Monday, December 31, 2007

Sweeney Todd

Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) has a way of saving a movie. I would’ve found Talladega Nights insufferable without his presence. He didn’t really belong in that film, but he was so crazily out of place that he ended up crazily part of the NASCAR world. In Sweeney Todd, he similarly sticks out like a very tall and slender sore thumb, and he uses his eye-grabbing physicality and bottomless energy to elevate what was for the first half hour a lifelessly dreary flat tire.

It is telling though – both of the movie and of its director Tim Burton – that Cohen makes his biggest impact not by his entrance, not by his scene munching bravado, but by his exit – grisly as it is. Right from the get-go during the opening titles, Burton makes clear what he considers the most interesting element of Sweeney Todd by showing us a vivid red trail of spilled animated blood dripping and running its way through the machinery of Victorian England. It is Burton in vintage form. It connects to his roots as a Disney animator too dark and twisted to remain a Disney animator for long. Unfortunately, as soon as the titles end, so does Burton’s passion, his very interest in the story he is telling.

As we are shown a barber (Johnny Depp) reduced to an empty shell by having his wife and daughter ripped away by the lust of another man, I had that going through the motions feeling. As the barber sets up shop above the establishment of the worst baker to ever to slap together a pie on a filthy kitchen table (Helena Bonham-Carter), I had that zombie feeling of everyone including Burton walking about in a trance. (The characters I’ll allow – it’s actually kind of the point – but not the movie’s director.) I was ready to write Sweeney Todd off as one of Burton’s worst films and add it to my mound of evidence proving his weaknesses after the over-bloated catastrophes that were Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Then it happened. With the whip of a straight razor and the spurt of blood, Cohen’s character is dispatched from the story and everyone involved, especially Burton, is awakened like a school of sharks getting a sudden whiff of nearby lunch. Suddenly, my yawns turned to wicked laughs as the demon barber began dispatching victims and sending them tumbling through a trap door to the basement below, sometimes landing head-first with a bounce, a delightful bit of gruesome slapstick. Now, audience and director alike are having fun and everything about the movie turns from sleepy to giddy. Burton even pulls rabbits from his hat with a fantasy sequence reminiscent of his best work.

Somehow, all it took was a splash of red and the fun of the opening credits was back. This was the most I’ve enjoyed a Burton film since the good old days of Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands (another barber movie). Clearly, Burton was having a great time as well, something always infectious.

A quick comment or two about the music: I saw the movie with my sister-in-law, a classically trained operatic singer, and I commented that I didn’t like the music because I couldn’t recall a single tune. Her comeback was that Sondheim wasn’t going for a hit parade. He was going for an overall piece. And I can appreciate that. It is like my constant lament over the death of music albums in this age of iPods and mp3s. She them offered a comment more damning than mine. “Sweeney Todd is usually performed by classically trained singers who have the skill to bring the lyrics to vivid life. Here, giving the vocals to actors – Depp, Bonham-Carter, etc. – fails completely. Their singing was flat and lifeless.”

There they are again: “flat” and “lifeless.” It’s a good thing for the blood.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

But the Book Was Better ... A Simple Plan

Hello Readers and Film Buffs,

Mark your calendars! The Friends of the Morton Mandan Public Library, in conjunction with the Cinema 100 Film Society, will host its third annual “But the Book Was Better …” book/film discussion series in January 2008.

This year we are discussing A Simple Plan by Scott Smith. The film version has the same title and stars Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, and Bridget Fonda. Erin Goodale, who is an Assistant Professor of English at Bismarck State College, will lead the discussions.

WHO: You! Discussions are free and open to all.
WHAT: A Simple Plan by Scott Smith

“Two brothers and a friend find $4 million in the cockpit of a downed plane. The pilot is dead. No one is looking for the money. To keep it, all they have to do is wait. It all sounded so simple …”

Stephen King called this book, “Simply the best suspense novel of the year!”

Sunday, January 6, 2008, 1:30 – 3:30 p.m. - Book discussion
Sunday, January 27, 2008, 1:30 – 3:30 p.m. - Film discussion

WHERE: Morton Mandan Public Library (609 West Main, Mandan), Starion Financial Community Room

WHY: It’s fun to talk about books and movies with others who also enjoy reading and watching films.

HOW: The book and the DVD (or video) may be borrowed from local libraries or rented/purchased from local merchants. Read the book, watch the movie, and join us for lively discussions!

NEED MORE INFORMATION? For more information about the discussion series or the Friends, call the Morton Mandan Public Library at 667-5365 or visit

Match Cut's Top 30 Film Scores

I spend a fair amount of time posting at the online film discussion forum Sometimes we get together as a group and create top lists -- top 50 directors, top 40 documentaries, that sort of thing. Recently, we put together our list of the top 30 film scores and I thought I'd share it since the guy in charge put a lot of time into presenting the results:




Enjoy! Unfortunately, my number one favorite score didn't make the final list -- Ry Cooder's Paris, Texas.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

2008 Spirit Award Nominees

The Independent Spirit awards are often more interesting than the Oscars for indie-minded moviegoers. The nominees were recently announced, providing all of us with more movies to add to our radar.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
I'm Not There
A Mighty Heart
Paranoid Park

Todd Haynes - I'm Not There
Tamara Jenkins - The Savages
Jason Reitman - Juno
Julian Schnabel - The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Gus Van Sant - Paranoid Park

Ronald Harwood - The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Tamara Jenkins - The Savages
Fred Parnes & Andrew Wagner - Starting Out in the Evening
Adrienne Shelly - Waitress
Mike White - Year of the Dog

Angelina Jolie - A Mighty Heart
Sienna Miller - Interview
Ellen Page - Juno
Parker Posey - Broken English
Tang Wei - Lust, Caution

Pedro Castaneda - August Evening
Don Cheadle - Talk To Me
Philip Seymour Hoffman - The Savages
Frank Langella - Starting Out in the Evening
Tony Leung - Lust, Caution

Monday, December 3, 2007


I always have a hard time remembering my dreams. And I often wish that I could hook up a VCR to my head while I sleep and later sit back with some popcorn and watch all of those fleeting images, hitting rewind whenever I feel like it. I have some idea what that would be like now after watching the Japanese animated film Paprika.

Featuring strikingly gorgeous artwork somewhere between, say, Spirited Away and a graphic novel; Paprika is a feast for the eyes. (If I say something stupid at this point, it is because I haven’t spent a lot of time with Japanese animation yet, I don’t have many points of reference or comparison. I just know that Paprika looks like Miyazaki with a harder, more grown up edge.)

The story revolves around a device known as a DC Mini, described as “a scientific invention that allows us to open the door to our dreams.” It is a headset-like device that captures the brainwaves of a sleeping individual and records them for later playback. This playback can be on a computer or can be fed back into the brain of the same or a different individual. Actually, Paprika reminded me of a mixture of Richard Linklater’s two “animated” films Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly.

It shares Waking Life’s sense of the viewer never being quite sure if what is happening is actually happening or simply a dream (or a dream within a dream…). It also shares Waking Life’s penchant for philosophical tidbits such as: “Don’t you think dreams and the Internet are similar? They are both areas where the repressed conscious mind vents.”

Along with A Scanner Darkly, it lives in the realm of paranoid science fiction where a scientific discovery showing much promise is stolen and turned to evil purposes. Essentially, Paprika is A Scanner Darkly with a DC Mini instead of Substance D.

One other paranoid concern raised by Paprika is how replaying a person’s dreams in another person’s mind, especially without their awareness, can have damaging effects. This is actually described as an act of terrorism by one of the characters. A dream is something very personal. It plays with material gathered during waking life and arranges it to try to answer some question or fulfill some wish (if Freud was on the right track anyway). If another person is exposed to this surreal move-like production, it can only lead him astray; it could possibly lead him to destructive or even self-destructive ends. It is like the films of David Lynch, for example Eraserhead. Lynch described it as a reconstruction of one of his own dreams, very meaningful to him but unlikely to hold the same meaning for anyone else. I consider Eraserhead an expression of the fear and dread of parenthood. My wife considers it a sickening experience that fills her with despair. God only knows what it all means to Lynch.

Paprika also becomes confused in the way Lynch’s films are confused. I was often as puzzled by Paprika as I recently was by Inland Empire. I wasn’t sure which end was up. But in both films, the close relationship between movies and dreams is clear. It is a beautiful confusion where impossible things happen that somehow make perfect sense. The flow seems perfectly natural – especially with animation – when a woman descends a ladder through a trapdoor in a closet and ends up first in a room full of a child’s artwork and then in an amusement park. It makes perfect sense when someone leans against a railing beside a merry-go-round and is suddenly tumbling over the balcony railing high up in an apartment building. These juxtapositions make no sense and make perfect sense at the same time, something cinema is good at.

