Archive for August, 2004

movie reviews strike again

More movie reviews. Many spoilers, especially for SPIDER-MAN 2.

TROY
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen

The first trailers for TROY came out last December. I remember rolling my eyes and then quipping, “The face that launched a thousand CGI ships.” I then spent the months leading up to the release of it expecting it to be sad and terrible, and intending to ignore it when it came out. Then when it finally did come out, I found myself in the mood to watch something silly (even if unintentionally silly), so I went to see it anyway, not expecting much. I was thoroughly surprised to find, twenty minutes into it, that I was enjoying it. I was even more surprised when I was still enjoying it two hours later when it finally ended. You have to understand that I am not a student of the classics, and I didn't care how much the movie deviated from the epic poem that was its inspiration (the credits do say “inspired by” rather than “based on” The Iliad). I just thought: Okay, filmmakers, show me a movie, tell me a story, and make it fun. It seemed to me that they succeeded.

Most reviews I read (after I saw it) were negative, and sort of confirmed my initial dread, and I guess they make valid points. However, they fail to explain why I liked it. I'm not sure myself, now that it's several months later, but I'm going to try to remember what I liked about it.

The first thing that comes to mind is Eric Bana's performance as Hector. Yet another Australian import, I never heard of him before he appeared as Bruce Banner in HULK last year, giving a pretty good performance. In TROY, he again gives a good performance, and I actually found the role to be well written. Hector had the unusual trait of always talking sense in every scene, in a movie full of characters acting on stupid impulse and superstitious faith. It's a sad story full of good guys getting killed, and if anyone had bothered to listen to Hector at any stage, things would probably have gone a bit better. They don't listen, and events pile up, and eventually Hector is forced into the position of dueling Achilles, the greatest warrior ever, in hand to hand combat, something nobody usually survives for more than five seconds. Even knowing that he tried to stop things from coming to this point, honorable Hector bravely girds himself and tromps out to face his doom eye to eye. The whole movie is simplistic in a comic book way, but I don't mind that. (It's a bit weird to say that TROY is a comic book version of The Iliad when there is now a graphic novel adaptation of The Iliad that is full of richness and depth, but maybe the point still makes sense.)

So then we have Brad Pitt, who buffed himself up to the right proportions to portray a demigod killing machine, and plays the part with an affected accent and a straight face. It's a performance that works, even though I giggled a bit when he would occasionally stare meaningfully at the horizon, contemplating Fate and Destiny. Achilles functions as a force of nature. Once he's set in motion, you've got to brace yourself for the consequences, because reasoning with him isn't going to make any difference. In the opening scenes of the movie, Achilles is trotted to show just what a badass he is, with his flying jump-and-skewer move, which looks a lot like the kind of super attack move you can get out of a Mortal Combat character by hitting the right buttons. When he eventually battles Hector, he refrains from using this move until he finally gets frustrated with Hector's ability to avoid dying. Then he uses his super flying skewer attack, and Hector blocks it. Hooray for Hector! There's some more tussling, and he tries it again, and Hector blocks it again. Achilles finally just has to wear him down the hard way before finishing him off. I guess I mention all this because it was fun to see that the choreography of this battle (which the movie builds up to for quite a long time) had been plotted out as a mini-story with intelligence and some amount of wit.

Two of the stars of Lord of the Rings are reunited here, Orlando Bloom and Sean Bean. Orlando Bloom plays Paris, who is not only a stupid kid who causes an entire war because he can't keep his sweaty little hands to himself, but who is later revealed to be a coward who crawls away from a fight on his hands and knees, clutching his brother Hector's legs and begging Hector to save him. Bloom is kind of a big matinee idol type star these days, and I admired him for playing a part that required him to be unheroic and snivelling. A lot of actors would have an ego problem about such a scene. Sean Bean plays Ulysses, another character in the movie who tends to talk a lot of common sense. Hector sees everything as too dire to have any sense of humor about it, whereas Ulysses offers his counsel with a bit of sparkle, a suggestion of seen-it-all sarcasm.

Most of the reviews I read, even if they didn't like the movie overall, seemed to like Peter O'Toole as Priam. I agree, his presence does add something. Old pro that he is, he can somehow invest his scenes with emotional straightforwardness and depth while still seeming to preserve the sense that this movie is all just in good fun, and not to be taken too seriously. I'm not quite sure how he does that.

One quibble I had that I couldn't quite erase from my mind was that the movie keeps mentioning explicitly that this war is going to be the greatest war ever fought, and that memories of it and the participants in it will last forever. Then we see it unfold, and somehow the entire Trojan War seems to take only about three and a half days. Well, they do elide over a 12 day truce for Priam to mourn Hector, but that still only makes it a little over two weeks. It doesn't quite feel like the most epic battle ever. On the other hand, I did like all of the battle scenes in the movie. CGI-enhanced though they may have been, they were presented with a clarity that I found helpful. Even with the screen full of crazy montages of noise and blood and sand and sword, I could always tell which army was which, which direction they were headed, who was making and who was losing ground, and so on. This is not an easy thing to do, which is why I admired the accomplishment.

The cinematography suits the movie quite well. The sun always looks baking hot on the beaches, and everything is given just a subtle glossy enhancement that makes it feel like you're watching mythic events rather than real ones. There is one very nice sequence two thirds of the way through the picture, where a battle erupts just before dawn, with the sky black. Then, as it continues to unfold, the sky begins to brighten; the sun is not yet up, and we see the armies in the grey predawn light. The light grows, shot by shot, a little brighter and more colorful each time, until eventually the sun rises and full sunlight spills over the beaches. My mind boggles at the ridiculous amount of planning that is required to achieve this effect, which the average audience member isn't even going to notice. It definitely caught my attention, and I thought it was fantastic.

