because of that modesty of scope, anything more it provides truly manages to be a pleasurable bonus for the ride.

Oh, and for those of you fearing that Gen X's disaster porn inventory only includes Criterion classics like Armageddon and our SCI: End of the World section, rest assured, there's still a nice double-feature of Volcano and 1974's The Towering Inferno (Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, Paul Newman, Fred Astaire, and more) for sale at Gen X as of Friday, June 25. In the meantime? While contemplating your next disaster pick?

Please consider donating to any of these fine organizations working to restore parts of the world affected by much graver earthquakes and related natural disasters:

Haiti Earthquake Funds, The Humanitarian Coalition

Chile Earthquake Funds, Oxfam

Yushu, China Earthquake Funds, Tibet Foundation

Because, yes, donating money's not as cool as drilling to the Earth's core or shooting out into space to jump-start the sun... but the little things count, too!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Chris 2010 Viewings #34-38: Tidying up. (with UPDATE!)

Hopelessly behind in the great Gen X watching/blogging challenge, I came up with an exciting way to keep myself interested in watching movies: only watching movies I really want to see and am virtually certain I will like. I know, it's crazy, right? So I've started, and only 5 films in, I have managed three great new movies, one auteurist dud, and a re-viewing of an all-time great. I will blog those soon, but first I have to clear the decks of some pre-moviepalooza viewings.

34. A Girl Cut in Two (2007, Claude Chabrol)

With Eric Rohmer recently deceased, Chabrol is almost certainly my favourite living director. I never meet anyone who agrees with me, and I understand why: Chabrol alternates masterworks and throwaways like no other great filmmaker. But each of them is unmistakeably his work; it's a flavour I like as much or more than any other, and any chance I get to taste a new one is a treat, regardless of whether it's one of his peak confections or not.

A Girl Cut in Two isn't a masterpiece, neither is it a throwaway confection, it's a solid piece of work. With Chabrol's reputation as the French Hitchcock, one might expect the title to refer to a literal murder, rather it's an unexpectedly moving metaphor for the title character that I won't spoil here. The impossibly hot Ludivine Sagnier is a perky small-town television weathergirl who finds herself torn between two suitors: a famous, married author whom she deeply loves but treats their relationship as a trifle; and a mostly worthless playboy who loves her passionately but she can only muster feelings of friendship for.

Chabrol is blessed with a marvelous trio of actors to embody this romantic triangle. Sagnier and François Berléand are fine as the girl and the author, but the real surprise is Benoît Magimel, whose character seems at first glance a ridiculous caricature, but generates considerable depth and pathos as the plot unfolds.

35-36. Little Big Man (1970, Arthur Penn) and Kramer vs. Kramer (1979, Robert Benton)

Two famous performances by Dustin Hoffman; two films that get the top rating (****) in Leonard Maltin's movie guide, my one-time bible. The former is a bit of a cult favourite, the latter an Oscar-winning juggernaut. The former is a western epic, with Hoffman playing Jack Crabbe from a young adult who's been raised by Indians, to being the only white survivor of Custer's last stand, to a 100+ year old man telling the tall tale that is his life to a journalist. The latter is a small family drama of the effects of divorce on a man and his young son, especially when his ex-wife decides she wants custody.

I much prefer Hoffman in Kramer: I'll always take his smaller, quieter performances to his brash, loud ones. I realized the bigger-than-life quality of his emoting at the various stages of Little Big Man is part of the point, but I'm always drawn to the charisma he exudes when seemingly essaying the small moments in everyday life.

Neither of these movies is a masterpiece, but as to which is better, there is no contest. Little Big Man is alternately hilarious and moving, especially the moments between Hoffman and his Indian "grandfather" Chief Dan George, who steals every scene that he's in. Every time the film settles into a nice, comfortable groove, it pulls the rug out from under you, throwing Jack into a new dilemma and environment, leaving multiple myths about the frontier days of the United States destroyed in its wake. Numerous actors (George, Faye Dunaway, Martin Balsam) make impressions in small roles, with Richard Mulligan a particular delight as the insane General Custer.

Kramer vs. Kramer, on the other hand, is a shocking movie. It's decent if unexciting for much of its running time, and it's very much Hoffman's show, running the gamut of emotions as he deals with the fallout from his divorce and his new status as single dad. Then Meryl Streep shows up again and declares that she is going to seek custody, and after 80 minutes the vs. Kramer starts to come into play. I think the movie becomes a little less special here, less time being spent on the nice little character touches that are the major plus of the first half, and more on court drama. Then the verdict comes down and everyone is sad.

But then... holy crap, how have I never been made aware over the years what a bullshit ending this movie has? I mean, everyone knows that Psycho and The Crying Game have big twists, everyone says that one instance of Hayden Chistensen yelling "Nooooooooo!" ruins Star Wars 3... how has the bullshit ending of Kramer vs. Kramer not entered the pantheon of things everyone knows about even if they haven't seen it? I mean, I don't want to ruin it, but this movie basically spends 110 minutes building up to a devastating emotional blow, and then a character says "I changed my mind! Happy birthday!" and everything's OK. In that one moment I want to revoke American Beauty's claim to the crown of worst Best Picture Oscar winner ever. But Kramer is still an OK movie, just... bullshit.