What if your waking state and your dreaming state were blurred together? What would happen if all of the repressed aspects of your psyche decided to hang out with you? Paprika explores this. Doubles are everywhere. Characters are constantly reflected in various surfaces, but what reflects back is not their self but rather a repressed version. A character is seen reflected in multiple mirrors at one point and we see her reflection making a series of faces ranging from annoyance to amusement to disgust as two young men make a pass at her. On a moving sidewalk we she her reflection take on the likeness of a dark-haired other woman. Characters are seen as shadows and anima figures and alternate personas of each other.

Of course, none of this is new to movies. Take any movie and the villain is most likely the shadow of the hero, the love interest the hero’s anima, the femme fatale his negative anima, and so on. What is fun about Paprika though is how psychologically out in the open it is. Actual dream interpretation terminology is used throughout to make explicit how dreams interplay archetypes on a personal unconscious level while movies are the same only on a collective unconscious level. Movies are dreams shared by an audience.

Paprika evokes this relationship between dreams and movies quite openly and quite often. At one point, Paprika compares early REM sleep dreams to artsy short films and late REM sleep dreams to Hollywood blockbusters. There are many instances where transitions between a dream reality and a real reality (or is it another dream reality?) transpire through various cinematic tools. A dream is suddenly happening on a movie theater screen while another character watches. Characters pass through the lens of a video camera from one reality to another. Characters get absorbed by the video playing on a website. There is even a discussion about how a particular dream crosses the 180 degree axis line used by filmmakers to maintain a clear spatial relationship between characters on screen, a rule that Paprika often violates in pursuit of its beautiful confusion.

Paprika features a major character that functions as a surrogate for director Satoshi Kon. He has a recurring dream that relates to an unfinished 8 mm movie from his childhood, a movie and a dream that leaves on asking, “Where’s the rest?” Satoshi Kon seems to see his filmmaking as dream work, as a way to come to terms with his childhood. Paprika ends provocatively with a suggestion that Satoshi Kon has completed some unfinished childhood business, has reached some new maturity. In the final scene, his alter ego is told to go see the movie Dreaming Kids. As he walks up to the ticket window, he glances at posters for such past Satoshi Kon works as Tokyo Godfathers and Perfect Blue. Then he says, “One adult, please.”

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

October 2007 Survey Results

Junebug 1911164.14
Ghost World22101193.68
The Squid and the Whale41918103.69
Half Nelson2461973.66
You Can Count on Me 1111354.67


Very good. We've been attending for a long time.

I'm glad you present these! Would like more comedy.

Last 3 movies reflect poorly on the adult setting any kind of example. Such is life.

Keep on doin' what you doin'.

Unfortunately, I had already seen 3 out of 5 films.

How about running a series at the Mandan theater when it is completed!

Before I had access to Netflix & IFC, this was the only way I had to see independent movies. Even with these resources, you pick movies that I would miss otherwise. Keep up the great work (and bring in some anime!:)) Todd does a great job! I know at least one person who saw the last movie cuz of the review.

Maybe not 5 extremely serious and mostly depressing movies next time.

Great theme. These movies really go well together.

I can't say I loved this series, but it's good to see movies that we wouldn't ordinarily go to.

All were interesting and beautifully acted - but most were pretty heavy.

How about showing a sci-fi series or for next Halloween some cheesy movie like The Brain That Wouldn't Die?

I enjoyed this theme. The Oscar nomination info should have been included on each synopsis. Todd Ford is a very good reviewer. Keep it all going... This adds so much to our community.

Monday, November 26, 2007


I recently took a fresh look at Gummo and, while I once found it both intriguing and a mixed bag of scenes (some terrific, some that missed the mark although I wasn't sure what mark they missed, and some just too disturbing to watch), I now find it a most remarkable piece of work.

This film hasn't gotten a very good shake with critics or with film buffs in general. It seems that its lack of narrative and almost freakshow aesthetic has gotten the best of people. These things are not as problematic as some have concluded though and they have certainly obscured the film's real triumphs.

Anyone even half awake during the first minute should immediately understand that Korine isn't interested in conventional narrative. He uses the metaphor of a tornado with its random nature -- sometimes devastating, sometimes merciful; sometimes brutal, sometimes beautiful -- as a preface to the sort of film he intends to present. And that's what he gives us. A scattered collection of scenes that methodically create juxtapositions between devastation and mercy, brutality and beauty all at the service of drawing a collage-like portrait of a particular time and place -- an entirely valid approach to film construction that is justified all the more by its creating a portrait that feels very much alive.

I suppose people have a point in feeling that Korine's obsessive use of unusual characters -- society's cast-asides like albinos and midgets and the mentally handicapped -- crosses the line into exploitation. I think it overlooks a few things though. One, they aren't used in an exploitative way which would involve passing judgment and setting them up as jokes at their expense. I just don't see that. They are characters that happen to be part of this time and place and that Korine finds to be interesting. And Korine goes out of his way to not judge them and to emphasize their total level of acceptance within the world he has created. Two, and maybe more importantly, putting the film down on these grounds overlooks what is a crucial element of Korine's project: He is making reference to his favorite film, Even Dwarfs Started Small, to make a similar political statement. That film by Werner Herzog shows us a world entirely populated by dwarfs who carry out a revolution that results in a state of anarchy. Gummo possesses essentially the same elements.

For me, the film achieves three significant triumphs. First, it is filled with very striking images, unshakable and unforgettable images that feel fresh and surprising in a way that movie images seldom do. I watched it last night back-to-back with Brakhage's Dog Star Man and found them to be strangely appropriate companions. Korine's film is filled with little montages that strike me with the same otherworldly sense of the barely familiar as those of Brakhage. Also contributing heavily to Gummo's oddly fascinating imagery is his casting. I have never seen a film so filled to the brim with such distinctive and one-of-a-kind faces, faces that really hold the screen, faces that seem to oscillate between grotesque and lovely in step with the beating of the characters' hearts. Adding to the fascination is the film's constant strategy of juxtaposing scenes of carefully staged art house stylization with scenes of blunt, documentary-like presentation. Everything in this film is a matter of juxtaposition.

The second triumph is the film's surprising warmth -- so surprising that most seem to have missed it entirely. Think back through the film's scenes and try to recall any scene where the characters display anything but love and affection for each other. (There are a few which I'll get to in a moment.) Teenage girls frolic on a bed after using tape to make their nipples perkier. Some white-trash folk understand a buddy's frustration over losing an arm-wrestling contest (although it is obvious his frustrations run much deeper) and help him cope by encouraging him to beat up a kitchen chair -- one of the film's most inspired scenes. And in a scene that could have been very, very ugly with a young boy entering a bedroom to be serviced by a mentally handicapped prostitute, we instead get one of the warmest and most affectionate moments I've ever seen in a film.

The third triumph is its well-realized political statement. Werner Herzog describes the film as a work of science fiction and it reminds me very much of works in the post-apocalyptic genre. It is as if the tornado is really a metaphor for some other form of holocaust such as the nuclear devastation that set the stage for Mad Max. And like the new worlds depicted in Mad Max or Dawn of the Dead, Gummo presents us with an insular and microcosmic society in a state of anarchy still dealing sporadically with the remains of the patriarchal, capitalist society that has brought upon itself its own destruction.
Think about the scenes of discord in Gummo. The scenes I alluded to where characters show other than affection for each other and where ugliness replaces beauty. All involve money and/or one person's exploitation of another. We have the restaurant owner trying to make a buck by hiring kids to kill neighborhood cats. This not only generates the film's most pervasively ugly motif, it also creates an element of competition and conflict between two different groups of cat-killers. We have the man who pimps out his wife to make ends meet. We have the man from out of town -- a businessman with an occupation that is humorously and pointedly worthless for anything other than moving money around -- who assumes a position of superiority over three girls and starts to molest them. And, also pertinent to this topic of collapse of a past patriarchal society is the scene where a mother holds a gun to her son's head trying to force him to smile as they both mourn the death of "the father."

My favorite lesson of all is the candy bar lesson. A boy takes a bath -- in the filthiest, most disgusting bath water imaginable -- and is given a tray of spaghetti to eat while bathing. A knock comes at the door and it is a pair of well-dressed boys selling candy. The mother buys a bar almost out of instinct -- like characters buying worthless little red and blue blocks in THX 1138 -- and adds it to her son's dinner tray, after first falling into the dirty water. The two young salesman go away gleefully counting their "green backs." The boy takes one bite from the candy and sets it aside clearly finding it terrible tasting and worthless. The two young salesmen were a vision of where the girl molesting adult businessman selling worthless products for a quick buck got his start.

The film shows -- knowingly -- that this anarchic new world still has problems to work out before beginning to approach that all-elusive utopia such as homophobia, racism, and lack of gender equality, but I think the earlier mentioned kitchen scene provides a nice and succinct statement about how far this new world has already progressed. It is a compact lesson on the need to replace competition with cooperation. The scene opens with a series of arm-wrestling contests that leave the winners and losers increasingly separated by their degrees of celebration and disappointment until it gets out of hand and turns violent. The moment is saved by one helping the other take out his frustration by helping him beat up a kitchen chair.