Anyway, even though I had a good time watching this movie, I am loath to actually recommend it to anyone else. People who do actually remember and admire The Iliad should probably steer clear, because they're just going to hate every difference in story and character, and there are hundreds of differences. For me, though, I thought that the story they ended up using, about a love affair sparking war between a mighty army and a walled city, with heroes and warriors on both sides that you could root for, told with earnestness and good humor and a little bit of (PG-13 rated) nudity and sex, made for a pretty entertaining movie.

VIEWED ON: 05-16-04, 06-01-04


SPIDER-MAN 2
Directed by Sam Raimi

I have been reminded several times recently (by Adam Cadre) of what I said after viewing the first SPIDER-MAN movie two years ago: that I wasn't sure that it was a good movie, but that I thought it was good Spider-Man. I can say without hesitation that SPIDER-MAN 2 is a good movie among good movies, and also that it is good Spider-Man; however, I would like to talk a bit about what I mean when I say good Spider-Man — or, specifically, what I meant the first time.

Adam recently explained why he thought the first movie failed to be good Spider-Man. I noticed that his argument against it was based on the writing, and that my positive reactions were largely based on the visuals, a distinction that readers of ACX might find amusing. His primary argument was that it didn't feature Spider-Man making wisecracks as he fought bad guys. He's right, it is a distinguishing feature of Spidey that he throws as many jokes as punches. I have been trying to picture whether the fight scenes could have accomodated a lot of jokes. They'd have to be cut to a different rhythm. It seems to me that it would have been possible, but I'm not sure that it's a bad compromise to let them slide. I didn't even notice their absence until Adam pointed it out. I am led to wonder whether there was ever a version of the script where Spider-Man kept up an ongoing banter during a fight, or whether they made the decision early on to keep his witticisms to a minimum.

A lot of what I was keying on was that the comic book visuals were right: all of his leggy, acrobatic poses; compositions cribbed directly from Ditko and Romita, and so forth. However, I don't think Adam was ignoring the visuals; he, like other reviewers, probably didn't think very much of Spidey suddenly becoming fakey looking CGI whenever he sprang into action. This didn't bother me so much; I wasn't looking for perfection, just that they were doing they best they could with the technology while stretching him into authentic poses. I also wasn't completely ignoring the writing, either, although I was thinking more broadly: the origin story was intact instead of being rewritten (including the wrestling match, which I did not expect), and Spider-Man was placed into predicaments that could only have crappy outcomes no matter what he tried to do. I remember particularly liking the Green Goblin shouting, “CHOOSE!” and simultaneously dropping Mary Jane and a carload of innocent people. (I also remember particularly disliking the notion that the Green Goblin was capable of holding up the cable car with one hand, but oh well.)

On to the sequel. Large promotional posters for SPIDER-MAN 2 appeared a few weeks before its release, one of which was emblazoned with the tagline, “THE STORY CONTINUES.” That kind of promotion gives me a bad feeling, because it usually is hype leading to a big let-down. How gratifying, therefore, that in this case it wasn't a load of b.s. SPIDER-MAN 2 unfolds as the meaty second part of a larger story about the troubled life of a young man who had greatness thrust upon him.

Spider-Man may be a hero, but Peter Parker is unfortunately a bit of a loser, with a Charlie Brown-like ability to always come up short. When the movie starts, he's got a crappy pizza delivery job that even his ability to swing through the city unencumbered by traffic doesn't allow him to keep. He's behind on rent for his ratty apartment, he's already spent the advance on his Daily Bugle paycheck, he's falling behind in his college studies, and he can't manage to keep the simplest of promises to people. Being Spider-Man doesn't help any of this, and in most cases, makes them worse. His best friend has a vendetta against Spider-Man, and the woman he loves has given up on him because of his unexplained absences. That's basically the set-up. Then his life really gets bad.

The CGI is a little better this time, and I must admit I found it particularly thrilling to see Spidey fighting Doctor Octopus on the big screen, watching static images from my childhood suddenly alive and in motion. I did have a little problem with Doc Ock shrugging off punches to his face, given that Spidey can put his fists through bricks. I suppose you could argue that he was pulling his punches because he didn't want to kill the guy, but you'd think when his life and Aunt May's are both at stake, he'd kind of at least incapacitate the bad guy.

I was particularly pleased with the sequence where Octavius puts on the octopus arms and fires up his machine, only to have everything go blooey. It's an incredibly dense sequence, full of exciting visuals and some impressive sound work. (In a theater with a good set of subwoofers, the machine makes some tingle-your-spine rumbles of the kind that I have always wished I could get in my movie, THE KRONE EXPERIMENT — which, incidentally, also has to do with a mad scientist using a giant machine with superfocused lasers to stimulate the creation of a dangerously powerful source of energy. Go figure.) I really like the extreme close up shot of Octavius's goggled eyes, one dark and one flaring with reflected light, as we hear him say, “The power of the sun — in the palm of my hand!” We don't see his mouth, so it functions as interior monologue, something that's standard in comics but trickier to do in a movie. (The line itself is also classic Stan Lee-type writing.) Immediately following this is a scene in a hospital that's done in classic horror movie style, all shadows reflections and movement, quick clips of screams and violence happening more in your mind than onscreen, making it all somehow scarier.

