Year-End Movie Catchup Edition

So. we’re coming up on New Years, and I have, surprisingly not been watching movies constantly. My wife’s had some health issues that have required my hovering helplessly over her while she tries to shoo me away, so let’s just say I haven’t really been in the mood lately.

That hasn’t really stopped me, just slowed me down somewhat. Once I realized the only thing keeping me glued to The List was me, I calmed down considerably. I’m probably going to miss the self-imposed year’s end deadline by one movie, and if that causes the world to end, well, I’ll be giving the Mayans hell in Xibalba. “One movie? Really?

This also hasn’t stopped me from devising next year’s list. I’ll post that after New Year’s. I’m looking forward to it.

So what did I manage to accomplish?

936full-major-dundee-posterMajor Dundee is a problematic movie, apparently as much to make as it is to watch. This was supposed to be Sam Peckinpah’s first big-budget movie, but new studio management cut his budget and his production time, so it’s likely a minor miracle that Peckinpah didn’t leave bullet holes in office walls. He and star Charlton Heston clashed mightily (though Heston at least once interceded on the director’s behalf) and the movie was eventually taken away and recut from two and a half hours down to a more manageable two. What I saw was a restored 136 minute version.

Heston is the title character, a Union soldier chafing under his assignment to run a prisoner of war compound. The possibility of more action is offered by the rampage of a murderous renegade, Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate) and his band of Apaches. The only problem is, to form a regiment large enough to pursue and engage the enemy, he has to recruit a number of his Confederate prisoners, who are led by an old friend, Captain Tyreen (Richard Harris). He also has a number of outsiders and general sketchy types, such as Slim Pickens and R.G. Armstrong as a two-fisted clergyman with a hate on for the Injun who decimated his flock. Not to mention James Coburn as a one-armed scout. And a number of black Union soldiers who want to prove they’re just as good as the white soldiers.

This is a hell of a setup for an action movie, a ragtag bunch who’d just as soon shoot each other as the enemy. You already know that there’s going to be some internal skirmishes, some respect is going to be garnered, some unlikely friendships are going to be formed.

MAJOR_DUNDEEWell, forget all this, this is a revisionist Western, and we have no time for it. In fact, Peckinpah made a damned good start on the revisionist western with his first feature, Ride The Wild Country, and there had certainly been others,  but Dundee is Peckinpah’s put-up-or-shut-up to the others. He had been shopping around a movie about George Custer, but decided Dundee hit the same points his Custer project intended to, and accepted the job. Our mob follows Charriba through Texas and into Mexico, and after a nighttime engagement that goes poorly, Dundee and troops head into a nearby village, where they engage instead the occupying French army, gaining the admiration of the much put-upon village but garnering a new formidable enemy.

Once they decide to head to this village, Charriba is going to vanish from the proceedings for the next hour or more. The conflict becomes more between Dundee and Tyreen, especially when Senta Berger crops up as a German woman helping the unfortunates in the village. Dundee gets wounded while dallying with her, is smuggled into another village for treatment, falls into an alcoholic fugue until Tyreen and men sweep back in to extract him, and then we are – finally! – back into the movie we started.

major_dundee03No wonder this was cut. The first 45 minutes and the last 15 serve up a fairly coherent story. The other hour and fifteen serves to give us a pencil sketch of the rest of Peckinpah’s movie career – echoes of the far superior The Wild Bunch abound –  but prove to be a slog, especially Dundee’s Lost Weekend segment. It is to Heston’s credit that Dundee is a pretty unsympathetic character, especially for a title character, and plays him as such – which probably gave the studio suits more than a little stomach acid on top of the other ulcers the movie was giving them.

For me, the best part of the movie is watching what would become Peckinpah’s stock company – Slim Pickens, R.G. Armstrong, L.Q. Jones, Ben Johnson, and especially Warren Oates – as backup singers in the troop, and wishing they had been given more screen time. Which would also have been ruthlessly cut out, anyway.

badlieutenantherzogProblematic in another way is Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which is a spiritual (at least) follow-up to Abel Ferrara’s 1992 movie starring Harvey Keitel. This one stars Nicolas Cage. I do like Cage a lot – he plays crazy and obsessed like few actors, but he needs a good director for guidance, or the result is simply bad cinema. But if there is one director who knows how to handle crazy, it’s Werner Herzog, and Bad Lieutenant is one of Cage’s better outings as an actor in some years.

Cage is Terence McDonagh, a New Orleans detective who saves a prisoner from a flooding cell just after Hurricane Katrina, injuring his back in the process. Prescribed vicodin for the pain, McDonagh is, six months later, a high-functioning junkie, but the high-functioning part is starting to get dubious. When his contact at the Evidence Room cuts him off, McDonagh starts looking desperately for other drug sources, even as he gets deeper into a drug-related multiple homicide investigation. Finally he screws up big time and he finds himself allied with the man he was hunting down: drug lord Big Fate (Xzibit) after which things get even worse.

The central question of “Did Bad Lieutenant even need a sequel?” is one that’s never really answered. There’s a general try to match the earlier movie’s visceral punch, but it never quite succeeds. Even with hallucinations of iguanas and Eva Mendes as Cage’s hooker girlfriend, it generally looks and feels like an HBO drama gone slightly off the rails. Worth seeing, but not life or game-changing.