37. Oceans (2009, Jacques Perrin)

Oceans is the second entry in Disney's DisneyNature series, following Earth, last year's recycling of moments from the BBC's Planet Earth series. Oceans is an actual movie, made by the team behind Winged Migration, a film popular with people who won't seen Oceans because it's a Disney movie. The director was also the juvenile lead in my favourite film of all time, which has no bearing on the merits of Oceans, but made me happy anyway.

I'll tell you one thing that didn't make me happy, though: Oceans. Don't get me wrong, this is an impressive piece of work, filled with jawdropping imagery that not only made me wonder several times whether its incredibly imagery was faked (it wasn't), but kept my narrative-driven 6-year-old rapt for the film's entire running time.

But I saw Oceans on its second weekend, a few days after the BP leak started, on the day it first started to get major media attention. So when Pierce Brosnan's voice over spends the last 10 minutes musing about delicate ecosystems, I wanted to curl up on the floor and die. I can't imagine how I would feel if I watched it now.

So... this is a flabbergastingly well-done film. I just can't imagine watching it any time soon and not wanting to commit suicide.

38. The Wolfman (2010, Joe Johnston)

Eight years ago I was still a movie maniac. I watched roughly 7 movies a week and wrote them up. Then I saw a movie called My Big Fat Greek Wedding and it all came crashing down. I was broken. Since then I have considered it a productive movie watching year if I managed to see 20 films of my own accord.

These days I still don't watch a lot of movies, in spite of my job. I mean, here we are having this viewing-and-blogging contest and I've still only managed 38 movies in the first half of the year. That's when I'm motivated. Then I saw a movie called The Wolfman.

We have spent enough time chewing out the staff member who told us this movie is not that bad. But I will say she was wrong. It is worse. Here are the only positive things I have to say about this movie:

1) Max von Sydow shows up for a minute near the beginning.

2) There is a scene where Anthony Hopkins is walking up the stairs and Emily Blunt is coming down and they both stop halfway, on the landing and Emily Blunt asks Anthony Hopkins a question. He does not reply verbally, but by chewing an apple in a way that is pretty hilarious.

3) The Wolfman make-up is based on the makeup Oliver Reed wore in the Hammer film Curse of the Werewolf. During the climax, the bad werewolf (there are two) rips off his shirt and fights the good werewolf in front of a fireplace. I was briefly amused by the similarity to the scene in Women in Love where Oliver Reed and Alan Bates wrestle nude in front of a similar fireplace.

Now, those three "plusses" considered, the following becomes clear:

1) Max von Sydow doesn't actually do anything awesome, I was just happy to see him, so that can't really be said to be something the film did well.

2) The similarity to Women in Love was probably just my imagination searching for something to be entertained by.


3) The best thing in the entire running time of The Wolfman is SOMEONE EATING AN APPLE.

And Mike informs me that part is only in the extended director's cut. Is apple eating worth an extra 15-20 minutes of pain? It is not.

Oh, and there is CGI. Piles and piles of crappy, unconvincing CGI. I'll tell you, when a CGI werewolf is running over CGI roofs beneath a CGI sky, one thing I am not is excited. What I am is watching a cartoon, and not a good one. And this movie is not content to just use CGI in place of actual physical things. Many of the lighting "effects" are achieved by laying some CGI shadows across objects and faces. These do not look like shadows, they look like dirt on my TV.

It is a little sad that the 1941 Wolf Man has makeup that, while excellent, looks like a guy in Wolf Man makeup. It features sets that are clearly fake trees on a studio backlot. It is 70 minutes long. In spite of all this it still manages to generate actual pathos and sadness for its characters, and has a poweful air of tragic inevitability to its tale of a poor schmuck who has the bad luck to get bitten by a werewolf. The 2010 Wolf Man defies you give a rat's ass about the characters its Oscar winning cast portray and can't even manage an air of tragic inevitability in a story about a guy whose DAD IS A WEREWOLF AND TURNS HIM INTO ONE.

UPDATE: I was in a hurry to finish writing this, so I forgot two really important things about The Wolfman.

1) Mike also informs me that Max von Sydow is only in the extended director's cut as well.

2) There is a CGI bear in this movie. The bear is required to do two things: 1) walk about on all fours; 2) get agitated when the wolfman is loose in the gypsy camp. I will argue that the difference in cost between renting a circus bear to do these two basic things is negligible compared to paying some hotshot to animate one on a computer. It is also the only sane choice when you use a CGI bear as ridiculously unbelievable (and this in the context of The Wolfman!) as the one on display here. Would you like to see how to create a more believable bear than the one in this film? Here you go:

You're welcome.