This scene unfortunately culminates in something so cliched I want to tear my own head off in despair. I would appreciate it if, never again in any motion picture or television show, even done ironically or for parodic value, will a character throw his head back and shout “Nooooooooo!!!” This is partly redeemed a minute later when Octavius uses his arms to toss aside a taxicab that's barreling straight at him. Throughout the movie, I loved Alfred Molina's body language, which really sold the idea that these mechanical arms were part of him.

Other problems I had with the movie, before going back to things I liked: The ridiculously rough treatment Doc Ock gives Peter Parker, that he would never survive if he weren't Spider-Man. Doc Ock needs to find Spider-Man, something only Parker can help with, so what does he do? He throws a car at Peter Parker. Then, after telling Parker to find Spider-Man in a couple of hours or else, Doc Ock throws him so hard against a wall that it collapses, burying him in rubble. Not a very smart course of action. This bothered me more the second time than the first, but it's going to bother me on all future viewings.

Back to the good stuff. Shortly after this, there's another battle that culminates in a terrific setpiece in which Spider-Man has to stop a runaway elevated train. They contrive to have him remove his mask for this sequence, but I endorse the idea, because it's the agony on Tobey Maguire's face that makes the scene especially work for me. It actually reminds me of my all-time favorite piece of Spider-Man writing, not from a comic book but from a Spider-Man novel written by Marv Wolfman. I don't remember anything else from this book except this one scene, but it really etched itself into my memory. A bad guy (probably also Doctor Octopus) has collapsed a building onto him. Buried alive under a mountain of bricks, he nearly gives up. Then his will to survive sparks anew, and there is an incredible description of the sheer fight and strain he makes to push himself up out of those suffocating tons of rubble. It's the willpower more than the spider-power that frees him. This movie really reminded me of that. There's a scene before this train sequence where Aunt May (who, in a departure from the comics, is a tough, experienced and resourceful lady instead of a feeble, naive, and weak-hearted one) tells Peter that a hero is someone who just hangs on one second longer. In a lesser movie, you'd get a flashback to Aunt May saying this as he's trying to stop the train, but of course it isn't needed. We remember it, he remembers it; he holds on, he saves everybody on the train. I love this scene.

Then after that, the scene continues in a way that's wonderful and surprising and that almost makes me want to cry. Exhausted by the effort, he collapses, only to have the people on the train gently, gently catch him and bear him up, and lay his nearly broken body down, and gaze tenderly at him, silently appreciating what he has just done for them. He still doesn't have his mask on, but nobody cares, nobody's going to call the Daily Bugle to get a reward; they just want to know that he's okay. Gosh, what a scene.

I feel like I've only described half the things that I found stimulating about this movie, but I guess I'll probably leave it at that. I caught one of these dodgy new VH-1 shows recently, the one where people pretend to be nostalgic about things that happened a month ago, and there was a segment exploring the inexplicable Summer 2004 phenomenon of “Sequels that don't suck.” One guy put it like this: “Shrek 2? Didn't suck. The Bourne Identity didn't suck. Spider-Man 2 *totally* didn't suck.”

I'd agree with that. This movie totally did not suck. Amazing.

VIEWED ON: 07-02-04, 07-05-04, 08-08-04


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movie review – Anchorman

I’m working in reverse chronological order through a huge backlog of reviews I’ve meant to write but never got around to, for basically all the movies I’ve seen since this spring.

In today’s installment, I analyze a comedy to such a degree that it can’t possibly be funny any more, if it ever was. Numerous jokes are spoiled in the process.

ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY (2004)

Directed by: Adam McKay

I came across an anecdote about Will Farrell recently. Farrell, a member of the Los Angeles based comedy group The Groundlings (a west coast answer to Second City, one might say) before he became pretty much the star castmember of Saturday Night Live for the last three years of his run, apparently had a very normal and happy childhood. This goes against the grain of most people who end up as professional comics, who often have rotten upbringings, and learn to use comedy as a shield as well as an offensive weapon. Addressing this, his fellow castmember Chris Kattan gawped at him one day, and said, “I don’t get it. How are you funny?”

That’s a good question: How is Will Farrell funny? One trait he has that I’ve long recognized as crucial for comedians is that he is absolutely fearless. He’ll go as far as he needs to to get the laugh. At some point, he recognized that his slightly squishy, un-buff, hairy white guy body was a funny thing to show too much of. In dozens of SNL skits, he struts out nearly naked, getting squeals of displeasure from the audience that ripple into laughs. A gag in all of the trailers for the lame SNL-based comedy, A NIGHT AT THE ROXBURY, features him making catcalls at women on a beach while clad only in a tiny speedo. I don’t really find this that funny, but I recognize that it works for a lot of people. It works on me sometimes.

One thing Farrell has that I like is a talent for bombastic exclamations, which I believe he can generate on the fly in endless variations. (Getting ahead of myself, the closing credits of ANCHORMAN show serial outtakes where Farrell makes a different exclamation “By the beard of Odin! That smarts!” “Great Knights of Columbus! That really stings!”, and so on.) His famous line from his last movie, the surprise hit ELF, has him screeching at a department store Santa Claus, “YOU SIT ON A THRONE OF *LIES*!”, a line not in the script. As I just noted, ANCHORMAN features a lot of this, maybe a little too much; perhaps, unfortunately, someone brought it to Farrell’s attention that he was good at this kind of thing, so he wrote himself too many opportunities to go for it.

Anyway, I find Farrell sometimes funny, sometimes not. He has a schtick, and there are times when I can get myself in the right mindset to appreciate it, and have a few laughs. I went into ANCHORMAN in a positive spirit, wanting to be entertained, rather than fighting the groove. Alas, I did not get as many laughs as I was hoping for. I’ve heard from at least one other person that they found this movie to be a laugh riot, so maybe I failed to get into the mindset after all.