Layout 1 (Page 1)Continuing my twisted anti-hero run was Drive, which everyone was exclaiming about earlier this year. Ryan Gosling earns his movie star stripes as Driver, a mechanic who works Hollywood auto stunts when he can, and moonlights as wheelman for crimes when he can’t. Driver is a prodigy on wheels, amply proven in a tense getaway sequence at the very beginning of the movie. More or less by accident, he meets his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), who has a young son. They hit it off, Driver finds himself falling in love with her… and then her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac) gets out of prison.

Standard owes some shady types protection money from when he was inside, and they want him to pull a pawn shop robbery to clear his debt. When Irene and her son are threatened, Driver offers to be the wheelman for the job. But there is a deeper double cross going on, and Driver finds himself in possession of a million dollars and two dead associates. The path from there gets tangled, but it all comes down to two minor-league gangsters, played by Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks, and Driver goes on the offensive to save the woman he loves.

drive-movie-1Drive is an impressive-looking movie, with an often beautiful synthesis between image and sound, and a beautifully modern soundtrack; this is the best Michael Mann movie that wasn’t made by Michael Mann. Though I find myself more than willing to credit Driver’s ability behind the wheel, I find myself wondering just how the hell he became savvy enough to take out three professional hit men. Then again (shrug), it’s an action movie, sort of. When has that ever stopped me enjoying one? Ron Perlman is good as usual, but the real revelation is Albert Brooks, playing a fairly normal businessman capable of turning into a vicious thug at a moment’s notice. He’s very good at the quiet menace thing, and he was up for several best supporting acting awards, although not the all-important Academy Award.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn has a nice filmography behind him, and is apparently now developing the movie version of The Equalizer. I loved that show, and Drive proves him a very good fit for the material.

sucker-punch-2Speaking of material – and I used the word flawed a little earlier – I finally watched Sucker Punch before the year was out, and found why I was able to buy the two-disc Blu-ray edition for three bucks and change.

I don’t know where to start, so I’m not going to. Ugly, muddled story in an ugly, muddled world. The “Fantasy Realms” stuff was gorgeous, and makes me wonder why Zack Snyder didn’t just make a live-action anime if that was the intention. What I found myself sitting through was Zack Snyder first attempting to make a Baz Luhrmann movie, then deciding that Tarsem Singh fella had some good ideas, too. This is one destined for the SwapaDVD pile, and they likely already have a dozen or so on file.

Also, Carla Gugino, honey. What gypsy did you piss off that you keep being in movies like this? Do I need to call someone?

300px-JohnnyfirecloudpostThough I’ve a couple of others, Johnny Firecloud is the last movie I’m going to jam into this post, as it fits the twisted anti-hero motif that seems to have spontaneously generated itself. This is on a Something Weird double feature disc with Bummer!, another David F. Friedman-produced flick, and it actually proved itself to have some surprises in store.

The first surprise was the 20th Century Fox logo at the start. The second was that the movie was shot in Panavision. This was not the grimy revenge flick I had been led to expect by the trailer and exploitation movie books. This was intended to be released to hardtops, not drive-ins.

This is Friedman’s most expensive movie, to be sure. Apparently he put aside his usual animosity toward investors and actually put together a SAG shoot, with a commensurate uptick in quality, both in production value and talent.

firecloud14The title character, Johnny Firecloud (Victor Mohica) is an American Indian who returns from Vietnam to find his home town more than ever under the thumb of rancher Colby (Ralph Meeker), and things worse than ever on the reservation. Colby has it in for Johnny, mainly because he got the rancher’s daughter pregnant before shipping out (though this is something Johnny doesn’t know).  The town Sheriff, played by David Canary, is the unwilling tool by which Johnny is hassled, until things rather come to a head when Johnny’s grandfather is lynched, and the Indian schoolmarm gang-raped by Colby’s goon squad. Then Johnny, who once sneered at his grandfather’s “traditions” goes on the warpath and offs the good squad in bloody traditional ways, like scalping, tomahawks to the head, being buried up to the neck and left for the buzzards, you know. The usual.

Firecloud tries to take the high road when it can. It takes nearly an hour to get to the warpath segment, an hour of racism, character work, and a general tour of Asshole Town. The trailer, of course, concentrates on the bloody revenge aspect, but as i said – that’s all in the last half-hour. The reason why Sheriff Jessie bends the knee to Colby is rather startling for ’75 – turns out that while he was in the Army, Jessie was raped and then dishonorably discharged as a homosexual! Colby’s daughter, played by Christina Hart, also gets some more dimension as the story progresses. Hell, the movie’s end – which ends on an unfinished note, though the pieces are in place for Colby’s final comeuppance – even takes the high road.

johnfirecloud2cd017xwRalph Meeker was really a good actor who got stuck playing rotten bad guys because he was so good at it. He wanted to play the Sheriff, to get a sympathetic role for the first time since, probably, Paths of Glory, but nope. You got the villain role, man. David Canary usually gets singled out as the one thing that almost salvages Johnny Firecloud, and that is the truth. Canary has five daytime Emmys for his work on All My Children, and they ain’t just for show. His turn as the tormented Jessie is about as three-dimensional as anybody gets in this movie, and the cinema’s loss was definitely TV’s gain.

sacheenI guess we can’t go without mentioning the movie’s stunt casting, and that’s Sacheen Littlefeather as the doomed schoolmarm, Nenya. Littlefeather is most famous as the woman who appeared for Marlon Brando at the ’72 Oscars to turn down the Best Actor Award for Godfather and deliver a short manifesto on the mistreatment on Indians. (No matter your politics, you have to admit that took guts on the lady’s behalf. I still remember the boos from the audience.) Of course, at this cynical remove, we can also reflect that her birth name was Maria Cruz, and she was only half-Indian – but then, that’s probably more than Frank DeKova, who played the grandfather, Chief White Eagle. Hell, even the star, Victor Mohica, was really Puerto Rican.