But it gets worse! While searching the web for a still of this CGI bear, we discover that the Wolfman crew didn't even create this CGI bear, they lifted it from the effects of The Golden Compass, where it was a polar bear, and they made it brown. So they already knew it was a ridiculous-looking CGI bear, which invoked ridicule in the film for which it was created! They saved money, but knew that what they were using was ass! The shame of The Wolfman gets deeper every time one looks back at it.

New to the Store: Week of 22 June, 2010

Derniere Fugue, La (The Last Escape)
Dick Francis Mysteries (In the Frame / Blood Sport / Twice Shy)
Entourage: Season 6
Green Zone (BluRay coming momentarily)
House of the Sleeping Beauties
Hung: Season 1
Inspector Lynley: Great Deliverance, A
Last Station, The
Maid, The (La Nana)
Objective, The
Remember Me
Sacred Love-Making
She's Out of My League (also BluRay)
Soundless Wind Chime

Monday, June 21, 2010

Maggie 2010: Fantasy, Meet Action; Action, Meet SciFi

#81. Daybreakers

My expectations for this film were low. Perhaps too low, because Daybreakers did something I have not seen for quite some time in the vampire film continuum: While adhering to formal rules for the vampire archetype (i.e. no sparkles, no magic rings to walk in the daylight), the storyline actually adds something new to vampire mythology as a whole.

The gist of the adventure is as follows: In a post-outbreak world, the vampire plague has transformed too many humans, leaving sustenance in disturbingly short supply. While a rigid corporate structure is governing the capture and imprisonment of remaining humans for exhaustive use in blood farms, scientists like Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) are struggling to find a blood substitute that doesn't turn vampires into goo. This is imperative because, unlike the irreducibly handsome vampires of The Vampire Diaries and Twilight, who can conveniently maintain their sanity and good looks without drinking human blood, Daybreakers's vampires draw on the ravaged spectre of Nosferatu (the 1922 version suffices, but Herzog's 1979 enhancement is just mindblowing) to suggest a world where failure to feed causes vampires to gnaw on their own flesh and blood until they manifest as hideous sub-vampires. (This becomes especially key to the theme of "othering," which this film also develops to a sufficiently unexpected level for a conventional action flick.)

Now, in the pursuit of this cure Edward's intentions are ultimately altruistic: having been turned into a vampire against his will by a brother who far prefers the condition to life as a human, Edward hopes to save the human race from extinction, and offer it freedom from vampire predation. Meanwhile, Charles Bromley (Sam Neill) has a different end in mind: namely, cornering a whole new market for financial gain, while allowing the human race to repopulate just enough to keep a high-end commercial market for real blood afloat as well. Blood-suckers, business men -- the line is quickly blurred in this film despite efforts to humanize Charles through a side-plot about his human daughter.

But here comes the catch. Willem Dafoe, looking a bit like something fresh from the horrors of Eden, enters the scene as Lionel "Elvis" Cormac, a member of a small human resistance group. Elvis comes with a curious personal CV: He was a vampire for nine years, but his heart beats like a human's once again. In this way, Elvis is living proof that a cure to the plague exists, and with Edward's help he hopes to test this cure with full scientific rigour, then spread word of its existence across the starving, mutating vampire lands.

Being a conventional action flick, the usual plot twists and turns, the betrayals, the love interest, the convenient timings emerge throughout its whole. Sacrifices are made, and lives unjustly lost, in precisely the sequence one would expect. The CGI is also not sensational, the fight scenes a little tedious, the characters all teetering a little on 2-D, and if you ask me, the very post-production colour palate is verging on cliche.

But the cure in question is to the best of my knowledge unique in the vampire film continuum, and effective. And the way this film approaches "othering" -- of humans by vampires, then sub-vampires by vampires -- is also effective. For these reasons, while no Let the Right One In, or even mainstream hit Interview with a Vampire, Daybreakers clearly punches above the average success rate for vampire films as a whole. So if vampires are your thing, and you're all caught up with True Blood or whatever other vampire series are currently airing, you could do far, far worse than consider Daybreakers for your next evening in.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Maggie 2010: A Challenging/Vindicating Debate

#80. God on Trial

As an atheist raised in a secular household, films and literature about religion have never been an easy sell for me. After the fetishistic fervour of Holocaust and general WWII films that emerged a few years back in Hollywood, reprehensibly turning those events into a box office "trend" for a year and a half, I also found it difficult to commit myself to newer entries in that category.

Despite both these high standards, the BBC television play God on Trial caught my eye the moment it came into Gen-X. I only didn't watch it immediately because my housemate was getting sick of my depressing film choices, and had emphatically requested a thematic change for a spell. Months later, I finally had day-time hours enough to watch, while my housemate was away, this devastating re-enactment of an alleged trial held in an Auschwitz block by a number of Jewish prisoners awaiting the gas chamber.