Mainly, what threw me was the inconsistency of it. In retrospect, this seems like a strange charge to lob at a movie like this. It is basically a sketch movie with one main character in all of the sketches, written by two sketch comedy writers (Farrell and Adam McKay, the director, who also used to be on the writing staff at SNL) and starring various sketch comedy actors. This means, I think, that they sat around and generated about four hours of material (I know there was a lot of extra material, because quite a lot of the jokes they show in the trailers and ads aren’t even in the movie), then whittled it down to what they thought was the best set, along with some scenes that kept a semblance of plot running through the movie. Oh, and a big climax scene where everything gets wrapped up; this climax showed to me how truly weak the writing was when compared to people who genuinely are good at the craft and art of screenwriting. Maybe Farrell and McKay can write good sketches, but they still haven’t learned how to write a proper movie.

I mentioned inconsistency. At some point in film school, I took a class called Film Aesthetics, in which the professor made the point that you can do whatever you want within the world of a movie you’re making, but once you set up the rules of that world, you have to stick to them. There is another sketch comedy movie that comes to mind that, to me, really holds up as a movie as well, and that is AIRPLANE! (1979). AIRPLANE has a range of different kinds of gags, but once it sets up the basic logic behind most of the gags, it stays within those crazy bounds for the entire movie. And although the comedy is absurd, the gags are logical: one type of gag is the metaphor-taken-too-literally, if you know what I mean. “The shit’s gonna hit the fan!” Another involves setting up a pattern, and then expanding it to the Nth version of the series, until it reaches an outrageous extreme, but it stays consistent. E.g., the sequence where they start slapping a woman who’s becoming hysterical, and the camera pans past a line that has formed for people to continue to whale on her. By the end of the line, we see people armed with bats and morningstars and pistols. That kind of thing.

ANCHORMAN, though, didn’t keep consistent with itself, in my opinion. (Others may disagree, or just not be bothered by the inconsistency.) At one level, it’s supposed to be a satire of 1970s mores; however, it never quite settles on which year of the 1970s it’s satirizing. It seemed to me like a story set in the 1970s by people who were too young to remember what the 70s were actually like, so it’s a mix of half-remembered childhood stuff and things learned later on, with a few of the caricatured-70s pop nostalgia bits thrown in. Farrell’s character, Ron Burgundy, is in some ways supposed to be a laughable relic of the time, with his odd clothes, big hair and mustache, his habit of smoking and drinking liquor just off camera, and so forth. But sometimes the people within the movie react to him like he’s really absurd and alien, and sometimes they react to him like he’s as normal as the next guy, since they’re all living in the 70s. Do you see what I mean?

There’s a running gag that’s set up where Burgundy comes home to his empty bachelor pad and talks to his pet dog. The usual talking-to-your-pet kind of talk becomes an involved conversation, with Burgundy responding to “woof!” with “You know I don’t speak Spanish!” So, is he very imaginative or just insane? It’s hard to tell what they’re going for (besides, I guess, the audience going “ha ha ha”), especially when, by the end of the movie, the dog reveals himself to actually be a talking dog, given subtitles so that we in the audience can understand him. So if we’re in a world where animals are intelligent enough to talk, and people can understand the language of dogs, then this is kind of fantasy world, and not just a satire about a bygone era when anchormen smoked on camera and wore polyester suits. Or are we?

The movie got weirder for me when it introduced the subplot of rival gangs from other local news stations. The main one is led by Vince Vaughn. This other news team kind of hangs out waiting to bully Burgundy and his compatriots as they walk home from school — er, I mean, work. Or I’m not sure where they’re walking, but all of these scenes are handled like they’re all elementary school kids who have settled into elementary school gang cliques. One time, Vaughn and company come riding up on bicycles to menace Burgundy and his friends. It seemed deliberately trying to call to mind elementary school bullying. I wondered what the deal was with that. Sometimes I see comedies that are sophomoric or adolescent or juvenile, but this was in betwen juvenile and infantile. However, it seemed to me like Farrell is about the right age to have been in elementary school around the year the movie is supposed to be set, and maybe that has something to do with it. It’s really a mixed bag. In some ways, it was fascinating to try to suss out how the writers had come up with the material. Did they try to remember the year 1971, and it reminded them of being bullied on the way home from school, so that went into the script? Hmmm.

ANCHORMAN features a guy I find very funny, Steve Carell, formerly of The Daily Show, who managed to steal the show from Jim Carrey in BRUCE ALMIGHTY. In this movie, he plays a guy named Brick. His first line in the movie shows him putting mayonnaise into a toaster and telling the camera that he has an IQ of 40, or something like that. Basically mentally retarded, I guess, or a moron in the classical sense, Brick is the weatherman for the station, a job that he has just enough intelligence to handle. In all of his scenes, I winced more than laughed at Carell’s performance. It’s almost like, out of context, everything he did was potentially really funny, but in the context of each scene, it all kind of fell flat. What it looked like to me was that he was making everyone on the set nearly die laughing every time he did a take, but out here in the audience, trying to watch what I thought was supposed to be a movie, I wasn’t laughing like I should have been. This is hard to describe. I was sitting there watching him thinking, “I can see that he’s being very funny, but I’m not laughing.”