Johnny Firecloud comes that close to being a good movie, but it didn’t make a choice. It tried to be Billy Jack crossed with Walking Tall – and that’s a concept that gets a movie made, but to what end? The cast of characters of a decent morality play is there, but  the execution of the revenge portion seems rushed, and when Jessie’s deputy mentions all they have to do is stake out Johnny’s dwindling list of victims, he speaks for the audience.

Then again, you’re listening to someone who expected a gritty, nasty little revenge flick and got – well, Billy Jack crossed with Walking Tall. And I actually didn’t like either of those, anyway.

So there we are. Lookie there, it’s New Year’s Eve and I only have one movie left to watch. See you on the other side, where I’ll blither about that.

Happy New Year!

2012 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 10,000 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 17 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

Ikiru (1952)

ikiru-479517lThe Criterion Collection website has its social element. Not a site forum that I can find, but you can set up your own account there, comment on the various Collection posts (I skip the comments, as is my habit. When I don’t, I am saddened that they usually run to the banal, like “Me wanty!” or posts about Dr. Dre’s Beats that haven’t been purged yet) and you can curate a thing called “My Criterion“. Now, while I don’t like making lists, I do love cataloging, so I had another place to post my discs besides the one on Letterboxd. You can also put together a Wish List, and the only failing there is Criterion didn’t provide a button for “Everything Not Already Owned”.

I bring this up because you also create a profile there, and one of the things displayed on your profile is, no surprise, Favorite Director. I’ve waffled a bit on that over time, but I started out with Akira Kurosawa, and after a while and some flirting with other directors, I’m right back at Akira Kurosawa.

It is, quite simply, hard to go wrong with Kurosawa. I can trace my current love of cinema, I think, to a series on PBS back in my youth, circa 1973 0r 74, that showed classic world cinema. One of the movies they showed was Seven Samurai, and my fate was sealed. The fact that they later showed Yojimbo was just to make sure I had stopped twitching. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen Seven Samurai; it’s the movie I trot out at least once a year for viewing, and I find something new to admire every time.

Kurosawa is so influential, that he birthed a cottage industry, and a secondary hobby of mine. I collect Kurosawa rip-offs, remakes, or homages if the budget is big enough. Seven Samurai and Yojimbo must be the most-remade movies ever, in various genres and locales.

600full-ikiru-posterBut the point I am making, in a typically meandering and tail-chasing way, is that if your only experience with Kurosawa is his samurai movies, then you must see Ikiru. Frankly, I could have left it at “You must see Ikiru.”

Ikiru translates as “To Live” or simply “Living”. It stars the versatile Takashi Shimura as Kanji Watanabe, an aging bureaucrat who has spent the last thirty years advancing to the head of his department in city government by doing nothing. His life is incredibly nondescript, sitting at his desk, stamping papers, and overseeing his underlings continually shuttling complaints off to other departments.

Until his stomach pains become so great he has to take his first day off in 30 years to see a doctor, only to discover that he has terminal stomach cancer. In just one more layer of an astonishingly-crafted film, Watanabe is not told of his impending death by the medical bureaucracy at the hospital, that instead falls to a loquacious hypochondriac in the waiting room, who lists off all the symptoms of terminal cancer and the lies doctors tell to terminal patients. It’s a stark reminder that at the time it was common practice to not tell terminal patients of their plight, to avoid filling their remaining days with dread.

ikiru_2Watanabe finds himself falling into an emotional whirlpool. He finds he cannot bring himself to tell his adult son or his daughter-in-law about his illness, as his concentration on being un-extraordinary has also subjected his personal life to the same drab non-existence of his office. He withdraws a large sum of money from his bank, intending to blow it on debauchery, only to find to his dismay that he has no idea where to start. A chance encounter with a hard-drinking writer sets them onto a long night exploring the entertainment quarter – and you had no earthly idea the night life in Tokyo was so varied and so intense.  Even that, though, fails to pierce Watanabe’s melancholy, and even the Writer finds himself sobered by the man’s fate, all his efforts to render life and death poetic crushed by the simple fact of Watanabe stopping their taxi ride to vomit his ailing guts out in an alley.