Facing the certainty of death, and bearing only an uncertainty of when this death hands would occur, the Jewish scholars and laymen in this play by Frank Cottrell Boyce [inspired by an event described by Holocaust survivor and noted novelist Elie Wiesel (Night, The Trial of God)] decide to pass the time by putting on trial the individual they find most responsible for the horrors they and their people all across Europe are enduring: God.

The charge is first proposed to be murder, but swiftly changed to a question more befitting the scope of omniscience. God is charged instead with breaking His Covenant with the Jewish people. At first it appears almost too obvious that God is guilty, but superb script-writing and the fully-fleshed out characterizations of all participating in this trial take viewers down many clever avenues before its only logical conclusion. The question of who broke the Covenant first is raised, followed by the citation of Biblical suffering endured in the past by the Jewish people. Then the question emerges, is this punishment or purification (a striking inversion of Nazi "cleansing" rhetoric), and if so does that change the status of Jewish casualties from victims to martyrs? Soon after, the spectre of "free will" is raised and viciously countered by a variation of Sophie's Choice. Somewhere along the way, the question of what it even means to be Jewish, and so a participant in the aforementioned Covenant, rears its own, intriguing head. And so the debate continues, back and forth, until an intense re-examination of Biblical verse that you simply must witness for yourselves brings the time of testimony to a close.

As the three appointed Jewish judges weigh the various evidence before them, anecdotal and scholastic alike, death also encroaches in terrible, concrete ways upon the bunker; and the trial itself is inter-spliced with a modern-day tour group visiting the death camp and ruminating on events therein. These modern-day flash-forwards are vestigial at best to this otherwise tightly-woven narrative: I'd wager their function is to suggest the legacy of the trial itself alongside the greater tragedy, but if so, I find this a rather disappointing appeal.

Why? Because as the conclusion of the trial itself amply demonstrates, seeking a party to blame serves at best as a way to pass the time before acts of human injustice run their course. Regardless of the judges' verdict, at the end of the prisoners' trial of God there still remains only two constants of any real relevance to the prisoners' current suffering: the certainty of their impending deaths, and the necessity of prayer, to whatever God or idealized humanist principle one believes just then, as a basic means by which to hold their deeply-grieving bodies in a state of personal dignity until that death arrives.

If you wonder why my housemate first made the appeal for fewer depressing selections during our joint movie nights, let this review be your answer. That said, please don't let the tremendous gravity of this film's material discourage you from renting the film itself: Whatever your religious affiliation, if intelligent and thought-provoking argument holds any interest for you at all, you do yourself a great disservice by not watching God on Trial.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Ryan Watches A Motion Picture #39: Red Dwarf: Back to Earth (2009)

It was a long wait for Red Dwarf fans. Series VIII ended in 1999. Over the ten year gap Dwarfers grew jaded (if they had not already been so) and milled about in great and murderous street gangs, causing mischief and violence wherever they went. Hanging out in vindaloo joints. Drinking lager. Smoking kippers. Petting cats. Vacuuming. You know, British things. When they heard that a new installment of their beloved Red Dwarf was on the way, they returned to their old homes and waited. When it came, they seemed mostly disappointed. But while many of my kin thought Back To Earth was crap, I actually thought it was pretty good. Maybe they liked the old days with the laugh track best.

The show has always had a dramatic leaning, and has preferred to construct characters with some real pathos. Their dynamics and psychologies have been the crux of the show to satisfying and impressive effect. Back To Earth decided to get a bit heavier on that element and present Dwarf fans with a little less comedy and a lot more emotional closure, in case this would end up being the very last of the Red Dwarf crew's adventures. As I've heard it, there's more on the way, and I'm glad for it.

Back To Earth's plot leads from an old and favourite episode from an earlier season, which might be awkward fan service to some, but comes to serve more as a useful and somewhat eerie contrast between the vibe of the earlier series and its current incarnation. This episode's filled with Blade Runner references, and the set work and scene recreations are fun to pick out and ponder in terms of their relationship to the characters. Oh, they visit the Coronation Street pub as well. It all gets pretty meta, which is of course often very trite in television, but in this case, works reasonably well.

So: If you like Red Dwarf and its characters, you really should give it a shot. If you've never seen any Red Dwarf and like sci-fi and laughter, you've got a lot of joy heading your way.

Ryan Watches A Motion Picture #38: Super Vixens (1975)

Here's how Russ Meyer claims he lost his virginity:

During WWII, Meyer found himself in a French brothel. There he met Ernest Hemingway. When Hemingway learned that Meyer was a virgin, he told the boy he could have any prostitute he liked, and that he'd pick up the tab. Meyer picked the one with the most ample bosom. Later he made films.