All of these things I’ve just been mentioning — Carell’s performance, the stuff with the rival news gangs, and the inconsistency of the movie’s world — come together in one joke and its after-joke. There is a big, hm, I guess Fonzie would call it a “rumble”, where not just Vaughn’s gang, but four others (from the other local affiliates, the PBS station, and the Hispanic station) also show up, armed with gang warfare weapons. Then there’s a crazy battle scene, which, AIRPLANE-like, suddenly has absurd things thrown into the montage: Brick is shown to be brandishing a trident, which he hurls at another guy. Okay, trident from nowhere, that’s kind of funny just because it’s random and absurd.

After the fight, we cut to a scene back in Burgundy’s office where the guys are saying, “Wow, that was some fight.” Then someone actually mentions that Brick was somehow wielding a trident at one point. So now it’s not just an absurdity for the audience to deal with, it is apparently a real thing within the world of the movie — and it’s weird to the other characters there, too. Now it’s not just a trident from nowhere as a throwaway gag, it’s a trident whose appearance kind of needs to be explained, where it didn’t before. The scene continues: Brick talks about the guy he threw the trident at, and says he thinks he killed that guy. Burgundy says yeah, he thinks Brick might have to lay low for a while, or go across the border to Mexico, or something. Wait, so now it’s not just a slapstick moment of a guy being hit by a trident, it’s an actual murder with consequences that are talked about (albeit comically)? But then, after this, Brick’s status as a trident-hurling murderer is never mentioned again.

I can see why this is supposed to be funny (it’s funny that we’re exploring the consequences of a throwaway gag, inverting your expectations! ha ha!), and I need to explain that it’s the inconsistency of the movie world that I have a problem with, not the humor of the joke itself per se. Going back to the slapping-the-woman scene of AIRPLANE that I mentioned earlier, if it had been like ANCHORMAN, there would have been a shot following that of someone saying, “Hey, how did you manage to get those weapons past security onto the plane?” Is that really going to make the joke funnier?

I’m totally ignoring the main “plot” of the movie, which is about how a woman (Christina Applegate) is hired as a co-anchor, sort of starts a romance with Burgundy, then despises him as he reveals himself to be thoroughly sexist and jealous. It’s beyond these writers to make this kind of thing actually interesting and funny on its own, and instead it’s just highly cliched and contrived, as they force these two characters to get along, then not get along, then get along again, because that’s the plot formula they’re following. Decades ago, this was a high art form in movies. Not that it was ever easy to achieve, but my gosh, do you have to miss by that gigantic a margin? Let’s raise our standards a little higher, please.

One thing I will give it credit for, and I think this comes from Farrell himself: the movie is not the least bit mean-spirited. It is good-spirited, and I vastly prefer that to mean-spirited, negative comedy, which dominated for a while there in the 1990s. However, I think that with better writing, ANCHORMAN could potentially have been three or four times as funny, along with being smart (smart-at-being-dumb, even, if you want that), truthful, acid, and arch. Instead, it’s just kind of funny and mostly kind of dumb; an okay bunch of sketches, it frankly stinks as a movie.

VIEWED ON: 9 July 2004

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more movies

Two more movie reviews. The second contains a number of spoilers, because I propose a theory about the movie and cite evidence in support of it.

LOCAL HERO (1983)
Written and Directed by Bill Forsyth

During a conversation about movies the other day, mentioned that his favorite is LOCAL HERO. It prompted me to think hard about why I had always given it a miss. I had many chances to see it on cable during the 1980s — I think it must have been a favorite of someone who worked at Cinemax, because I seem to recall them giving it lots of promotion as a special pick, or as part of their sleeper series, or something like that. It was also on in fairly heavy rotation for a while there, and I would catch bits of it here and there, but the pace of it seemed too slow, and I never managed to get into it. It was like having a book recommended to you, but every time you pick it up you read the same few pages over again and find yourself putting it down.

However, it occurred to me that I would probably enjoy it if I watched it now, with some more years in me and a broader appreciation of slower paced movies and quirky comedies. So, I rented it, and sure enough, I found it to be charming and funny.

The story is about a guy (Peter Riegert) who works at a Houston oil company that wants to turn a few miles of land on the coast of Scotland into the site of a refinery. Riegert is dispatched to the small village to work out a deal to buy the land from the locals for a handsome sum. The locals play it sly and cool, but secretly they're all ecstatic that they're going to become millionaires overnight.

Overall, LOCAL HERO reminds me a lot of other tiny-UK-village-with-eccentric- locals comedies I've seen (and enjoyed) through the years, like WAKING NED DIVINE and THE ENGLISHMAN WHO WENT UP A HILL AND CAME DOWN A MOUNTAIN, and so forth. This movie has the added mix of eccentric Americans (both Riegert and his astronomy-obsessed boss, played by Burt Lancaster), and strange bits of magical realism (hm, that's probably not the right term): sights in the skies at night, and a truly beautiful young woman who may or may not be a mermaid.

It's a small town, so everyone works various different jobs. The proprietor of the hotel and the owner of the bar is also the accountant who is the spokesman for the town in the negotiations with the oil company. I kept thinking the actor playing this guy looked familiar, and I had to slap myself in the forehead when I saw in the credits that he was good old Dennis Lawson, "Wedge" from the Star Wars movies (and Ewan MacGregor's uncle, incidentally).

The movie has a sweet, light tone, and is full of funny bits that build up over time, and some that become more apparent on repeat viewings. There is a bittersweet coda, but I thought it was a really terrific way to end the movie. We follow Riegert all the way home to his apartment in muggy old Houston. By now he's been thoroughly enchanted by his short stay in Scotland, has unrequitedly fallen in love with the hostess at the hotel, and has filled his pockets with shells lovingly collected from tidepools. Having now been on a few trips to wonderful places in the world and returned to a home I wasn't sure I liked as much any more, I thought this quiet ending was very effective. There's one more thing after this that caps it all off with a wink, but if you haven't seen it, I'll let you watch it for yourself.