Watanabe is then smitten by Toyo (Miki Odagiri) the sole woman in his department, a young girl who is leaving because she finds the work “boring” and unsatisfying. The older man isn’t in love or even in lust with her – he is drawn to the fact that she is so alive, that she makes him laugh. Shimura is, in fact, capable of making the saddest, most hang-dog expression possible, and seeing that face transform when he laughs is magical indeed.

ikiru-bunnyWatanabe’s son is certain that his father’s odd behavior is due to Toyo, and when the man tries to tell his son, finally, about his cancer, the son jumps the gun and completely chews his father out about hanging with a young girl. Toyo is also getting creeped out by Watanabe’s attention, and when she attempts to  cut off all contact with him, he tells her of his plight and tries, one last time, to find out what it is about her life that makes it so vital, so attractive. Toyo feels it is because she is currently working in a toy factory, and she makes things. She puts one of the toy bunnies on the table. “I feel like I’m playing with every baby in Japan.”  In his moment of greatest despair, Watanabe sobs he can’t make anything, not in his job… and as a party in another part of the restaurant breaks into “Happy Birthday to You”, he realizes he can, and charges out.

The narrator informs us that six months later Watanabe has died, and the rest of the movie takes place at his wake.

2aSince the movie is starting to play around with time, I’ll do the same and return to the beginning, where, in a darkly comic sequence, we are shown a group of housewives complaining about a cesspool in their neighborhood, asking to have it paved over and hopefully turned into a park for their children. They start at Watanabe’s department, then are shuffled from department to department to the deputy mayor and finally, back to Watanabe’s department. That, and the stacks of paper everywhere, reaching to the ceiling (Kurosawa’s art department apparently appropriated the studio’s paperwork for the past 40 years for these documentary vistas) artfully delineate Watanabe’s world.

As the attendees at his funeral talk, we begin to discover the particulars of the last six months of Watanabe’s life; how he used that time to successfully railroad through the creation of that park, and how he was found dead in that park the day after it opened. Through these stories, his co-workers and fellow bureaucrats – and his son and daughter-in-law – come to realize that Watanabe knew he was going to die, and utilized his final days for all they were worth. The increasingly intoxicated bureaucrats swear they will do the same, they will, like Watanabe, become firebrands of change. Of course, the next day, they all go back to their gray, do-nothing lives, leaving the one worker who attempts to follow their grandiose, drunken promises to ponder Watanabe’s park sadly as the sun sets. The change, when it comes, will not come as a sweeping wave, but as the work of individuals, like Watanabe, and like, hopefully, this one serious, concerned worker.

Ikiru is a surprising film, one that just when you think you have it scoped out, changes on you. We identify so strongly with Watanabe and his blind flailing to find something, anything to make his wasted life worthwhile, that it comes as a bit of a shock to find out he’s dead just when things finally seem to hitting a positive note. But that storytelling is incredibly canny because due to our identification with the character, we then get to attend our own funeral, and it is every bit as satisfying as we could hope. Not mawkish at all, but with heartfelt feeling.

ikiru-bfi-00m-ek4Earlier in the movie, when the Writer is showing Watanabe through the underworld, there is a scene in a piano bar where the player asks what he wants to hear, and Watanabe requests “The Gondola Song”, which dates back to 1915, a song asking women to find love before they are too old. Some drunken couples get up to dance, but slowly stop and sit down, listening to Watanabe’s sorrowful singing. In the final portion of the movie, we are privy to Watanabe’s final moments, sitting in one of the swings in the new park, joyfully crooning “The Gondola Song” in the snowy night. I have tears in my eyes just writing about that moment. Hopefully the spellcheck will catch the typos.

So yes, Ikiru is a movie to be seen. It is emotional without stooping to manipulation, heartfelt without cheap sentiment. Akira Kurosawa was a humanist, and rarely was that humanism so moving and so affecting.

There Will Be Flying Mariachis

el-mariachi-movie-poster-1993-1020189250So how many years has it been that I’ve not seen El Mariachi? A lot. (mumble) What? I said twenny years. TWENTY YEARS, I SAID TWENTY YEARS, OKAY? Cripes, I remember Roger Ebert recommending it on Sneak Previews, that should tell you something about how long I’d successfully avoided it.

This is, of course, Robert Rodriguez’ first feature, made with borrowed equipment and press-ganged actors, made for an initial cost of somewhere around six to seven thousand dollars. Rodriguez got his seed money by serving as a human lab rat at a research hospital, testing a cholesterol control drug. Apparently the villainous gringo in El Mariachi, Peter Marquardt, was a fellow lab rat, just to show one of the ways Rodriguez got his cast.

Now, Mariachi did get a fair amount of post-production money poured into it when somebody smart determined it was too good to be passed off as a direct-to-video flick, but there’s a difference between polishing a turd and enhancing an already solid base. El Mariachi is an amazingly proficient piece of filmmaking. The tight pacing and snappy editing necessitated by a budget that won’t buy you a used car becomes a plus instead of the lead weight that has sunk many another first feature.

mariachi1The story has a nicely classical setup: the Title Mariachi (Carlos Gallardo) travels the country looking for work in bars to perfect his craft. He hits town at the same time as Azul (Reinoi Martinez), a minor league drug lord determined to wreak vengeance on his double-crossing partner (the aforementioned Marquardt). Azul likes to dress in black and carry his many weapons around in a guitar case. Marquardt’s character is the only person who’s actually seen Azul. And so the mistaken identity shenanigans and body count begin.

Mariachi has a number of surprises with exciting chase scenes through blissfully unaware crowds, a couple of thrilling stunts, and a willingness to make fun of itself with some sped-up comedy scenes. It’s a wonderfully entertaining flick, and I liked it a lot more than I liked Desperado, Rodriguez’ better-budgeted follow-up with some, you know, actual name stars.