And his movies can be pretty surreal at times. If you're unfamiliar with Meyer's brilliant sexploitation work, I'll sum up the basics: incredibly voluptuous women, usually stuck somewhere in arid Arizona, entrenched in hyper-campy battles of the sexes. His films seem to be some kind of reaction to second-wave feminism, and it's debatable as to whether or not his films bash women's liberation or support feminist critique by satirizing sexual politics. For my vote, I find that feminist readings work really well with Russ Meyer films, since men and women are caricatured so completely and intelligently that there's more to it than skin. Women are presented as manipulative psychopaths and sexual enslavers, and men as violent psychopaths and sexual slaves. The flip can be true in other Meyer films, but both genders are always ruled by the power of sex, and the exchange of that power is often disturbing if its not busy with being humourous. Russ Meyer films are a special kind of wonderful bizarre.

Super Vixens is a great example. An evil babe, an asshole boyfriend, a psychotic sheriff, a death, a resurrection, a not-evil babe, a nice boyfriend, Shakespearean vengeance. Of the films I've seen to date, it's Meyer at his most surreal, and possesses Meyer's usual charm in pretty large quantities.

So: If you're going to see any Russ Meyer films, this and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! would be the way to go.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Pose Reviews a Movie. #18: The Ice Storm

Ang Lee does family drama?! Woo-hoo!

I rented The Ice Storm 'cos I was in the mood for something angsty, and in terms of the mood I was expecting, it didn't disappoint.

The film takes place in the Nixonian era, colloquially known as 1973, and focuses on two suburban families--the Hoods and the Carvers. The art director did a great job on making this a period-piece--everything, from the costumes to the furniture to the art on household walls lives and breathes the 1970's. I was literally expecting Eric Forman to pull up in a station wagon at any moment. (It didn't happen).

The narrative of The Ice Storm wanders nomadically between characters, documenting the boredom-bred infidelity of Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) with the weirdly foxy Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver), the loneliness of his wife, Elena (Joan Allen), and the growing pains (and...er, pleasures) of the Hood and Carver children.

The kids are simultaneously the darkest and most fun of the entire film. They represent the seedy underbelly of the suburban teen's world, complete with after-school-special-worthy substance abuse and sexual misadventures. However, the fun part comes from the fact that they're played by Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci and Elijah Wood. The Ice Storm was made in 1997, so these three were actually kids!

It's kind of funny that when they grew up, they went on to play a superhero (Maguire in Spiderman), a hobbit (Elijah Wood in...well, you know) and a major depressive (Ricci in Prozac Nation).

OK, maybe the Christina Ricci part isn't much of a surprise...she does deadpan pretty well, even when playing a 14 year old.

Regardless, the kids hold up a fascinating and functional mirror to their parents' lives, demonstrating that the issues of adolescence never really go away.

I liked The Ice Storm, though I'll admit it seems a little like the younger cousin of American Beauty and The Squid and the Whale--it wants to come along and play with the big kids, but ultimately, it's just not as cool.

Granted, those two films were released after this one, but the point is, the fam-dram has been done. If you're going to make one, it should probably bring something new to the table. The Ice Storm just serves Thanksgiving leftovers.

But a film doesn't have to be groundbreaking for its genre to be worthwhile--it probably should be if it's to be included in the Criterion Collection (which The Ice Storm is), but that's another story altogether. Overall, Lee's adaptation of the novel by Rick Moody met my expectations for an angsty drama. It was good that it paid attention to both the parents and the kids, and the parallels between them, but that was the only thing that stood out as being in any way unique.

I suppose I should be thankful though. At least it was better than Hulk.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

New to the Store: Week of 15 June, 2010

Arrivederci Amore, Ciao (Goodbye Kiss)
Book of Eli, The (also BluRay)
Family Guy v.8
Fish Tank
Sanctuary: Season 2
Sex Positive
Shaun the Sheep: One Giant Leap for Lambkind
Signes vitaux, Les (Vital Signs)
Sleazy Sci-Fi of the 1970s (Invasion of the Bee Girls / 2069: A Sexy Odyssey / Dr. Dildo's Secret)
Super Mario Bros. (by popular demand... you sick #$@$s)
Tony Manero
When in Rome
Youth in Revolt (also BluRay)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Maggie 2010: By Brakhage

#79. By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume One

Never have I been so thankful not to have a formal film studies education. To be spared the risk of a professor putting on the Criterion Collection piece, By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume One and thereafter, in some capacity, asking the mind-numbing question, "Now what do you think the artist was trying to tell us?" -- to eschew, that is, a discourse of meaning for one of raw experience -- in this case makes me feel especially fortunate.

My own background in poetry, personal more than formal academic, helps. This film is poetry, of a school that in words manifests as the post-avant world of giants like John Ashbery and Ron Silliman. I draw this parallel because the instinct is to reach for words that describe directly what Stan Brakhage, epitome and acclaimed genius of the then-emerging avant garde film community, is doing throughout the carefully sequenced programs in this anthology. But I have seen other reviews fall into this trap, creating trajectories of meaning and causality, and I have seen the damage that sort of absolutism does to its subject matter. "Brakhage introduces X images and devices in Y film to comment on Z," the worst seem to go. No, no, and no.