LOCAL HERO is a movie where you can feel affection for every single character in it, and there are really no bad guys, and there's a happy ending but not for everybody, because life is a little more complicated than that. It's a bad place to be a rabbit with ambitions, anyway.

My only quibble: the unconvincing Texas accent by a disk jockey during the opening credits, which is more of a Southern twang than a Texas drawl. Nobody else would notice this or care.

Anybody who says that this is their favorite movie has very good taste. Recommended for everybody.

Viewed on: 08-02-04


THE TERMINAL (2004)
Directed by Steven Spielberg

The scenario: a man (Tom Hanks) arrives at JFK airport and is unable to leave, either by stepping foot onto U.S. soil or by boarding a plane back to the Eastern European country where he came from, for a year or so. This is vaguely based on a real-life incident, but mostly the facts are jettisoned in favor of inventive set-pieces that mine the premise for comedy (and a little pathos).

The first time I saw this sweet movie confection, I mainly just let it carry me along without stopping to analyze it too much. As I often am these days, I was delighted just to witness Spielberg's total fluency as a filmmaker, someone who knows cinema backwards and forwards, and can pull off ridiculously complicated things that general audiences wouldn't stop to find remarkable. He's my favorite director, and I always tended to regard him as having an innate talent and voice for filmmaking the way Mozart had with music. He was a young prodigy, but now he's well into middle age, still developing and going through changes. The strong stylistic tendencies of his early work have softened, and in this movie, like his last (CATCH ME IF YOU CAN), we can watch him having fun with lighthearted material.

Anyway, that was my general reaction the first time I watched it. I had a few problems with the way the movie ended; after a lot of build up, a lot of things happened a little too fast, and a main subplot seemed to kind of pizzle away. I wasn't sure what to make of that.

I waited several weeks and then went to see it again. This time, it was enormously more entertaining than it was the first time, because a few minutes into the movie I had a sudden and dramatic idea about what Spielberg and Hanks were up to. It was subtle enough that I missed it the first time, but once I started watching with this in mind, winking evidence to back it up piled so high that I was rather beside myself at having figured it out, because it made every scene more fun.

The idea came to me while I was watching the scene where Hanks is exploring the airport terminal for the first time, and catches a news broadcast about the upheaval in his home country — the source of his being stuck, since it invalidates his passport. For a moment I wondered why Hanks seemed to be almost overplaying the emotion of it. He races from television to television, unable to understand English well enough to make out what is going on, unable to speak English well enough to get anyone to help him. He looks stricken, nearly in tears, just so absolutely fraught that I wondered about the acting choice to play it up so melodramatically. There was a moment when it reminded me of silent film acting — which, owing to the language barrier, it basically was.

Then for fun, I pictured Hanks as having a little mustache and a derby, and it was like all of the tumblers clicked into place and the vault door sprang open. The movie was a Charlie Chaplin homage. Not, like I said, an overt one. If they'd put a mustache on him, it would have been obvious (or more obvious). And it doesn't cover the whole movie — the last 45 minutes or so don't really fit this theory so much. However, the first hour of the movie seemed rife with evidence that Spielberg and Hanks had decided together to make a Chaplin homage, Hanks with his acting, and Spielberg with his directing, and that they would do this very quietly, for their own amusement.

Once upon a time, Charlie Chaplin made a movie called THE IMMIGRANT, which was about immigrants coming to the U.S. and having run-ins with the immigration authority. And now we have THE TERMINAL (the title of the movie now seemed more appropriate, too, what with Chaplin having made dozens of movies titled “The [something]”), which has a different plot but a similar-enough premise.

So here's Hanks in his little brown suit, with his rather funny waddling walk. I didn't even notice how odd his gait was the first time, but now I was seeing that it was definitely not a normal looking walk. It's not the Tramp's walk, but it suggests it. There are shots in the movie of Hanks's feet, showing him standing with his feet splayed sideways — but I suspect I might be reading too much into that. However, there is the outright slapstick of full-bodied pratfalls, the kind you don't see anymore. where both feet fly out from under you and you land on your back. (Both Hanks's and Catherine Zeta-Jones's characters make these pratfalls.)

Significantly, Hanks shows himself adapting to circumstance by being enormously resourceful, a definite Little Tramp trait. In fact, speaking of that, what really had me believing that I was reading this movie correctly was that the first big challenge that Hanks's character overcomes is that he's hungry but has no money. Hunger is pretty much an archetypal Chaplin problem. Hanks doesn't eat his shoes, but he does show some ingenuity in fashioning sandwiches from free condiments. Then he hits on a means of earning money, a quarter at a time, by returning luggage trolleys to their holding rack, and soon he's feasting to his heart's content.

This trait of adaptability plays out in other ways. For Hanks, like Chaplin's Tramp, home is wherever you are, as long as you pretend it is. He begins to change an under-construction wing of the terminal into living quarters, fashioning a bed from terminal seating, a refrigerator from a vending machine, and so on.

More gags that reminded me of Chaplin: on his first night in his makeshift bed, Hanks is startled awake by a furious noise and the hot blare of spotlights behind him. His arms shoot into the air in a gesture of surrender. It turns out to be just an airplane taxiing away from the gate outside, a classic silent comedy visual gag. While collecting racks to earn change, he unceremoniously dumps onto the floor a couple of kids who are riding around in a cart. I laughed at that the first time, but the second time it reminded me of how children were not delicate creatures in slapstick comedies. They were tough little things to be thrown around, getting laughs just because of our inverted expectations about manhandling them. (When I mentioned this theory to a friend of mine, he pointed out that it was surprising to him to see children being treated so roughly in a Spielberg movie, so he was amused that I had a theory to explain the discrepancy.)