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions (I don’t need a special occasion to lie to myself), but if I did this year I would have sworn to broaden my movie-watching base, and I could have spent most of this post crowing about how I’d accomplished that. It’s exceedingly rare that I watch even one of the Best Movie nominees in any given year, and yet, here on the list, I have two contenders from a few years back. That would be The Hurt Locker, which I hope to get to in the next week or so, and There Will Be Blood.

therewillbeblood-2There Will Be Blood has some strikes against it for me right out the gate because of its unfortunate parentage, by which I mean it is based, however loosely, on a novel by Upton Sinclair, Oil! Mr Sinclair and myself have not spoken since I was forced to read The Jungle back in 11th grade. But the name Paul Thomas Anderson is a balm for many old wounds, so here we go.

The movie is about the progression of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) from prospector to “oil man” to tycoon though the change from oil field hustler to mansion-dwelling sociopath is achieved by the most severe compression of narrative I’ve seen since Gone With the Wind. Given the Sinclair lineage – and that his book was based on the Teapot Dome scandal – we can be pretty sure that Plainview is not going to turn out to be a very nice person. The fact that Day-Lewis is this generation’s foremost portrayer of complete assholes bears this out. Anderson and Day-Lewis are confident enough to let us see bits of decency shine through Plainview, but these, like anyone who stands in the way of his pursuit of black gold, will eventually be trampled underfoot and buried in shallow graves.

The greatest pleasure for me – beside admiring Day-Lewis’ rock-solid work – is the painstaking re-creation of oil field technology from mudhole in the ground to wooden derrick. The first fifteen minutes of the movie, devoid of dialogue – is mesmerizing. Overall, not a movie I loved, but certainly worth the watch. If nothing else, I’m glad to finally know what all this “milkshake” business the last couple of years was about.

Let’s close this out by proving that I haven’t totally left my roots. I discovered to my great joy that Tsui Hark’s Flying Swords of Dragon Gate was on Netflix Instant. I came this close to seeing this in a theater. It was playing in one theater – one! – about forty minutes drive from me, in its native 3-D, for one damned week. I made plans to make a pilgrimage to see it on Memorial Day, but other events conspired against me, and I didn’t make it.

long_men_fei_jiaThis is the third version of Dragon Gate Inn I know of, and each version just gets wilder. In its most basic form, the story concerns three factions with good reasons to kill each other instead concealing their various identities while they huddle at the title desert Inn, riding out a massive sandstorm. Most of this intrigue is jettisoned in this latest re-telling, substituting treasure hunting, vicious government agents seeking a pregnant woman (on orders from am ambitious concubine who wants no possibility of an Imperial bloodline but her own) , and Jet Li as a righteous warrior determined to kill all the corrupt government types.

CGI-enhanced wirework is the order of the day here, so get used to the idea and ride with it. I started getting unto wuxia movies back in the 80s when I realized this was best example of a comic book reality translated to film, I had ever found, and Flying Swords, with multiple daggers and swords helicoptering all over the screen to milk the possibilities of 3-D, really does look like the most berserk combination of Jademan comics/manga/Marvel I’ve seen. By the time Jet Li and the chief bad guy Chen Kun elect to continue their duel in the interior of a tornado, it all seems quite logical.

Like Hark’s other big “comeback” movie, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, the plentiful CGI is a little too obvious, and I begin to wonder if this isn’t a cultural thing. The tendency in the West is to look at something like this and think, “Man, that looks fake.” Is the Eastern tendency more toward regarding every element onscreen as a part of the picture, and judging the picture as a whole? I don’t actually have the answer to that. I mean, we know the imaginary world on the screen is just that: imaginary. Over the course of my lifetime we’ve gone from painted glass shots to traveling mattes to CGI. We’re aware that the extraordinary stuff we see on screen can’t be real. So as long as the stuff is not patently ridiculous, like the hovering birds in Birdemic, why make such a big deal out of things being too real, too sharp, too well-defined?

Maybe we got spoiled by Blade Runner and its constant rainy mist. Most of the really obvious CGI in this and Detective Dee is stuff that takes place on a clear day. Perhaps there is still some shading that could be done to dull the sharpness of the image, some atmospheric effects; but that’s not done, and you begin to wonder if it ‘s intentional, and then suddenly you’re not talking about the movie anymore. Sorry.


Like I said, rowr.

Anyway. I found Flying Swords of Dragon Gate a little long, but fun. Lots of colorful characters,  plenty of fights where you can generally tell what’s going on, and a pleasant return to pre- Chang Cheh days, where women could be expected to kick just as much ass as men, if not more. (PS. Gwei Lun-Mei as the Tartar Princess – rowr!)

Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2010)

Joan_PINK_YELLOW_flat_CMYK_REV.psdSo I have this list of 60 movies that I was By God gonna watch this year, and I entered December not really sure I was going to pull it off. That’s generally a very busy period for me, and I was contemplating the very real possibility of carrying over any leftovers into 2013. Yes, I will be doing this again next year, the list is almost completely built. The major innovation will be starting it in January instead of later in the year.

So, anticipating this crushing personal defeat, what was my best course of action? Well, as a self-absorbed and pointlessly self-destructive child of the 60s, I felt the thing to do was to watch a movie that was not on The List. It makes sense if you’re me.