So let me draw instead upon the literary tradition of indirect description. I wonder to myself, in watching By Brakhage, how can the avant garde be so accessible? To watch By Brakhage at home, alone in the dark, is often to long for the shared viewing space of an old-school projection room, the clamour of the film reels whirring in their mounts, the trembling racket of the motor, the scuffing of shoes, the sniffling and occasional coughs from fellow attendees. This isn't to say Brakhage's silent works cry out for sound: rather, they elegantly anticipate it. That is to say, they leave room for viewers to become more perfectly aware of their own presence, their very existence, in the course of the viewing experience. Between Brakhage's use of colour, negative space, shape, shadow, and movement, one would expect the absence of narrative arc (refreshingly toyed with at times in the form of disordered and repeated title frames like "Part One," "The End," "Part Two," "Part Three," "Part Three") to madden and incense the average film-goer. And yet, here, under Brakhage's artful direction, I don't suspect it would. This anthology, to my great surprise, is an eminently accessible window into the avant garde.

So again I ask myself how, while watching repeated images of a man struggling to climb a mountain, autopsy footage, the intimate details of the director's first child's birth, and above all the bursts of estranged colour, shape, and minute, proximate detail that populate Brakhage's films. "How can avant garde be so accessible?"

In answer, I switch media. I recall reading a news story last year about how decidedly ancient the story of Little Red Riding Hood truly is. After studying 35 versions from around the world, cultural anthropologist Dr. Jamie Tehrani found he could trace the story back 2,600 years, with around 70 possible variables in plot and character throughout the ages. This was a far cry from the pre-existing origin story, which held instead that the tale had emerged in France just a little before the 17th Century.

What struck me about this news story was the meaning then offered up by a professor Jack Zipes, an expert on fairy tales and their origins, who suggests that folk tales may have helped people pass on tips for survival to new generations. That there are so many variants of the same, core story here suggests that Little Red Riding Hood thus prevailed because its message and themes were universal.

So too, I would have to argue, is Brakhage. There is simply no way to sustain the kind of cinematic devices he does, for as long as he does, in the varied and yet often repetitive ways that he does, if his work had not, at its essence, struck upon such vibrantly universal human threads. Yes, there is a strangeness to the light his films cast upon the world. But that strangeness arises from the fact that, in watching his films, we realize we've carried that strangeness with us all along.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Maggie 2010: An Oversight Corrected

#78. Silent Running

Picture this: It's Tuesday night at Gen X, so you don't partake in any special deals, but you have the pleasure of my presence behind the desk. So, you say, I'm looking for a movie. Well, I say, what have you seen recently that you liked? Oh, you say, the usual. I really liked Moon, that was great. Oh, I say, so you enjoy a good sci fi? Well, you say, sure, but it doesn't have to be too serious. You liked WALL-E? I say. Loved WALL-E, you say. Do you have anything else like that?

Until today, I would sadly have stalled and cycled through quite a bit of inventory before finding you the perfect fusion of these films. But no more! Because now I know I have Silent Running at hand for just such an occasion.

Silent Running is a hauntingly precise hippie sci-fi from 1972, and stands both as a precursor (stylistically) to the later Star Wars (indeed, the latter's production crew even included teams from the former, and you'd have to be blind not to see how the drones in the former served as precedent for the quirky characters of R2-D2 and C3PO), and also (thematically) to the aforementioned WALL-E. What is it, by the way, with we humans giving robots more benefit of the doubt when it comes to acting humanely than we do humans themselves? Haven't we seen the error of our ways often enough where that's concerned?

But in all seriousness, as the directorial debut of Douglas Trumbull, Silent Running has aged better than most sci-fi of its decade. Perhaps the only artifact that truly dates it to the overbearing eco-centric message of its era is the sporadic music, two songs by hippie folk singer Diane Lampert that serve, I suspect, more to create a female presence in the piece than to drill home the film's conservationist message, which is quite effectively conveyed without high-handed recrimination as is.

In some faraway future, there are no forests left on Earth, and the only natural reserves remain in special domes on spaceships around the solar system, where American officials sent them until such a time when Earth could thus be repopulated. Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) is part of a four-person crew manning one of these spaceships, but he's the only one who seems to give a damn about the forests themselves -- so much so that when the U.S. turns its back on the forest reclamation project, ostensibly because the synthetic world on Earth turns out not to need any help from Mother Nature anymore -- Lowell goes renegade, commandeering one forest dome and making a break for the outer reaches of the solar system. But just as turn-about on the government's part isn't thrown in to create a platform for era-specific political rhetoric, so too is Lowell's character given a sense of universality: No matter how high-minded your ideals, life is still very long, and very lonely, when your only company is two drones that talk with lights, movement, and shuttering flaps instead of words.

I don't know how Silent Running was omitted in a childhood by all accounts overrun with sci-fi classics, but if you, like me, have somehow neglected this sleeper cult film along the way, do yourself a favour and treat yourself to the seedling from which so much of our great sci-fi in the last four decades first bloomed.