Mission to Mars

Few films have been chewed up and spit out and rinsed down the drain as gleefully as Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars. I think people doing so have missed something crucial though. They spend so much time taunting De Palma for being a copycat that they forget that his referencing previous films often include referencing his own. I see Mission to Mars as a companion piece to Carrie, a retelling of that film’s pivotal scene.

In Carrie, Carrie and Tommy are at the prom and are having a great time dancing in ecstatic spirals -- amplified by De Palma's swirling camera. As frightening as the idea is for Carrie, she is in love. Asked how she is feeling, she replies, "I feel like I'm on Mars." Shortly after that, Carrie has those feelings doused in pig’s blood. She is crushed at the moment of her life’s greatest pleasure. But why is she hurt really? She knows none of the kids in her school like her. She knows she doesn't belong at the prom much less being so honored at one. She is so hurt because she has taken the big risk and allowed herself to fall in love, a state where one is at her most vulnerable. And when one falls in love with another, the two biggest fears, the two things that would be the most devastating are being hurt by that person and losing that person. At that climactic moment, Carrie is hit – over the head – with both of these fears. Was Tommy a part of all this? Is he dead?

Move forward to Mission to Mars. Carrie’s throwaway line about being in love feeling like being on Mars has been re-employed by De Palma and invested with a grand new meaning. It has become a symbol for love and all the ecstasies and terrors that go with it. Jim McConnell, the Gary Sinise character, has been hurt deeply by the death of his wife. He hasn't gotten over it. He no longer goes to Mars. His need in the film is to overcome this, to get over his fears and to go to Mars again. Or to state it literally instead of symbolically, he needs to allow himself to fall in love again.

In his article, A Nerd’s Rhapsody, Ray Sawhill discusses some of the symbols at play in the film: “…there's a real vision here … an almost Tantric vision of women (the circle) and men (the column) attaining occasional bliss (the spiral) together … Late in the film, McConnell is being prepared for a long journey. He steps into a lighted circle, is encased in a glass column (those circles! those columns!), and is submerged in a clear, roiling liquid … Is he dying or in ecstasy? …and [the scene] ends with a blastoff through a column of luminous swirling debris.” If you note the fear on McConnell's face during this final scene until he gives in and allows the fluid to enter him and fill his lungs, it becomes clear that symbolically he is getting over his fear and is falling in love again. He is finally attaining that state of bliss again. He has fully returned to Mars and is ready for the first time since losing his wife to experience the ecstasy and to move beyond.

At the center of Mission to Mars is another couple, Woodrow ‘Woody’ (Tim Robbins) and Terri (Connie Nielsen), already in a state of happily married bliss. They are literally at Mars. (Or is it figuratively? The literal and the symbolic are so close to the same in Mission to Mars.) They go through a reprise of the Carrie prom sequence. They dance in ecstatic spirals – to Van Halen’s Dance the Night Away, a one time prom staple. Then, in my favorite and a truly harrowing scene, Terri is terribly hurt by the loss of her loved one. Woody, realizing he is too far away from the party on a space walk to return safely, and seeing that Terri is going to risk her life too in an attempt to save him, removes his helmet and perishes in the vacuum. Like Carrie and Tommy, love’s two greatest fears have been realized for Terri and Woody (notice the echoes in the names). Terri is hurt by her husband and she loses her husband.

If one is inclined to only view the surface of Mission to Mars, one will understandably find it disappointing. But it is one of De Palma's richest, most poignant, and most haunting films if looked at more deeply. The opening barbecue sequence makes no sense if taken literally. No space program would expose its astronauts to such a germ factory on the eve of an expedition. But the sequence sets up all the themes of love and loss and fear that the film will be exploring and culminates in the child's sandbox scene. McConnell is looking at the play equipment and footprints in the sand and thinking about his wife and the life and kids he might have had with her. Cut to a footprint that we first perceive to be in the sand before realizing it is on the surface of Mars. What a great cinematic moment! It is a joining or connecting of the literal to the symbolic. The image that fills his remorse with swirls of joyful memories becomes an image of its symbol, Mars.

Chew on Mission to Mars all you want, but I suggest you consider swallowing at least a few of those bites from now on. I think Mission to Mars is a candidate for the most underrated film of all time.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


There are some fascinating flavors in the thriller Disturbia. It’s a film where the cook pulled some promising ingredients out of the cupboard. Too bad it all boiled down to such a terrible tasting concoction by the time it reached the table.

Transparently inspired by Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Disturbia tells the tale of Kale (Shia LaBeouf), a teenage boy confined to his house and spending his copious free time spying on his neighbors through binoculars. The Grace Kelly to his James Stewart is Ashley (Sarah Roemer) and providing comic relief in place of Thelma Ritter is Ronnie (Aaron Yoo). My utmost apologies must be extended though to the late great stars of Hitchcock’s film. The only comparison that Disturbia’s stars earn is one of pure and simple character mapping.

The first mistake made by Disturbia is working far too hard to place Kale is this context. Rear Window opens with Stewart confined to his apartment, leg in a cast. And we learn all we need to know about how he got this way from a simple tracking shot across a few photographs during the brief opening credits. Let the suspenseful spying on his neighbors begin.

In Disturbia, we are dragged through a never ending process of fly fishing and car accidents and high school classroom incidents and courtrooms and high-tech gadgetry finally leaving our protagonist in a state of house arrest. And then we still have to sit through video games and iPods and scenes of Kale running to the bathroom after learning that a steady diet of peanut butter, chocolate syrup, and soda pop doesn’t qualify as healthy. Finally, his mother has the sense (showing some pity on us poor viewers) to cut the power cord to his television leaving Kale with nothing to do but to finally pick up his binoculars.

Mistake number two made by Disturbia is in its presentation of that voyeurism. Rear Window is memorable for placing a complete gallery of interesting characters in those almost always open windows across the courtyard. The dancer, the songwriter, Miss Lonely Heart, the couple with a dog, and the unhappily married couple (the subject of Stewart’s murder suspicions) all have stories to tell that play as variations on the relationship between Stewart and Grace Kelly.

Disturbia gives us only two: Ashley starts out as a subject of Kale’s teen-lusty gaze walking about the yard looking like a model, semi-undressing in well-lit rooms (window blinds open), and sunbathing on the roof before catching him in the act, knocking on his door, and becoming his voyeuristic accomplice. (This sort of merging of the dancer and Grace Kelly is one of Disturbia’s twists on the original. Unfortunately, nothing really interesting comes out of it.) And then there is the suspected killer. Just as Raymond Burr looked delightfully guilty from the get go in Rear Window, David Morse creeps us out from first glimpse. But, while Morse’s portrait of evil is one of the few sources of fun in Disturbia (at its most effective when he catches Ashley alone in her car), Morse is allowed to go too far over the top. Hitchcock knew how to keep Burr on low heat. In Disturbia, director D.J Caruso allows Morse to boil over and spill into a place that should have been left to Freddy and Jason.

Both films share the thesis that cinema is a form of voyeurism and focus on the viewer’s/voyeur’s helplessness. Both can watch, but they have no control over what they see. When Grace Kelly enters Burr’s apartment and gets caught, we are made to feel Stewart’s complete desperation, his total powerlessness. In Disturbia, it is Ronnie who is sent to investigate by breaking into the suspect’s car and slipping into his garage. Much of the original’s sense of helplessness is dissipated though. There is something about all the cell phones and video cameras used to track Morse’s whereabouts and Ronnie’s progress that minimizes the suspense. When Burr went shopping, Stewart (and the audience) had no idea when he might return. When Kelly moved out of Stewart’s eye sight in the apartment, anything could be happening to her. We and Stewart are left to our imaginations which of course start working overtime. (There is a use of a cell phone during a car crash early in Disturbia that is quite tantalizing in its relationship to the theme of helplessness and that relates it to films like Blow Out and The Conversation. I’m not sure if it is intentionally tantalizing or accidentally tantalizing though, probably the latter.)

Rear Window takes as its central theme an age-old unease in males, the desire to be free and to wander and how a woman and marriage threatens to thwart that desire. It then builds everything around this theme very effectively.

Disturbia’s greatest – perhaps sole – interest is how it takes a teenager’s love/hate relationship with his parents as its theme and similarly builds everything around it. While the film labors a might bit too strenuously to set them up, Kale’s love for his parents is nicely captured by two images of him strewn upon the ground looking in horror first at his father and then for his mother. Kale’s house arrest of course stands in for a teenager’s hatred of being grounded and of having to live within often arbitrary and “unfair” sets of rules and curfews set by his parents. Kale’s demarking the perimeter of his limitations in the yard – how far he can stray before his ankle bracelet alerts the authorities – and the film’s comparing this to a shock collared dog makes a decent visual correlation to this teenage fear. And of course his desires, Ashley and some nasty neighborhood kids he wishes to stomp are often just out of reach.