So, if you’re one of the bored people who follow me on Facebook, one evening you got to see this:

Freeman Williams-175338Yes, I fully admit that I am behind the social arc in many ways – that’s why I have things like The List. I’m in a perpetual state of catch-up because I don’t like to rush. Hell, I’m pretty much physically unable to rush. Anyway, there it was, on Netflix Instant, a movie that had been represented to me as the absolute nadir of movies for a couple of years.

So like I said: Inevitable.

I rarely live-Tweet movies, with the exception of Crapfests, where I don’t want moments to slip by and vanish in the increasingly inebriated Lost Weekend of my brain. But there was something about Birdemic that just forces the dismayed broadcasting of your pain, like vomiting to get tainted food out of your system:

Birdemic1Oh, yes, I was finding out that this was, indeed, a perfect storm of bad movie-making techniques. Flat acting (in the instances it could be called acting at all), pauses in the dialogue that you could drive several delivery trucks stuck in first gear through, and that very special horror, the blossoming of ambient sound before and after a line, bespeaking no ADR or even laying down an ambient bed to make each line of dialogue sound like it might have been recorded on the same day.

Birdemic 2Gavin R. R. Smith tells me that there is a very obvious Getty Images watermark on the news “footage”. I’m going to take his word for it, cuz damned if I’m going back to check it out.

Birdemic 3I assumed the awkwardly choreographed CGI birds were a hint of things to come – either that or this was a story from an alien world where physics do not work the same as ours. That interpretation is, in fact, still a possibility.

The dolly comment could come from several different scenes, but this one is particular was prompted when it is announced that Generic Software Company has been bought by Oracle for ONE BEELION DOLLARS and there is a series of shots of various people being cued to look excited while the camera dollies past their table. I think these people work for Generic. I don’t know, they’ve never been introduced and I’m too busy wondering what the director is trying to say by dollying past a six foot long table over and over again.

Birdemic 4a1) There’s no band, only a singer; 2) Our heroes are the only people in the bar 3) I’m still watching this 4) …

Finally after almost an hour of relationship-building, intermittent blurbs about global warming jammed into the narrative and saying “And… scene!” while actors wait for the camera to be turned off after they run out of lines, we finally come to the birdy apocalypse.

Birdemic 4bYeah, yeah, yeah, *in* flight. My brain was attempting to claw its way out the back of my head. If you’ve been lucky enough to avoid Birdemic – eagles can hover effortlessly by flapping their wings  once a second, and they do this in formation and unison.

So our heroes fall in with another pair of campers who are, fortunately, traveling around in a van with enough guns and ammunition to take on the pesky birds. Or maybe the guns are just magic, because I never see anybody reload.

Birdemic 5As Birdemic progresses, the M*E*S*S*A*G*E* portions get more and more preachy and obvious. They’re the opposite of subtle. Really, all global change denialists had to say over the last two years was “What, did you see that in Birdemic, or something?” to shut down all debate.

Writing dialogue for four characters is hard (six, actually, but two rescued children never get to say anything) so the picture kills off the two gun-running campers. The second one, who buys it while trying to rescue three idiots from a double-decker bus, does so by falling prey to a Birdemic attack that has never been seen before and will never be seen again in the remainder of the movie: he and his idiot rescuees are doused by either bird puke, or bile, or poop or some goddamn thing that burns them to death or makes them die of embarrassment. Anyway, our hero drives off, leaving the assault rifle behind, and I really doubt the ammo is compatible with the pistol hero is packing.

I haven’t even mentioned the hero shooting the pistol and playing the recoil a second after the animated muzzle flash and sound effect. I’m not that mean.

Birdemic 6Otherwise the hero would know that the proper response to hundred-dollar gallons of gas is to pull a gun on the price-gouging bad actor and pay the posted amount. But, although he already has a gun in his hand, he simply hands over his credit card. Ray Milland would have bitch slapped him.

Birdemic 7Yeah, occasionally you’ll witness one of the birds divebomb something and explode on impact. Why? Global warming, that’s why. Our hero has multiple opportunities to scavenge more guns and gasoline but passes them up, so I’m more than a little miffed with him when he runs out of gas and has to catch a fish with dead camper gear. The two kids he’s rescued start whining about wanting Happy Meals, but – you guessed it – he’s run out of bullets and can’t shoot the ungrateful little louts. The birds fly in for one last swoop, but decide that since he doesn’t have bullets anymore, he’s no fun and fly off. In an end credit sequence that lasts forever.

Best comment of the night goes to @MovieMike:

Birdemic 8

Oh, and atheists? Stop arguing. Here is your proof that there is no God:

Birdemic 9

The Stanley Kubrick Project: Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Somehow, somewhere in there, I watched Eyes Wide Shut and didn’t write about it. Certainly an ignoble end to one of my more ambitious projects this year: watching all of Stanley Kubrick’s movies, in order.  The reasons for this are many, and most do not have anything to do with the movie itself. The ones that do, are, primarily: I hadn’t heard good things about it, and I am not a fan of Tom Cruise.