Ryan Watches A Motion Picture #37: The Wild Hunt (2009)

All you need is LARP.

I'm really glad that this didn't suck. I'd been waiting for this one to hit the Princess pretty eagerly, since hearing of it and its concept. I dared hope that I could look forward to a Canadian film I could actually endorse with honesty. It's not perfect, but it's good, and left me with the kind of reflective aftertaste that films like Apocalypse Now and Deliverance left me with - that is, a strong brooding on the lizard-brain, violent animal nature in humanity, lurking on the periphery of consciousness and waiting for a chance to assert itself. Powerful film titles to evoke, I know, but the first that came to mind. Wild Hunt doesn't approach their mastery, but is certainly effective in its conceits and is able to work within its own logic.

Wild Hunt follows Erik, a young guy who's girlfriend, Evelyn, has been seeming disaffected towards him and her life. She decides to leave him, and he finds out that she's been immersing herself more and more heavily in the secluded LARP camp that she frequents. Catching some looks from the LARP boys in the car she jumps into, Erik suddenly starts to think that Evelyn has been dishonest in her motivations for leaving and that she's left him for another man. He decides to track her down and speak to her, in a bid to win her back. Things get bad for him. Indeed, the film was much rougher than I had expected, and gave me some sequences I had to work not to flinch from. And not for any gratuitousness.

For those unfamiliar with LARP (Live Action Role-Playing), it's basically Dungeons and Dragons ramped up to its logical conclusion - people in detailed costumes, pretending to be historical or fantastical characters of their own creation in an immersive role-play driven environment. Their conflicts and interactions are governed by Dungeons and Dragons-like game rules, and typically, these activities take the form of large camping events in specialised camp grounds lasting days at a time.

Oddly enough, I actually hadn't expected Wild Hunt to play up the nerdiness of the characters to the degree of comedic effect it went for, and whenever it did it felt pretty hokey and reminded me that I was watching a movie, likely in a theatre with a handful of actual LARPers. I wondered how they were reacting to their representations on the screen. At any rate, it was a bit of fan-service that could probably have been put aside for the much weightier and more interesting characters through which the film does its best work. There are tender and profound moments to be seen, and an ending I absolutely loved.

So: Check it out if you get another chance and support some Canadian filmmaking worthy of your loonies.

Ryan Watches A Motion Picture #36: The Room (2003)

This image, this face, was on a lone billboard for years with the tagline "Can you really trust anyone?" Audiences were not disappointed.

Here's how I heard about The Room:

A friend of mine says "Hey, I need you to track down a movie for me. Have you heard about this movie called The Room?"

I said no.

He says "It's supposed to be the worst movie ever made."

I was interested.

"Apparently Alec Baldwin was walking past a huge line-up filled with twenty-somethings and paused long to enough to ask what was going on. A guy told him 'It's The Room, it's the worst movie I've ever seen. I've seen it four times.' Then Alec Baldwin got in line."

I was very interested.

The greatest Baldwin had this to say: “It’s like ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ without the wit or charm.” I don't think that's terribly accurate, since I've always considered Rocky Horror clever, competent, and actually pretty artsy in an elemental and carnival way. The Room is more like a late night blue-movie without the wit or charm. Sorry, with less wit and charm. It is, however, wildly entertaining for it.

It's essentially one Tommy Wiseau's earnest attempt to make a film about human passion and foible utterly ruined by his passion and foible. Wiseau's not a good writer, he's not a good director, and he's an even worse actor. What he does have is the money to produce a motion picture, though, and The Room is a motion picture. I can't really praise it unironically beyond that. I can say that it's been awhile since I've seen a movie this hilariously terrible, Birdemic: Shock and Terror at the Bloor Cinema aside. This'll be a great party movie for sure, and for extra flavour, try downloading the Rifftrax for a couple bucks - Rifftrax being downloadable comedic commentaries produced by some of the old Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew.

So: Beautiful and terrible as the dawn. And Wiseau looks and sounds like he should be fronting a European power metal band. We'll say it's called Owl King.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

New to the Store: Week of 8 June, 2010

Capitaine Alatriste
Curb Your Enthusiasm: Season 7
Farscape: Peacekeeper Wars, The
From Paris with Love (also BluRay)
Monty Python: Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy)
Mystery Team
Nip/Tuck: Season 6
Oceans (BBC)
Room, The
Shinjuku Incident
Shutter Island (also BluRay)
Wolfman, The (2010) (also BluRay)

Maggie 2010: Maggie Likes Things, Too! Part 4 of 4

#76. Animal Love

When I discovered Werner Herzog had said of this film, "I have never looked so directly into hell in the cinema," I knew I was on the trail of something wonderful. Ulrich Siegl's 1995 documentary about Austrian pet owners who have, shall we say, precious little in their lives save their woe-begotten furry friends is a humanizing glimpse into loneliness, alienation, and the bizarre machinations of human bonding.