Disturbia’s final misstep is one that leads me to have little hope for Shia LaBeouf and my ever getting along, cinematically speaking. When we first met, he was having a thoroughly unconvincing relationship with a hottie in Transformers. Now we meet again and the exact same thing is happening. LaBeouf and Roemer share the screen with all the convincing passion of a cover of Teen Beat glued to a cover of Seventeen. Their climactic kiss is as sexy as Tom Cruise’s near-lip lock with a corpse in Eyes Wide Shut. What we have here is – to paraphrase and mangle a line from Disturbia – a kiss between two dead hotties. Or back to my cooking metaphor, its taste is pretty rancid.

I’ll take that slow-mo kiss between James Stewart and Grace Kelly any day.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

3 Godfathers

Sometimes, one needs to forget all about the real world when watching a movie. We’ve come to expect too much realism from them. Musicals are in a state of collapse because, well, real people just don’t suddenly start singing and dancing in the streets, rain or no rain. Westerns seem so old fashioned to our modern eyes. Nobody robs banks nowadays and then has the nerve to attempt escape on horseback. Cars are much quicker.

I recently showed John Ford’s western 3 Godfathers, one of my favorite movies, to a group of adults. What I didn’t expect was how much – to me inappropriate – laughter I would hear from them throughout. It caused me to ponder how much some movies must overcome to reach jaded modern viewers. 3 Godfathers has three really high hurdles to clear. The film is old. The film is a western. The film is directed by John Ford who takes a might bit of getting used to – as do most persons with the last name of “Ford.” Ahem.

Actually, 3 Godfathers isn’t all that old. It isn’t dawn-of-cinema-silent-movie old which presents a whole different and much higher hurdle to most viewers. 3 Godfathers was made in 1948 and stars a still quite young looking John Wayne only a wrinkle or two removed from his presence in that western genre touchstone Stagecoach, the film that made westerns respectable as more than Saturday afternoon serials. 1948 is plenty old though to cause some difficulties. When we think westerns nowadays we think of more enigmatic and elegiac works like McCabe & Mrs. Miller and the recent Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Those films are products of the seventies cinema where open-endedness and loose ends and uncertainty concerning a character's thoughts and motivations was prized. The scene in 3 Godfathers where our three bank robbers meet the town sheriff just doesn’t sit well with eyes accustomed to the modern approach. We are driven crazy by how the robbers’ intentions are communicated loud and clear and yet the sheriff lets them ride away instead of throwing them behind bars.

After decades of seeing child birth explicitly depicted on screen and on television (even during dinner) and being exposed to television commercials for such intimate products as tampons and Viagra, it seems ridiculously quaint to see – or rather not see – a scene of child birth so obliquely and at such a distance. And when we see the mother and infant, shortly after birth, there’s no blood, no afterbirth, no umbilical cord. Heck, the baby looks like it entered the world three weeks ago and the mother like she just returned from an afternoon at a health spa. Times have definitely changed.

The world isn’t black and white no matter what the Ronald Reagans and George W. Bushs would have you believe. We realize it is full of complexity. The classical western genre (the films of the 30s and 40s, not the revisionist works starting with Anthony Mann or Ford’s The Searchers or The Wild Bunch) though is all about the play between extreme good and bad. It is about black hats and white hats. It is about men being wanted dead or alive. It is about Us versus The Other as in cowboys versus the Indians. We have difficulty containing a chuckle when we hear a sheriff utter a line like, “I’ll add fifty dollars to the reward. I want them dead.”

Westerns are also stuffed full of conventions that don’t fit our realistic model of the world, like singing and dancing in the streets causing many pairs of modern eyes to roll while watching Hollywood musicals. Why do six-shooters always seem to hold enough ammo to fuel a machine gun? Why can’t the bad guys ever shoot straight while the good guys never miss the tiniest of moving targets while they are hanging upside down by one foot stuck in a stirrup with a cowboy hat covering their eyes? Or (one of my favorites) why does every stagecoach arrive in town carrying a beautiful young woman in her best Easter dress to be greeted by two suitors holding pathetic looking but heartfelt bouquets? When the men realize their shared intentions, they react somewhere between an exchange of jealous glances to a slapstick fistfight in the dusty street followed by them offering each other a beer in the always nearby saloon.

To enjoy westerns, or any genre movies for that matter from musicals to kung fu to screwball comedy, one must be able to recognize the conventions and then to simply accept them, roll with them, have fun with them, and notice when they are occasionally turned on their ear. There is an inversion of the Good Guy/Bad Guy dichotomy in 3 Godfathers for example. Our “good guys” are the bank robbers while the sheriff and his posse are the “bad guys,” an earlier example of the type of variation that would reach its peak expression in The Wild Bunch.

Director John Ford was a quite distinctive voice in American movies. I often compare him to that most distinctive of all Japanese masters Yasujiro Ozu. He was fond of building scene after scene around arrivals and departures always accompanied by characters looking longingly and searchingly off-screen toward some far distant vanishing point. He loved wide shots with his characters silhouetted as tiny figures on the horizon often against Technicolor sunsets. He was one of the most romantic and sentimental of artists. This often led him to stylistic flourishes that can stick out like proverbial sore thumbs when viewed in isolation. His constant use of slapstick humor (which can often seem nowadays as un-amusing pratfalls) and his insistent recycling of favorite hymns (which can seem oddly melodramatic if not outright out of place and weird to modern viewers) erect an insurmountable barrier to enjoyment for many. It is only by watching many films by John Ford across many genres that one appreciates these as artistic pre-occupations, even obsessions. They become building blocks of a genuine artistic vision.

What do I find so compelling about 3 Godfathers? I’ve watched it many times now and I truly find it epic, heroic. Watching John Wayne and his fellows trek across the formidable desert without food or water trying to safely deliver a baby to New Jerusalem is like watching Frodo struggle to right the world by carrying the ring to Mordor and the fires of Mount Doom. There are even shots of Wayne’s iconic figure scaling mountain passes that honestly must have inspired Peter Jackson. I love how wind machines are obviously employed to create just the right chaotic, battle of God and the Devil atmosphere and to blow the pages of a Bible to and fro to give our heroes guidance. I love how Wayne’s line that he will continue along his chosen path “until he finds religion” rings in my head the way his line from The Searchers – “We’ll find them alright … Eventually … Just as sure as the turning of the Earth” – has rung between my ears ever since first hearing it 25 years ago.

Yes, I’m grateful that I can see Ford’s tropes for what they are, take westerns for what they were, and understand that people haven’t always been able to handle commercials about constipation while sitting at the dinner table. This way, I can enjoy a terrific old John Wayne western without being distracted by my own giggles.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Kung Fu Cinema

There has never been a better time than right now to get into Kung Fu cinema. And there’s no better place to start than with the brand new Dragon Dynasty DVD release of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.

Now, I don’t claim to be an expert on Kung Fu movies – for that I could easily refer you to a few I know – but I have been dabbling in the genre off and on for several years along with countless other Kill Bill fans. I’ve seen the hilarious and exciting Jackie Chan movie Drunken Master, much better to my eyes than any of his Hollywood movies. I’ve seen The Five Deadly Venoms knowing that it was an inspiration for Kill Bill’s DiVAS. (Honestly, the biggest thrill I got from it though was seeing the famous Shaw Brothers opening logo and fanfare somewhere other than at the top of Kill Bill.)

I’ve recently watched the Dragon Dynasty DVD for Have Sword Will Travel with its thrilling sword fighting climax up and down a pagoda and went through the semi-black market to get a copy of the amazing Shaw Brothers gangster epic The Boxer of Shantung. (For this one, think Scarface set in period Hong Kong with Kung Fu instead of “Say hello to my little friend!” and you’ll start to get the idea.) I even followed the advice of one of those Kung Fu movie experts I told you about and rented We’re Going to Eat You, a great action film set almost entirely on an island of cannibals that is – my friend assures me – the only such film to feature Kung Fu fighting on rollerskates.

None of these experiences prepared me for the greatness of The 36th Chamber though. It tells the story of a village cowering at the feet of a band of oppressors. Its reluctant young hero, San Te, feels that his village would be much better off if they all knew Kung Fu and knows that the monks of Shaolin Temple are the best teachers anywhere, but he doesn’t want to go seek their help since, “They aren’t interested in worldly matters.” But when the villains kill his father, he is forced into action in a scene as wonderfully dark and chilling as Luke Skywalker’s discovery of his murdered aunt and uncle. San Te is now committed to becoming a Jedi Knight … oops, I mean a Kung Fu master.

When San Te arrives at the Temple, by stowing away with some vegetables, he finds himself in a special new world completely insulated from the one he left behind. After a year in the temple though, he complains that he wishes to learn Kung Fu but hasn’t seen anything like it yet, just a lot of yard work and doing dishes. His new masters calmly tell him that all he had to do was speak up and his training – which consists of lessons taught in a series of 35 chambers – could begin.