After a while, I started even hearing John Williams's tumpty-tumpty musical score as being reminiscent of the music Chaplin composed for his own films. At the very least, the score is not an argument against this theory. I am also reminded that the movie was shot, not in a real airport, but in an enormous set built specifically for the movie, with several stories connected by working escalators. There's a wonderful documentary about Chaplin (THE UNKNOWN CHAPLIN, narrated by James Mason) that delves into Chaplin's methods of working. At a certain point in his career, he wielded so much power and had access to so much money and resources, that he could make up his movies from scratch, trying things, throwing them away, trying other variations, going back to earlier ideas but in a refined way. At each of these stages, a construction crew would build full sets (including working escalators, if Chaplin wanted to play around with one), only to tear them down and build something else, only to rebuild what they had before when he changed his mind again. I don't think anyone since has had this kind of ability to order things to be built just to play around with, but the construction of this vast airport set just because Spielberg wanted to make this movie reminded me of that.

There is one joke near the end of the movie that is more of a Buster Keaton gag. A guy brandishing a mop runs out onto the tarmac, and appears to stop a jumbo jet in its tracks by swatting at its front wheel. Keaton had a gag he liked to pull (I don't think it's in any of his movies, I saw it in a documentary about him) where he appeared to stop a freight train by yanking gently on the end of the caboose, then set it in motion again, backwards, with a second tug. He did this by having experience with the timing of trains coming to a stop and backing up, and it was just in the timing. Even though this joke with the jet plane seems like the kind of thing they'd do with computer graphics, I can bet you that, in fact, we are watching an undoctored take of an actor with a mop and a real plane, and just the perfect timing of a swat at the wheel with the plane coming to rest. There's really no reason for this action to be in the movie except that Spielberg wanted to do it for fun. However, it's the kind of movie that allows for little bits of random fun.

When I got home from the movie this second time, I immediately did a Google search on “Spielberg The Terminal Chaplin,” and found a quote from Spielberg where he said that this movie was fun because it gave Tom Hanks an opportunity to do Charlie Chaplin stuff. I win!

If you go see THE TERMINAL, you might keep this in mind, but remember what I said about how it doesn't really hold up for the entire movie. I do think I'm right that it works as a quiet homage.

Viewed on: 06-18-04, 07-12-04

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Every time I see a movie, I come out of the theater thinking I should write up my reactions and post them to lj. Then I never get around to it. But I saw two movies this past weekend, and thought I would try to make the effort.

Both are recommended. (Except for . and mrs. ctate shouldn't see The Manchurian Candidate.)

THE BOURNE SUPREMACY (2004)
Directed by: Paul Greengrass

The reviews said that this was a brisk, lucid, and highly engaging thriller, and they weren't wrong. Matt Damon returns as Robert Ludlum's amnesiac super-assassin, Jason Bourne. While Bourne is minding his own business in a coastal village in India, events in Berlin are about to disrupt his life: a fairly routine CIA cash drop is intercepted, and both agent and the seller are murdered. The Russian assassin who does the job leaves a fake fingerprint at the scene, incriminating Jason Bourne. After that, the same assassin arrives in India to kill Bourne, but no one can kill Jason Bourne.

From there, the movie whisks Bourne to Naples, to Berlin, and to Moscow, ending in the brawniest car chase I've seen since John Frankenheimer's RONIN. In between, there's a lot of cat and mouse action, with Joan Allen as a CIA officer who mistakenly thinks she's the cat and Bourne the mouse. Bourne is mainly on a mission to figure out what the hell is going on: why he was nearly killed in India, why the CIA thinks he was in Berlin. Along the way, he manages to pick up a few more pieces of his missing memory and atone for past sins.

Matt Damon does some nice work, portraying a man whose thoughts are in a constant scramble; whose senses are always acutely attuned to nuances in the environment; and whose face, apart from the occasional grimace of pain, is largely a blank mask hiding the above. Jason Bourne is a man in search of peace of mind, but he'll never quite attain it.

The production design gives us the usual high tech CIA, with cool colors bright overhead highlights, and dozens of computer monitors. The photography features a lot of big fat close-ups and a lot of long lens work, much of it handheld. The editing gives the movie its rhythms and momentum; the bulk of it is well done without calling attention to itself. The cutting in the car chase is almost abstract, approaching a sort of Eisensteinian montage of car-chase-ness: Pedals! Gear Shift! Splintering glass! Squealing tires! Police lights! Grimace! Pedals! Glass! Lights! Squeal! Shift! Smash! Pedals! Shift! Vroom! Gritting teeth! Gun! Bang! Glass shatter! Argh! Big truck! Pedals! Rrrrrrt! Car spinning! Shift! Vroom! Ughh!

The ending credits (which contain no bonuses or surprises) revealed two things to me. The first is that ILM provided special visual effects for the film, and I didn't even notice that the film had any special visual effects (VFX I don't notice are more interesting to me than VFX I can't help but notice). The second is that there are people in the world who are going through life stuck with the unfortunate last name of Assmann.