Eyes_Wide_Shut-867433280-largeWell, the first image you’re going to see in Eyes Wide Shut is a nude Nicole Kidman, which should let you know what kind of a movie you are in for. For some reason, a naked woman in the opening shot for Student Teachers signals exploitation; in the opening moments of a Stanley Kubrick movie, it presages art. It probably has something to do with the lighting.

Cruise is successful Manhattan doctor Bill Harford and Kidman his wife, Alice. They’re preparing to go to a Christmas party held by one of Harford’s patients, a fabulously wealthy man played by another film director, Sydney Pollack. Bill and Alice, being young, beautiful people, are hit on by various sexual scavengers during the party. Afterwards, in a marijuana-fueled confrontation (Alice has that strain of pot that makes you aggressive, which I must admit is something I’ve never encountered), Alice is a little too frank about a fantasy she once had about a naval officer. This shakes Harford to his core, and in the next twelve hours, he is accosted by a recently dead patient’s daughter who claims to love him, nearly has an assignation with a prostitute, and finally ends up at a mansion in the middle of nowhere, a masked interloper in a bizarre Hellfire Club-type evening of debauchery, filled with naked women and others all similarly masked.

1347922021_5-eyes-wide-shut_660_371It’s this gathering that forms the center of our story, and the aftermath provides the remainder of the film. Discovered and ejected from the gathering, his life apparently saved by a woman willing to sacrifice herself in his stead, Harford attempts to piece together what exactly happened. Unable to admit to his wife what he did the night before, he also finds each of the brief, unfulfilled relationships of that evening terminated and unavailable. His paranoia becomes a feverish thing, as he becomes aware of a tough-looking individual following him. Finally, in a scene that is remarkably stolid for a Kubrick film, Sydney Pollack explains everything to him, and it’s not quite as weird or evil as we or Harford suspected.

In a fit of contrition, Harford admits everything to Alice, and the final scenes, in which the Harford take their daughter Christmas shopping, is actually a small masterpiece of acting. There is a lot of room between Bill and Alice, as they follow their child through the hectic store; their minds are obviously anywhere else than where they are, physically, at the moment. There is a note of rapprochement before the final fade, at least.

Eyes Wide Shut is taken from a novella called Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler, basically, dream story. Cruise really does move through the story as if it were a dream, frequently surprised, confused, often trying to extricate himself from events unfolding around him, and when he does initiate a situation, instead of having it thrust upon him – by hurriedly putting together a disguise and catching a cab into the super-wealthy wilderness – he pays a hefty price, suddenly finding himself in the weirdest Hitchcock movie ever made.

Kidman-EyesWideShut_653In all, it’s intriguing, if not especially fulfilling, watching Eyes Wide Shut unfold. The increasing unreality of Harford’s situation finally washed away in the overly-bright ultra-consumerism of a Christmas Macy’s. Seeing Cruise walk the night streets of a New York which we know – just because we know Kubrick – is really somewhere in England. The sudden, unheralded appearances of Alan Cumming and Fay Masterson. And the fact that I didn’t really mind Tom Cruise in this, at all (even if I find it dismaying that a well-to-do doctor drinks Budweiser, for God’s sake). Also, I like Nicole Kidman in eyeglasses, surprise, surprise.

And the fact that the very last word said in the last Kubrick movie, ever, is “Fuck”… well, dark humorist and cynic that he was, I’m sure that makes Kubrick chuckle occasionally in Movie Maker Heaven.

The Last Hot Vanishing Fountain

As I begin to write this out, it is December 5. I’ve managed to winnow The List down to 12 movies that I have 26 days to watch. Gosh, this is sort of exciting. Next year remind me to start this nonsense in January instead of March or April or whenever I began it this year.

So I bumped a few:

last_king_of_scotland_ver3The biggest problem I have with watching The Last King of Scotland is reminding myself that what I am watching is not a docudrama, it was never meant to be a docudrama, it is supposed to be a thriller that just happens to feature one of the most infamous dictators of our time, Idi Amin. I’m going to blame Crapfest for this and the fact that for some reason we’ve watched Amin – The Rise and Fall twice and there are even people talking about a third go-round (to which I usually respond “Well then, we’ll have to watch Astrology Songs again, too.”).

In any case, Last King involves a fictitious young doctor (James MacAvoy) who comes to Uganda to help in a rural hospital, and who, through somewhat bizarre circumstance, becomes Amin (Forest Whitaker)’s personal physician and close adviser. Which all seems rather peachy until the man starts getting increasingly unstable and MacAvoy finds out about the massacres and people vanishing. By that time it’s too late, and he’s trapped.

Last King isn’t as tabloid-driven as The Rise and Fall, but there’s plenty of sensationalism to go around, much of it having the ring of truth. Things get very messy toward the end, though, both in terms of violence and plotting, such that it’s a relief when the end credits roll. Love or hate the subject matter, though, it is undeniably a marvelous showcase for Forest Whitaker’s considerable talent, rightfully earning him the 2007 Best Actor Oscar.

And hey, besides his love for Scotland, Amin was a big Man Called Horse fan! Who knew?

vanishing_pointIt’s small wonder that very same evening I followed up with Vanishing Point, a movie I have been assured for decades that I would love, and yet I had never seen. Well, now I have, and they were right. I could easily lavish 1000 words and more on this movie alone.