Again, much like Luke Skywalker, San Te is impatient and wishes to jump straight to the last and toughest chamber to get through his training quicker. And with a sigh, his master obliges and escorts him into a room full of meditating monks. He walks to the end of the room and stands before the head monk who looks up at him with scorn for his impudence and knocks him to the ground merely by the power of his thought, much like The Force. San Te then reconsiders and decides to work his way up from the bottom.

Just as Luke Skywalker had lessons to learn and skills to master before he’d be ready to face Darth Vader, San Te goes through many lessons – a Kung Fu movie expert told me that The 36th Chamber is rare in the huge amount of screen time it devotes to training scenes – and these lessons are widely varied, fun, and fascinating. And of course, just as Luke needed his training with lightsaber and trusting The Force rather than his eyes to defeat his enemies, San Te will need and make use of all of his lessons in often surprising and clever ways to defeat his village’s band of oppressors.

It’s not a coincidence of course that I’ve been comparing The 36th Chamber repeatedly to Star Wars. They’re both torn from the same mythical cloth – even The 36th Chamber’s Buddhist monks as San Te’s mentors have their parallel in Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda (Lucas has never tried to hide the Buddhist inspiration behind these elder Jedi). And I think anyone who enjoys the Star Wars movies will get a major kick out of The 36th Chamber. (No pun intended.) They’re both classic hero journeys and I’m convinced that Lucas had this and other Kung Fu films explicitly in mind when he developed his signature epic.

After watching just a few Kung Fu movies, I’m frequently amazed at all the places I note the genre's influence. It’s actually widely known that the Matrix movies are new school Hong Kong Kung Fu cinema in new clothing. When I finally got around to seeing Casino Royale, I was immediately impressed by its chase and fight scenes as being straight out of Jackie Chan and Jet Li. And just last week, I had a very eye-opening re-watch of Peter Jackson’s horror film Dead Alive. It was eye-opening because I’d forgotten just how great it is – best zombie movie ever I tell you – and because it contains a scene of a Kung Fu fighting priest who “kicks ass for the Lord.” This was a reminder that The Lord of the Rings is heavily influenced by Kung Fu cinema, from the sword fighting to the acrobatic antics of Legolas.

Anyone who really wants to understand why movies like The Lord of the Rings are made the way they are really should take a look at some Kung Fu cinema like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Quentin Tarantino also feels very strongly about this and partially intended Kill Bill as a way to get moviegoers to take an adventure and start watching this striking genre whose popularity has sadly died out since the 70s and grindhouses and disco songs – remember “Kung Fu Fighting?”

Now, how to get more people to start watching the many great horror films that paved the way for the realistic and harrowing violence in films like Saving Private Ryan. I think I’ll save that for another time.


Have you ever wondered what would’ve happened if Edward D. Wood Jr. had attempted a Godzilla movie? Until last night, the thought had honestly never crossed my mind. That all changed though while watching Michael Bay’s Transformers. As ineptly directed as humanly possible, it is also, I fear, destined like Plan 9 from Outer Space and Godzilla versus Space Godzilla to stumble its way into my pantheon of very guilty pleasures.

The “plot” involves a giant cube crashing to Earth and a bunch of non-biological aliens waging battle over some broken eye glasses left in the Arctic Circle by an adventurous scientist who happens to have been the grandfather of Shia LaBeouf. Shia is a rather un-nerdly nerd with nothing on his mind except mentally undressing the girl of his dreams who looks an awful lot like a Playboy playmate of the year. It also has a lot of actors standing around reading dialog like they’ve never seen it before and like they hope to never see it again. It even has Jon Voight and John Turturro popping up here and there apparently tricked into thinking this is a Spielberg movie by the opening image of a boy fishing from the moon. (I’d love to have seen their faces when they discovered the truth.)

We also get to watch a lot of cars race around and often transform themselves into really cool robots that fight with each other and smash other cars and houses and backyard water fountains. The good ones even protect Shia LaBeouf as if they’ve taken lessons from The Iron Giant. I chose the word “cool” because these scenes really are technically quite smashing and really did bring out my inner little boy. I found myself wondering if Michael Bay might be a pretty darn cool director if he made films without, you know, any human characters.

Transformers is the type of movie that I was ready to abandon after about ten embarrassing minutes of opening exposition. At that point, my teenage daughter who had already squirmed her way through it asked me what I thought. I gave her thumbs down and she chuckled telling me it only gets worse. I’m here to report that she was wrong, sort of.

Sure, every time a scene is slammed down in front of us with a bunch of people standing around talking without any cool robots in sight, Transformers becomes a truly dull boy. Fortunately, there are enough scenes with cool robots to allow the movie to build something close to an entertaining sense of forward momentum, even if it is of the three steps forward, two steps back variety. It also has a few aspects that I actually enjoyed.

At the center of this storm of half-baked ideas is a boy-and-his-first-car-coming-of-age-story, the boy being Shia LaBeouf. Now, of course this storyline has been penned with all the finesse of a 10-year-old boy with a box of permanent markers and Bay has once again demonstrated his history as a Playboy video director with his presentation of the love interest played by Megan Fox. (The pretty surfaces and ultimate emptiness of this boy wants girl, boy gets girl scenario is betrayed by the “big kiss” moment at the end which feels totally perfunctory and is allowed seemingly a split second of screen time amongst the hubbub.) All the same though, there is something indestructible about a boy getting his dream girl with the help of a cool car, not even Bay could completely mess it up. And when the car is this cool – the coolest movie car since Christine though of course not as benevolent – how can the boy in me not cheer?

Transformers doesn’t take itself too seriously, always a saving grace in a big bloated Summer blockbuster. There is a tiny evil robot that constantly flits about like a little spider, constantly verbalizing (all the robots talk in some sense) with little “oops” and “uh ohs.” It also gets in a bit of slapstick including a scene where it sneaks across an airport runway. The good robots get their time for slapstick fun as well by spying on and hiding from Shia LaBeouf’s parents outside their house – and totally making a mess of his father’s beloved backyard. One of the robots even gets peed on by LaBeouf’s dog and proves he learned his lesson by later peeing on the unlikable (here) John Turturro. (Okay, maybe that last bit was taking things a bit too un-seriously.)

Finally, the whole film is really, as I alluded, designed as a giant monster movie in the grand old Godzilla tradition and it is fun in this sense. We get introduced to the good monsters and the bad monsters. We get just enough – mostly very silly – background mythology to explain their existence. Then they are set loose to bash each other all over the screen. And for most of the time it is fun to watch, although, as has been my experience with most giant monster movies of the Japanese variety, the climactic battle is more drawn out and busy than exciting. In Transformers, I actually started to nod off during what should have been the most riveting battle in the movie.

I didn’t choose to compare Transformers to Godzilla versus Space Godzilla just willy-nilly. That installment is the most child oriented I’ve seen in the Godzilla franchise and it seemed to work very well at giving children something to enjoy. At least my young daughter seemed to find it engaging. Transformers seems to be aiming at the same audience – it is based on a line of children’s toys after all. And it did take me back to my six-year-old days of playing with and destroying Hot Wheels cars. But its constant references to everything from the Iraq war to masturbation and its visual homage to Playboy and Kill Bill dragged it out of character and into horny teen land. I wish that Michael Bay had shown faith that he could get enough ogle-eyed young boys (and grown men who wish they were young boys) into the theater to make this work and simply cater to their needs. I also wish he’d cut out all those damn scenes of people standing around talking.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Stranger Than Fiction

All of our lives are stories and we are the hero of our own stories. That is what I took away with me after reading Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. That is also what Harold Crick, played by Will Ferrell, learns in the movie Stranger Than Fiction.

Stranger Than Fiction tells the story of Crick, a man who lives a lonely and monotonous everyday existence. He is an IRS bean counter and his preoccupation with numbers and counting rules his life. He counts the strokes as he brushes his teeth. He counts his steps to the bus stop. He calculates the relative percentages of liquid soap remaining in a restroom’s dispensers. He even calculates the odds of his making a fool of himself as he talks to a woman of his infatuations aboard a bus. (And these calculations are cleverly illustrated for us by little graphics superimposed over the scenes with draftsman-like precision that I’m sure would meet Crick’s approval.)

Of course, a story wouldn’t be a story unless something happens that upsets things, and upsetting things is obviously especially upsetting to a man like Crick. So what happens that Crick finds so upsetting? (Have I abused that word enough to make my point that Crick finds an intrusion on his life upsetting?) He begins to hear the voice of a woman describing his actions. He starts to notice his every action is the subject of a constantly nagging omniscient narration.

At first, Crick reacts to this voice in all the ways one would expect in a movie with Ferrell contemporary Jim Carrey. (Stranger Than Fiction often reminds of Carrey movies from Liar Liar to The Truman Show and I suppose it would have worked just as well, maybe better, as a Carrey vehicle.) Crick talks back to the voice as bystanders ogle him as a raving lunatic and when the voice refuses to appear on cue, he smashes a lamp in hopes of hearing his crazed actions narrated. Happily though, the film takes a more promising turn leading Crick into the hands of an English professor played by Dustin Hoffman in one of his best character roles in ages and on a journey to learn just what sort of hero he is in this story of his life.