Siegl's documentary style should be old-hat to anyone familiar with Errol Morris' breakout documentary, Gates of Heaven; and indeed, I found myself thinking a lot about that piece, also about animal lovers, in relation to Siegl's particular scope of inquiry almost two decades later.

Siegl follows a wide range of people with very different back-stories of animal engagement, but does not once dwell on the nature of those back-stories: this is, indeed, the act of estrangement that allows us to look at what is happening in the present, right before the camera, from such a haunting, alien light.

We don't know, for instance, what has led two old bachelors to live together in an apartment, or even if they're in actuality celibate partners: all we see of them is how they handle the act of acquiring a dog from the pound, how they fight over him, and how they cope with the consequences of their poor training of the creature when he's out in the world. Likewise, we don't know what circumstances have caused one old, divorced couple to reach the stage they have with one another, but we do see the surfeit of desperate affection they each show the dog in their shared custody. We get a hint of the back-story for another couple falling apart in part because of the wife's fixation on taking in pets, particularly because the (ex?)husband goes into a long tirade on camera about the peculiar mythologies of their long-term relationship, but truly, their lives outside of the interactions we see on screen seem to belong to an entirely different plane of existence.

A similar question mark hangs over the two homeless persons who take in stray animals--is it just to improve their begging yields, as certain scenes suggest, or do they actually feel the need for companionship so desperately that they're willing to bind these animals to their own fluctuating lots in life? And then there are the lonely women, old and young alike, who read and are unsettlingly affectionate with their dogs. And the happily married couple that roughhouses just as intimately with their tremendous mutt. And the old, frail invalids at an Austrian hospice who take tremendous comfort in the proximity of little bunnies roving about their beds. And the happy couple who place their greyhounds on special treadmills to keep them in top competition form. And the couple who themselves seem so bizarrely animalistic that Siegl elects to show almost nothing of another animal presence in the house: from the way he shoots them it's clear the man almost sees his female partner as the pet, the hobby, the collection piece. Just, you know, with benefits.

Reviewers have pointed to the characters in this piece as "bizarre" specimens of the human race, but I find that to be a poor approximation of Siegl's object lesson--namely, that we are all very, very bizarre people when the lens of estrangement is put upon us. Of course, I can't help but feel exceptionally uncomfortable about the way so many of the creatures in this film are treated by their owners, but I do take small comfort in the fact that, dogs and dog owners being the focus of this calm and deliberative piece, cat owners like myself can momentarily excuse ourselves from the usual cultural stereotypes, and lay the crown elsewhere for a spell.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Maggie 2010: Maggie Likes Things, Too! Part 3 of 4

#75. Food, Inc

I know what you're thinking: Seen one food industry criticism piece, seen 'em all. But what perhaps makes Food, Inc stick out so notably is the way it takes a tremendous body of commonly understood (at least for any eco-conscious foodie) information about best-we-can-get-away-with big business practices, and constructs very clear, well-synthesized, and yet still nuanced arguments about how the food industry has changed over the last few generations.

Included in this piece are arguments about the shift towards monopolization of key food industries by corporate enterprise with the aim of maximizing profit through the delivery of cheap food en masse. This is handily followed by an explanation of key biochemical crises that necessarily emerge from the grouping together of meat production in staggeringly large factory environments, and exceptional deconstructions of how these processes harm the workers, introduce less than best practices for the animals, and compromise the consumer. There are times in this piece when anyone who grew up with basic rhetoric training will chafe, necessarily, at the high-handed commentary being introduced in the narrator's soothing, even-keeled voice, but the documentary has some checks and balances for this--one of the most notable being the priority it places on farmer testimony during one-on-one interviews.

Farmers, viewers will note, are startlingly affected by this corporate monopolization, being sold essentially into indentured servitude via company business practices that necessarily place them under debt not only to acquire start-up equipment but also to keep their company contracts by agreeing to go into further debt (and/or cut into whatever meagre profit margin they manage) to pay for ludicrous upgrades and maintenance tasks over the years. If the abuse of immigrant and minority labour doesn't get you; if the wholesale abuse of the animals doesn't get you; if the health scares caused by creating giant factory-line production houses for our food doesn't get you; maybe the fact that the front-line farmers, the icons of the food industry itself, are being wholly cheated out of a viable career will leave you changed after viewing this film.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps it won't be the scary negatives exposed by this film that affect you, but the fact that Food, Inc offers an alternative: throughout its deconstruction of mass market corporate food empires, the film also introduces you to a small, free-range farm solution that works. You see how animals are prepared by hand for delivery; you hear how the owner refuses to expand his business despite its booming success; you observe how well integrated the act of supporting animals in life is with his farming philosophy. Many such anti-big business films don't show viable alternatives, but Food, Inc has found a fine balance between pointing to overarching trends, identifying individual narratives of strife, and creating personable alternatives. If ever I needed to introduce a skeptic to a food industry piece that would help spark a conversation about current North American consumption practices, Food, Inc would most decidedly be it.