Famously, this movie stars Barry Newman as Kowalski, a man who drives cars to their destination for a delivery service. Picking up a white Dodge Challenger in Denver, he makes a bet that he can get it to San Francisco in 15 hours. Police don’t like muscle cars breaking all sorts of speed limits, so there is an effort across three states to stop him, even though the authorities admit that the only reason they’re trying to stop him is to ask him why he’s going so fast. And as the attempts to stop Kowalski escalate, he becomes a counterculture phenomenon, “The Last American Hero.”

The video box proclaims this to be “The Ultimate Car Chase Movie”, but Vanishing Point is as far removed from something like Eat My Dust as Seven Samurai is from Sgt. Kabukiman. It’s an existential mind trip, as you should guess when, at the movie’s beginning (which sets up just a few minutes from the movie’s end), Kowalski races past himself, which leads us into the beginning of the movie. Director Richard Sarafian says he wanted to construct the movie like a Möbius strip (and hoo boy, you can’t get much more of a 1971 sentiment than that).

1000_the-vanishing-point06As Kowalski travels across the desert, ripped on speed, he meets interesting characters, and we are given brief snippets of his past: a Viet Nam vet, decorated for bravery, a disgraced cop, busted for beating up his partner when he tried to rape a hippie girl. Motorcycle racer, car racer, a life full of wrecks. He forms an odd rapport with a blind radio DJ, Super Soul (Cleavon Little), who tries to pass important information to Kowalski, and pays the price for it.

If you have the blu-ray, I recommend the UK version. It has a scene, approximately five minutes long, where Kowalski picks up a hitchhiker – considering it’s Charlotte Rampling, cripes, who wouldn’t? – and tokes up with her. Considering he’s been offered marijuana several times in the course of the movie, this is pretty extraordinary. He also pulls off the road when he starts getting stoned. Rampling has an odd conversation with him, wherein she says “I’ve always waited for you, Every time, Every where. Patiently.” They kiss. Kowalski sleeps, probably for the first time in weeks, and when he wakes… she’s vanished.

It actually sets up the end very well, instead of hitting you between the eyes with it.

Other reactions: “This is a counterculture movie, where the hell is Severn Darden? Oh, wait, there he is.”

Also, the Naked Motorcycle Rider (Gilda Texter) was entirely justified artistically.

I should mention that it is now December 6, and the number of movies is down to 11. I feel like I’m racing toward some vanishing point myself.

the-fountainThe Fountain, on the other hand, is not an existential movie. It’s very layered, and I think it wants to think itself more profound than it actually is.

Hugh Jackman plays three roles, though two are actually the same man. You see, he plays a doctor who is desperately searching for a cure for brain tumors, in particular the type his wife (Rachel Weisz) is dying from, and on the way he accidentally discovers the Fountain of Youth in the form of an old growth tree in Central America. (The third character is a Conquistador searching for that very tree in a novel his wife is writing) Jackman literally finds out his treatment is actually causing tumors in experimental animals to shrink the moment his wife goes into her final seizure and dies.

Most of this is revealed in flashback while the now ageless Jackman travels through space in one of those bubbles that must be science so far advanced as to be magic. His only companion is that same Tree of Life, ancient and dying. Jackman intends to bathe it in the dying sun at the heart of the Orion Nebula, which his wife identified as the Mayan underworld, Xibalba; through what mystic avenues we may not know, he feels this will revive the Tree.

The story switches between these three narratives, which is a device that forces you to be involved or you’re going to get lost. That involvement invests you in the story, though the fact that Jackman and Weisz are both great actors also helps. The movie is gorgeous; director Darren Aronofsky eschewed CGI for the space sequences and used, quote, “micro-photography of chemical reactions on tiny petri dishes” resulting in a totally unique visual palette, which he stitches together with golden light in the other two storylines. It is a gorgeous movie, wonderful to behold; I’m just not sure who its audience might be.

When it was over, my wife said, “That was not a chick flick.” To which my only response could be, “Well, it certainly wasn’t a guy flick either.” I don’t regret watching it, I just have to go, Hm. Art. and let it wash over me.

hot-fuzz-poster-1One of the reasons I came up with The List was to force me to watch some movies I’d had around forever, or at least most of a decade or so. Now one of my favorite movies of the last year or so was Scott Pilgrim vs The World, and over the years I had picked up Edgar Wright’s last two movies, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzzyet had not watched them. The List has put an end to such nonsense, eh?

So Simon Pegg is Nick Angel, a London cop who is so good at his job that he’s promoted sideways to a peaceful little village so he’ll stop making all the other cops look bad. The usual fish-out-of-water hijinks follow, except for a series of gruesome deaths that only Angel can perceive are murders. Nick Frost is along again as the larger, slightly slower-witted PC Danny, who loves movies like Point Break and Bad Boys II and is ecstatic to find himself serving with a genuine badass.

If there is a problem with Hot Fuzz, it’s that it takes a little too long to get itself moving, and even when it does, there is still a lot to get through until the third act – but by God you feel like you’ve earned that third act, which is spectacular and has one of the best twists I’ve seen. Edgar Wright is a master of the complete mood swing in the third act.

Wright seems to be making one of every genre movie he wants to, and with results like this and his other movies, I’m not about to complain.

There. Now to see if I can get the outstanding movies down to 10 before The Show eats my weekend.

Crap. You know what I watched and never wrote up? Eyes Wide Shut.