(Now, I’ll share a bit of honesty. Some stories require a certain leap on the viewer’s part to buy into their concept. And Stranger Than Fiction has a concept that took me two viewings to accept. It is actually constructed as two parallel narratives: the one I’ve described involving Crick and one involving a novelist, Karen Eiffel, played by Emma Thompson. Hers is the voice Crick hears. His story is being written by Eiffel as she struggles through her latest tragic work of fiction. That these two stories – of an author and the character of her story – merge together in the same reality was something I found just a bit too cute, too contrived. Then I came around and took it as a poetic expression of Eiffel’s Crick becoming so real for her that he – you see where I’m going – became really real for her.)

I don’t wish to give away much more in the way of story details. That might spoil the fun. But I’ll share some thoughts. Campbell wrote in The Hero with a Thousand Faces that all stories across all cultures are amazingly similar. They all introduce us to a character in his normal world; they put something in his path that gives him a reason to leave that world; after some reluctance, he leaves the familiar for the unfamiliar; he meets a series of mentors and learns some lessons; he is faced with challenges that ultimately kill him (usually not literally); and he is reborn as something different, possibly better. He is then free to return to his normal world to find that his changes have altered the very weaving of how he fits into that world’s fabric. Keep Campbell’s ideas in mind while watching Stranger Than Fiction, or any movie for that matter. I do think though that Stranger Than Fiction is more about this hero’s journey than merely following it.

The movie also explores the different types of hero – specifically comedic versus tragic as if toying with Ferrell’s familiar on-screen persona – and makes some fascinating observations about how a hero’s story is affected by his knowledge of his own future. Crick and Eiffel do meet in the movie’s pivotal scene and she shares with him the final pages of her “finished” novel. How he reacts to being offered this almost forbidden knowledge and what it tells him about his destiny draws clear parallels between Stranger Than Fiction and the greatest story ever told. At the same time though, it shows that we play an active role in the writing of our own stories, nothing is predetermined and everything can be re-written.

Ultimately, what surprised me about Stranger Than Fiction was finding myself in a Will Ferrell movie that snuck up behind me and replaced the over-the-top goofiness of Ferrell running around a NASCAR speedway in his underwear with a religious inquiry into the conflict between God’s plan and human initiative while still keeping things goofy enough to be fun and without a hint of the pretentiousness that could have so easily been the result.

I’m happy to say that Stranger Than Fiction is the rare fun movie about a meaty topic.


Oh, where do I begin with Michael Moore? I have so many thoughts up and down and all around concerning him and the films that bear his name. I’ll just say off the top that I consider him one of my favorite filmmakers and perhaps one of the most important now working.

He would be the most important without a doubt except for one problem: He has an irresistible drive it seems to aim a gun at his toes and pull the trigger. He gave his attackers an easy opening by fiddling with timelines in Roger & Me. Taking cheap shots at a decrepit Charlton Heston and giving the last (albeit shrewd) word to Marilyn Manson in Bowling for Columbine probably wasn’t a good strategy. He should have known that attacking George W. Bush so viciously during an election year in Fahrenheit 9/11 would leave no room for even a single error. (He made far more than one.)

I’ve come to anticipate each new film with a cringe of anxiety and with SiCKO he is at it again. Brick by brick, he develops his case like a college student writing an essay assignment in persuasion – to persuade us to feel despairingly about the state of health care in the United States. And it worked. My wife and I left the theater ready to up and move to Canada.

But on reflection, why did he choose to open the film by stabbing the now defenseless George W. Bush? Sure, his line about gynecologists needing a chance to show more love to their patients is a classic Bush-ism, but it really didn’t have a function in the film other than to start fanning the flames in the first five seconds. It certainly doesn’t support the film’s overall position that health care is an apolitical issue.

It doesn’t take much thought to become highly unconvinced by his “typical” middle class Americans living in France or his “typical” British doctor’s lifestyle. Yes, in the moment, they make very compelling cases for things being much better in other countries than the evil and broken socialism we are warned about in a propaganda film featuring Ronald Reagan. But, come on now Michael Moore, we all know the only thing “typical” about these examples is that they support your argument.

Finally, why did he have to blow off a few little piggies in the final section by dragging a bunch of 9/11 rescue workers to Cuba to show them getting better medical care than they’ve managed here at home? Sure, the whole escapade is vintage Michael Moore theatrics, but it brings the film to a conclusion that evokes the very communist fears he’s so far spent the whole film side-stepping.

(I thought he was about to blast away at another toe by bringing Hillary Clinton into the picture. I thought, “Oh great. Last time he tried to get George W. Bush out of office. This time he’s going to try to get Hillary elected. Then he threw a curveball by incriminating the Democratic candidate for taking a fat kickback from the big health insurance corporations.)

So, why do I like Michael Moore, let alone find him so important, so valuable? For one thing, his films are very entertaining – entertaining in ways and to a degree that people never thought documentaries could (or should) be. Now, I’m sure I find them especially entertaining – while the whole “Fox News set” considers them like multiple paper cuts beneath their fingernails – because I agree with Michael Moore, maybe not in all the little details, but certainly in the big picture. I feel much disgust for large corporations and fat hog corporate executives. I am for very strong gun control laws. I know in my heart that the nation went on the critical condition list the day George W. Bush stole the White House.

That’s all very subjective though and says as much about me as anything. It demonstrates that I’m a rather radical Democrat. Woo Hoo! Where I find the most value in Moore’s cinema though is in its basic, fundamental, constitutional expression of free speech. I see Michael Moore as a ranter (MS Word’s squiggly line tells me I just coined that term) who has found a very vocal, highly visible vehicle for his rants – certainly more visible than even the highest profile blog and right up there with nationally syndicated columns and the Rush Limbaugh radio show. He gets all worked up about something and shares that passion with the world. And just like Internet bloggers, getting the facts straight or being fair and unbiased isn’t a top priority. Getting people’s attention and getting their tongues wagging is what counts.

Michael Moore is one of our most important filmmakers because he forces issues that are burning a hole through his heart out in the general consciousness where real discussion can begin. And he goes after issues that I feel should be burning holes through all of our hearts. Maybe someday he’ll put it all together and make a film that is as bulletproof in its arguments and fact-checking as it is hilarious and crafty – and effective at raising temperatures. But would that really make it a better film? Is it even possible in this bi-partisan country to pull both sides together on these issues? Or is flame fanning really our best compromise?

Monday, October 29, 2007

Akeelah and the Bee

Akeelah and the Bee has a handicap to overcome that is as challenging as anything its 11-year-old heroine has to face. It has to overcome a sense of déjà vu, that sense of “I’ve seen this oh so many times before.” The fact that it overcomes this so satisfyingly must go down as one of the major movie triumphs of 2006. I watched Akeelah with my family last night. Afterwards, I told my daughters, who were still bouncing around the room from the experience, that I was going to write a review. They told me, “It better be a good one dad.”

This was a rare occasion for me. I had no idea who directed this movie as I watched it. I’m usually really up on that sort of thing, but in this case I just wanted to see a good movie about a girl competing in a spelling bee. When the credits rolled, I saw the name Doug Atchison flash by and I was surprised. Not that it was Atchison – a name I’d never heard before and, after checking Internet Movie Database, one that still means nothing – but that it wasn’t John G. Avildsen the director of Rocky and The Karate Kid.

And there is the source of my déjà vu. If you’ve seen those movies, not to mention Bad News Bears and just about any other sports movie, you’ll feel your thoughts just a bit ahead of every twist and turn. We have a talented heroine who reluctantly starts down the road to glory with everything in her upbringing working against her. We have the stern mentor figure who insists she prove herself before he accepts the role of coach. (And of course, he also has his own skeletons that make his involvement in the relationship painful and yet also inevitable.) There are exciting training montages that felt only to be missing “wax on, wax off” to be complete although they did contain the physical challenge of holding up a rather large and heavy book and the meaningful and rhythmic use of a jump rope. We have early competitions with necessary lessons to be learned before taking on Goliath. And speaking of Goliath, he has a father as clearly and vicariously re-living his disappointing childhood through his own child as the dark pitcher (son)/coach (father) relationship in The Bad News Bears.

So, how does the movie manage to still feel fresh and alive? Well, first off and to be fair, I was caught a few times patting myself on the back for my cleverly figuring out what was going to happen next only to be surprised by an unexpected twist. This always brought a most welcome blush to my experienced movie geek sense of pride. I love it when a move that seems predictable proves me wrong. That really isn’t the reason I ended up loving Akeelah and the Bee though.

I loved it because I loved the characters. Sure a few never convincingly took flight like Akeelah’s mom played by Angela Bassett or the poor boy saddled with the thankless role of Akeelah’s sour and humorless arch rival or the poor man stuck playing the rival’s father with a steady, stern sneer, the source of his son’s sour humorlessness. But soaring far above these stock characters are the magnificent performance by the always reliable Laurence Fishburne as Akeelah’s spelling coach and the totally appealing work by the young J.R. Villarreal as Akeelah’s competitive soul mate, guide, and first crush in the dog-eat-dog world of competitive spelling. He delivers one of my favorite lines, “I almost had to start tap-dancing,” after stalling a panel of judges for what must’ve seemed an eternity on Akeelah’s behalf.