Viewed on: 08-01-04


THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (2004)
Directed by Jonathan Demme

This is a surprisingly good and worthy remake of a film that is famous for being intelligent, daring, canny, satirical, and slightly ahead of its time. I found Jonathan Demme's update to be, in its own way, also quite smart, more than a little bold, and crackling with the kind of dark energy I haven't seen since the heyday of the 1970s. I've seen other reviews that compared this movie to 70s thrillers like THE PARALLAX VIEW and THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, but what instantly came to my mind, as soon as Meryl Streep made her first big entrance, was NETWORK (1976), Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky's unparalleled, prophetic satire. (I had the good fortune of catching NETWORK on TMC this morning, just when I was thinking about it again. Real life seems to be finally catching up to this movie, with the plot pivoting on a crucial business deal by Saudi Arabians; some of that material, played in the background, is about how critical the flow of Saudi Arabian cash is to the United States economy, since they own such a huge chunk of the country in terms of corporate holdings and real estate; this sounds eerily familiar after having just seen FAHRENHEIT 9/11. Also, pay attention to Ned Beatty's thundering monologue about the Natural Forces of Business that drive and shape the nationless world.)

I started to get a good feeling about this movie as soon as I learned about the casting. Denzel Washington is pretty much always good news, and it's hard to go wrong with Meryl Streep; Streep seemed even more like the best possible choice when I thought back to Angela Lansbury's really rather hard-to-beat performance in the original MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. I keep reading in the reviews how people are trying to figure out whether Streep reminds them of Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Dole or Madeleine Albright or whoever, but to me, her performance brought two things starkly to mind: Faye Dunaway in NETWORK, and Lady MacBeth. (I also note, in passing, that Sidney Lumet has a cameo appearance as a reporter. Two other cameos: Roger Corman, who gave Demme his first directing job; and musician Robyn Hitchcock, who was the star of a Demme-directed concert film, STOREFRONT HITCHCOCK.)

What really sold me was learning that Liev Schreiber was going to play Raymond Shaw, the role first inhabited by Laurence Harvey. That casting really sounded smack on the money to me. For a long time, I went around thinking I didn't like Schreiber. I finally realized that this was because he played a creep in the first role I saw him in, and he was so convincing at it that I got the idea that Schreiber himself was a creep. In time, though, I've seen him in enough different roles to realize and to respect what a good actor he is. The part of Raymond Shaw is a really treacherous one. I can't remember which review it was that I read, but the critic really nailed it when he pointed out that Schreiber somehow manages to make us sympathize with Shaw, to feel something for him, even though the character is thoroughly unlikeable. I like how this Shaw, unlike the thoroughly uncharismatic Shaw in the original, is able to turn on a tv-friendly charm in public — he's running for office, or rather, his mother (Streep) is running him for office. Behind closed doors, though, we see that his natural state is to be introverted, tense, and cold.

In both movies, Shaw is a war hero, and yet not. Everyone in his unit remembers that he acted with valor and saved everybody (except for the two men who were killed in action), and yet, the memories feel wrong. Denzel Washington, in the part played by Frank Sinatra in the original, plays a soldier from Shaw's unit, whose dreams become haunted by false memories, by cracks in the facade. As he starts to dig for the truth, and to make contact with others in his old unit (including Shaw), the closer he gets to the truth, the more he sounds like a delusional paranoid, raving about chips planted under his skin and in his brain, things he needs to dig out because they can control his mind.

Meanwhile, Shaw is in the news; he's been picked as the vice presidential candidate in the 2008 election (the movie says that the events happen “today” in a subtitle, but a close-up of a newspaper at some point shows the date). For all of the (real-life) election-season buzz about the movie, it doesn't pick sides; it never mentions Democrats or Republicans, just politicians in general. However, seeing this movie at the tail end of a week I spent watching what felt like eighty hours of Democratic convention converage on C-SPAN and CNN, and reading about it in the paper, and talking about it, I stumbled blinking out of the theater with really paranoid thoughts about John Edwards running through my head.

If I watched this movie any other time, I don't know that I would have found it as effective as I did, but I really went along for the ride. Demme seems to be in top form again. There are some touches that remind me of Lumet, and there's a certain point in the movie where it suddenly goes totally Kubrick. This is smart, though; Kubrick invented (or expanded) the cinematic vocabulary for getting across certain states of mind. It works particularly well where it's used here, so why not use it?

There's also quite a lot of Demme being Demme. Quite early he gets back into the thing he did in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991), of big close-ups of characters talking to each other but staring very nearly straight ahead, directly into the camera. Once he establishes this, you get kind of used to it, and then you find out that he's doing it to set up some effects later in the picture that wouldn't be nearly as effective without the characters looking right at you.

I am also ashamed to admit I fell for one of the oldest scare gags in cinema, and got spooked by it. I can't figure out how they managed to fake me out like that. I guess I wasn't paying attention, or I was really wrapped up in the character's point of view instead of sitting back in my chair being detached about what I was watching; that alone says something.

The original MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE had more humor, but there are moments and touches and details here and there (sometimes you have to kind of look for them) that are delivered with a wink, letting you know it's not all as deadly serious as they're pretending it is. It's just a movie, after all.

The use of music in the movie is extremely good. Actually, everything is good in this movie, across the board: acting, directing, photography, editing, effects, music. This movie will come up during Oscar season next year, and deservedly so. I don't think it's ahead of its time like the original was, but it's impressive to see a movie this gutsy, daring, paranoid, and creepy come out of Hollywood in this day and age. In fact, I'm finding this to be quite a remarkable year for Hollywood movies. The good movies I'm seeing are genuinely very good, one after the other. I wonder what's going on? Is it still a conspiracy theory if the conspiracy is to make better products instead of the same old mediocre crap?

So this movie had the effect of making me both disturbed and optimistic at the same time. Well done.

Viewed on: 07-31-04

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