As for Akeelah played by the young and startlingly talented Keke Palmer, this is one of those star-in-the-making performances that I never wanted to see end. I could’ve watched her natural, instinctive talent win, lose, or draw spelling bees for six or eight more hours and, if she decided along the way to switch to baseball or swimming or playing the piano with her toes, I would’ve followed her there as well. She is that good. She is just that appealing. We’re going to see a lot more of this girl in the years to come and I’ll be keeping my eyes pealed.

Or, maybe, there is something more primal behind my attraction to this movie, as well as my love of every movie I earlier lumped together as examples of sports movie predictability. Perhaps, as Joseph Campbell demonstrated in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, we have a collective need for heroes who take these journeys and succeed against the odds, heroes who reluctantly enter a new world, work with tough trainers who teach them important lessons, confront their dark side, and experience their own form of triumph. If it was good enough for Luke Skywalker, it’s certainly good enough for Rocky Balboa, The Karate Kid, and, now, Akeelah.

A Scanner Darkly

"Making the wearer of the scramble suit the ultimate everyman. He looks like a constantly shifting vague blur … Let's hear it for the vague blur." Laughs and applause erupt in a room full of businessmen.

This dialog occurs in an early scene from the fantastic and fascinating film A Scanner Darkly written and directed by Richard Linklater. Our protagonist, Bob, an everyman even by name, is addressing a room of generic businessmen, a twisted satire of a Lions Club luncheon. And as early scenes typically do in movies, the theme of the film is established. We are watching a film about the “faceless establishment,” “big business,” or whatever else you wish to call it versus the “people.” Bob goes on to worry about how Substance-D (more on this in a moment) is hooking our kids at a young age and to express the urgent need to rid the country of its dependency on this drug. His voice trails off to a mutter as the businessmen grow restless, their financial motivations for the continued success of Substance-D quite clear. He takes his seat and the moderator retorts, “Let’s eat.”

A Scanner Darkly is a science fiction film about a drug-addicted public of the near future based on a novel by Philip K. Dick who also brought us Blade Runner. It stars Keanu Reeves as an undercover agent, Bob, assigned to gather information about himself. (Agents wear scramble suits that hide their identities even from their superiors making this strange situation possible.) Bob shares the screen with an assortment of companions played with loopy druggie logic and behavior by Woody Harrelson, Robert Downey, Jr., Winona Ryder, and Linklater regular Rory Cochrane and, as in all of Linklater’s dialog driven, often conspiracy theory fueled films, the verbal interactions between these characters are at dazzling center stage.

What a viewer will find most immediately striking about the film is its visual style. Like Linklater’s earlier film Waking Life, a technique called rotoscoping has been used throughout the film. This technique involves shooting real actors and then creatively tracing, drawing, and otherwise animating over the top of that reference footage to create a realistic yet oddly detached and dreamlike impression. Both Waking Life – about dreams – and Scanner – about characters losing grasp with reality – benefit strongly from this approach.

Back to that drug Substance-D. It is, both for the radical 60s writer Dick and for the like-minded Linklater, a metaphor for how people are subtly made dependent on the proper consumer lifestyle by “the establishment” – recall Bob’s concern about kid’s getting hooked at a young age and notice how in today’s world advertising makes it essential that kids keep up with the latest Nintendo, etc. Slacker, Linklater’s breakthrough film, depicts do-nothing Austin, TX denizens leading a laid-back resistance to America’s addiction to consumerism. The relationship of this to drug addiction is interesting. How many times have you heard that, no matter how rich you get, you never have enough? Any amount of wealth and possessions merely breeds a need to have more. And no dosage brings the same level of pleasure for long. Something -- higher taxes, higher cost of living, or the latest expensive stuff you must have to stay "happy" -- always comes along to make a level of income less satisfying this year than last.

Linklater’s Dazed and Confused is about the final day of school for some high school kids and how they blow off steam that night. What that film methodically depicts is a process of molding and shaping boys and girls to become men and women who fit acceptably into society and the ugly results of this process if it goes awry (or goes too perfectly?). Because of this, Dazed has been referred to as a horror film with a hero who resists doing what is expected and, like Scanner’s Bob, goes cold turkey by refusing to sign away his life to tradition. This makes Scanner a remake of sorts of Dazed with the making of good, proper little Americans by “the man” represented by drug addiction and high school hazing respectively.

Sadly, as is expressed in Scanner – “the world is getting worse” – things have gotten bleaker in Linklater’s outlook. In Dazed, the hero escapes and hits the road to buy Aerosmith tickets. In Scanner, Bob, now on a rehab work farm, plucks a blue flower, the source of Substance-D, and quickly tucks it into his pocket.

Talladega Nights

When the most memorable characters in the movie are supporting players, there is something very wrong in Talladega Nights. Something got lost in Will Ferrell’s attempt to turn Ricky Bobby into a comic legend of the speedway. As I sit and write this, all that sticks in my mind is a guy running around in his underwear believing he is in flames. I’m not sure if I can attribute this memory to the movie though. I had already seen this bit 247 times on television back when the trailer continuously interrupted everything from Lost to Bobby Flay’s Throw Down. (I kept count and can prove this number if you give me a few minutes to falsify my data.)

Ferrell doesn’t seem to have it in his genes for improvisation. Situation after situation gets set up, but never makes that jump from this dimension to the one where comedy re-defines the laws of nature. When he runs about in his underwear or rides a child’s bicycle, he doesn’t take it anywhere. He just keeps doing it and keeps doing it with the fierce belief that duration breeds funniness. It’s as if Charlie Chaplin’s gold prospector had waddled up to the table and started eating and eating and eating and had never been struck with the idea to make his bread rolls dance.

Farrell doesn’t seem to have any more feel for verbal improvisation. In a dinner table scene, he prays to baby Jesus and defends his preference of a child in diapers against his family’s protests that the real Jesus is a man with a beard. His protests merely lead once again to him assuming something of a seated fetal position just short of sucking his thumb and repeating over and over that his Jesus is the baby Jesus. It made me wish the scene had been handed to the young actors playing his sons. We get a snippet of their verbal invention here and elsewhere and we get far more in the DVD bonus materials.

The best evidence of Ferrell’s barely dripping faucet of comedic inspiration is the obligatory (though maybe not for Ferrell) bloopers reel during the end credits. None were funny. None made me glad to stick around and learn that the steadicam was operated by Joe Chess. None displayed the sense of easy, effortless nuttiness that flows so naturally out of Jim Carrey. One can never blame Talladega Nights’ failings on a film editor who lacked a sense of humor. He seems to have determinately kept everything in the movie that was even remotely funny.

On the memorable side is Gary Cole’s rendition of Ricky Bobby’s father. We never really get to know the guy, but Cole brings so much nuance and body language to the role that we effortlessly fill in the blanks. All his fast but pathetic living and his life-long passion for the fine art of refusing to grow up can be spotted in his odd flair for clothing, in his unkempt hair, and in his air of boyish recklessness. He is like an archetypical wayward father miraculously filled with little surprises.

Also memorable is Sacha Baron Cohen’s Jean Girard. His is a towering, slicked back, reptilian presence. I’m not entirely sure where he thought he was going with his take on the sports movie villain. He never really became someone worth hating. He just felt like a writer had grabbed the first idea that raced past him while searching for an opposite to Ricky Bobby’s unsophisticated white trash. Why of course! Make him an elitist French culture snob. All the same, Cohen played it for everything it was worth and seeing Jean Girard in the heat of a race quietly perusing a copy of Camus’ The Stranger gave me a smile and a chuckle. Now there was something I didn’t expect to see. It’s a bad sign though when an underdeveloped character and a misconceived character overshadow the hero of the story.

Maybe I’m assigning too much blame to Will Ferrell. I do find his Elf endearing and Ferrell’s testing the Jack-in-the-Boxes for defects in that movie is a bit of true comic genius, perfectly timed, perfectly funny. Maybe instead of all this meandering improvisation a sports movie needs a more predictable arc and the discipline to touch all the key bases that make us care. By the time Talladega Nights arrives at its big confrontation, it feels like a complete after thought. I didn’t care who crossed that finish line first. Imagine The Karate Kid ending with just two boys fighting instead of a kid we have grown to love coming of age by defeating pure evil. That’s what Talladega Nights gives us, just two guys working their way perfunctorily toward a checkered flag.

The Fountain

Rarely does a movie come along that captures my imagination and instantly vaults into my list of all-time favorites. It has happened twice recently with Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Kim’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring – both sent my mind spinning. It happened again in 2006 with The Fountain.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream), The Fountain tells three different stories involving the same characters in three widely different time periods. There is an ancient story of Spanish Conquistador Tomas (Hugh Jackman), Queen Isabel (Rachel Weisz), a Grand Inquisitor, and the discovery of the Tree of Life hidden amidst some Mayan pyramids. There is a contemporary story of Dr. Tom (Jackman) and Izzy (Weisz) with her dying from a brain tumor and his frantically performing experiments on lab monkeys trying to find a cure. Finally, there is Tom (Jackman) flying through space toward a dying star in a bubble containing a large tree.

Now that’s a lot of stuff for a 96 minute movie to juggle, but Aronofsky pulls it off. In terms of plot, there has been little disagreement as to what is going on. In the contemporary story, Izzy is writing a book – her poetic thoughts on what she and Tom are going through – and the film’s editing makes it very clear that the ancient scenes are what Tom imagines as he reads her book, the book being an allegory with the Grand Inquisitor’s actions and his covering a map with blood representing Izzy’s cancer and the Conquistador Tomas’ attempt to kill the Grand Inquisitor representing Tom’s effort to conquer the cancer. (Izzy refers to Tom as her conquistador.)

There has been some disagreement as to which of the other two time periods is the present. Some feel that the contemporary stuff is the present and that the space stuff is all in Tom’s mind as he attempts to write the final chapter of her book. Others consider the space stuff to be the present and the contemporary stuff being Tom’s memories seen in flashback. I think that the editing and cinematography better support this second take, not to mention Aronofsky’s own statements in its favor. Either reading is entirely supportable though and leads to its own uniquely gratifying way of seeing the film.

The film delves deeper than mere plot though – which is where most movies stop. Aronofsky has been very interested in religion – especially the Jewish mysticism of the Kabbalah – and with the ideas of Carl Jung. The Fountain consists of four parts: the ancient, the contemporary, the future, and spaceman Tom’s final separation to a vantage point outside of it all. The Kabbalah is usually depicted graphically by the Tree of Life with the lower part of the tree being man’s lower, animal nature; the middle part his human/mental nature; and the top his spiritual nature. However, man is truly the Seer who is outside of the Tree and looking at it. Jung considered our lives to contain four stages: infancy/youth, young adult, middle age, and old age/death. These are different names for the same ideas.

During the ancient scenes which correspond to the lower level, all Tomas thought would work was brute animalistic force. He wanted to kill the Priest and he was fighting with his men and ultimately against the Mayans – and that part was interesting. It symbolized his courage to defeat his lower emotions, because once the Mayans saw he was prepared to battle them, they let him pass.

The contemporary story has him trying to use human intellect and reasoning to reach his goal. But he must be guided by the spiritual and not follow the lower animal. We see him following his animal nature many times, even one time peering through an x-ray of a monkey skull with it matching the outline of his own face. We also see his turning toward the divine for inspiration when he looks up through a skylight.

The top level is the spiritual level. In space he was meditating, doing Tai Chi, and otherwise preparing spiritually to finally "finish it" and reach Nirvana/Heaven/Peace (the film gives us freedom to use whichever term we desire). When Tom has his revelation late in the film, he is able to stop nourishing himself from the base of the tree and can effortlessly climb high in its branches. He then flies away, able to look upon the complete picture.

In Jung’s work, especially involving alchemy, certain shapes are associated with these different levels or stages. Circles are symbolic of the highest stage. Squares and triangles – which are really just primitive circles, a circle being an infinite sided shape – are symbolic of less finished stages. There is a lot of interplay between these shapes in The Fountain. Triangles abound in the ancient scenes. The contemporary scenes are designed around squares and rectangles. The spaceship is a great circle. When Tom is overcome by his emotions, he turns to performing surgery on monkeys illuminated by a triangular pattern of lights that echoes the pattern on the dagger/map in the ancient story. Tom gets divine inspiration by looking up through a rectangular skylight to circular swirling clouds.

Jung called the process of finishing oneself, of becoming complete, Individuation. A very important aspect of Individuation is a mutual development of both our male and female aspects. Jung saw the Hindu God Shiva – often depicted as half man and half woman – and Jesus – sometimes depicted in androgynous terms as the returning Adam to restore the separation of the sexes begun with Eve – as perfect examples of Individuation. In Kabbalah, moving up the Tree of Life involves an intertwining of the male and the female. There is a wonderful illustration of this in The Fountain when Izzy desperately pulls Tom into the bathtub with her. (Some ancient illustrations of the Androgynous Man show an intertwining of man and woman above a circle encasing a square encasing a triangle.) What Tom lacks to be finished is a developed female aspect of his psyche and Izzy knows this. He is all aggression and driven by the need to control and to conquer. Izzy – his Eve – is helping him to finish himself.

Ultimately, all of this really boils down to a pivotal moment in Tom’s and Izzy’s lives. Will he go for a comforting walk with Izzy during her final days, or will he continue to be the conquistador. Will he become finished in the sense of being male and female? Or will he remain unfinished?

Jesus Camp

God works in mysterious ways – and so does the Devil. Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady also had to work cleverly when they made the documentary Jesus Camp, perhaps the years best horror film. They had to act as devil’s advocates – ironically in this case – and work their way into the confidences of Becky Fischer and her ministerial team. They couldn’t risk Michael Moore tactics. They had to burrow carefully and silently like moles into the midst of the “Kids on Fire” summer camp and let their subjects do the rest.

Fischer says at one point, “The devil uses tactics to destroy our lives.” In a pivotal scene, a guest pastor at the camp takes 12-year-old Levi on stage and narrates to him God’s storybook of his life, cupping his hand as if holding a book. But the devil giggles at the subconscious details. The pastor scribbles the story with his finger as he tells it. He isn’t reading Levi God’s story of his life. He is re-writing God’s story to fit the camp’s goals.

Jesus Camp spends a lot of time reminding us that kids are kids. They like to scare each other in the dark with ghost stories. They hate it if their bacon gets in their syrup. They enjoy Harry Potter even if it requires sneaking a peak now and then. They like to swing on swings and they like to throw rocks.

Jesus Camp quickly settles in to focus on three kids all wonderfully cast for their effortless appeal. They’re cute and vivacious. Their potential is evident in every frame of celluloid, making the tragedy of their stolen potential all the more poignant and distressing.

We have Rachael, age 9, a chatterbox of a natural charmer. The type of kid who could walk up to a stranger’s door and sell her 25 boxes of Girl Scout cookies without batting an eye. All of her talents though have been channeled into walking up to provocatively dressed women in bowling alleys and elderly men in parks attempting to save them. She dreams of being a manicurist so she can have an endless supply of captive listeners as she spreads the good news. She shrugs off other kids who say she’s weird. One day they’ll be sorry she says.

We meet Levi during a home school lesson, a wonderfully compact study of how home schooling can go terribly wrong. His mother asks, “What if you had to go to a school where the teacher said creationism is stupid and you’re stupid if you believe in it?” Levi stammers looking for words and his mother cuts him off, “What if you had to go to a school where the teacher said evolution was stupid?” Levi answers, “I wouldn’t mind that.” His mother continues, “When you look at creationism, you realize it’s the only possible answer to all the questions.” “Yes,” he replies, “that’s exactly what dad said … I think Galileo made the right decision by giving up science for Christ.”

We meet Tory, age 10, while doing what gives her the most pleasure, dancing to heavy metal Christian rock. She is another cute chatterbox who displays a dancer’s grace in every move from answering her mother’s questions with a flip of her arm and toss of her hair to fastening her suitcase and eating breakfast with musical fluidity. She also chastises herself, filled with self-disgust over her awareness that she sometimes dances for “reasons of the flesh.” She is so ashamed of something so natural for a girl of 10 that I had to look twice to see if her mother is Margaret White from Carrie. Tory is later reduced to a tear-streaming mess as she is admonished at camp to repent for these “sins.”

The common denominator with all three kids is they have been molded into little soldiers spreading the word of Christ, and have been made so at the cost of their individuality. People are born to serve God in infinitely many ways. I know a family of siblings who glorify God every day with their singing voices. Akeelah in Akeelah and the Bee refracted God’s light through her prowess in spelling bees. I know a teenager who excels in swimming. She once told me, “When God created me, he wrote ‘swimmer’ on my forehead.”

Much of the imagery used by the “Kids on Fire” camp reminds one of the military. And it really is a basic training experience – brainwashing, I say, as evidenced by the rhythmic and hypnotic chanting and drumming that accompanies chastising the kids for their sinful, “hypocritical” lives – and is steeped in the military ideal of Us versus Them. It is Us versus Islam. It is Us versus non-believers. And, as Rachael says, it is Us versus the “dead churches” that just sing a few songs and quietly listen to a sermon.

What pop out the other end of this grinder is not God-made individuals, each with his or her unique role to play, but rather a battalion of like-minded children ready to goosestep their way back into the world. Becky Fischer tells the campers, “Do not let Satan get you off the path God has chosen for you.” I’m sure Satan would be most happy to shake her hand and offer thanks for the help