Monday, December 6, 2010

Drum Roll, Please (part 1)

I've actually watched a fair amount of films in the last month or so. It's a lot easier to watch them than to write about them, for sure. I tend to enjoy most of what I watch, but don't always have something specific to say about it. I also prefer face-to-face conversations about film because I find that I often have more to say about a film than I think I do once I hear a little more about what someone else has to say. All that said, here's my list, in the order (more or less) in which I saw them:

Vengeance Valley (1951)- I have come to love watching Burt Lancaster act. He won me over with Vera Cruz, and I think I've had a crush on him ever since. I've seen The Professionals, The Train, Gunfight at the OK Corral, Apache, and this one. This is the weakest of the lot, but it's not Burt's fault. He plays similar characters in all of his films, but isn't that why I keep watching?

The Fly (1958)- Everybody loves this film, and I did, too. I don't know that I'd gave anything intelligent to add. I want to see more of Vincent Price.

Sanjuro (1962)- I watched this with the family and we all loved it. Kurosawa has an amazing ability to be able to insert humor- even slapstick humor- into an otherwise serious film. Amy and I discussed a little bit afterwards how it seems like films these days tend to stick to their marketed genres but that some older ones seemed to have an easier time trying to be all things to all audiences. Sanjuro is really a movie with wide appeal- adventure, drama, humor, philosophy... there's a little something for everyone. It's not as epic as Seven Samurai, not as intense as Rashoman, and doesn't take itself as seriously as Yojimbo (though it stars the same character)- but it manages to be all of those things in little ways, and in that manner holds its own against them.

She's One of Us (2003)- This French film has a great mood and features a stellar performance by Sasha Andres (a French indie rock musician, I gathered), but it loses some focus towards the end, as it tries to speed up the timeline at the expense of the mood it creates initially.

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)- I watched this with my family and we all enjoyed the characters immensely. One thing I will say for older films is that they were better at being all things to all audiences than today with all of its genres and subgenres. Drums manages to be action, historical fiction, comedy, drama, and romance all rolled into one. It's unfortunate that the Indians were relegated to their typical pre-civil-rights roles of aggressors or comic relief. More than the story, though, the characters win the day here: Christian Reall and widow McKlennar, among others.

Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)- It does its own thing while furthering the mythology of the first. This is no Blair Witch 2. It's smart and scary and creative with its self-imposed limits. I may even like it better than the first.

Puppet Master 1 (1989), 2 (1991), and 3 (1991)- I watched all three of these in succession one morning before work. It was intriguing to see how each film almost tried to reinvent the franchise, something that (if what I've read about the other films is accurate) each successive film tried to do as well. IThe puppets are bad, then they're good, then they're bad... Maybe the point is that it's the people behind the puppets who are truly responsible for the evil that goes on. But that's probably giving the films too much credit. t's hard to put together any kind of timeline or mythology because of all the retconning going on. That said, while the first and second languish somewhat under the burden of the horror status quo of the day, part three (Toulon's Revenge) stands as a decent film in its own right. The entire film takes place in WW2 Germany, and the puppets are a part of a lowly puppeteer's effort to exact revenge on the Nazis who killed his wife. It's more than just "good for a horror film."

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007)- Well, I saw the first two, so... It's what you'd expect from a big budget Disney sequel. Disney has a hard time making a downright bad film, but there's a lot of Hollywood gloss here. My favorite scene by far is the sequence where Sparrow is all alone in limbo and the crabs carry the ship. It was a refreshing and unique intermission in an otherwise overstimulating film.

Oldboy (2003)- You know, this film blew me away right when I saw it, and I still think it's pretty spectacular. The famous scene in the hallway, where the protagonist fights like twenty guys with a knife stuck in his chest, is one of the best fight scenes I've ever seen. But the more time that goes by, the more I'm unconvinced that the antagonist could actually have realistically accomplished what he did (in terms of brainwashing) to the principal characters. Again, the narrative technique was nearly flawless. I was pulled along helplessly and completely from beginning to end. And Park's other two films in the "vengeance series" are high on list. It's a shame that sometimes one element of a film can diminish so much of the rest of it (I have completely changed my opinion of a film because of a bad ending), but sometimes it happens. I imagine, though, that a second viewing of OldBoy might balance things out a bit more.

Well, I have to go to work and I'm only a third of the way through. Once again, stay tuned!

Another Chair

Welcome, Ben! It's nice to see that I'm no longer in the minority when it comes to old films. I do try to go back and watch this one and that one, but I have to confess to being attracted more to the bright colors and code-less storytelling of contemporary film. That is in no way a criticism, Brandon and John, it's just an honest admission.
John, you suck. Leave my Facebook friends (all 500 of them) alone! I came your way by starting this blog; I dare you to comment on one of my Flixster reviews. Or could you not debase yourself so?

I'm gonna have to start taking notes if you guys keep up this posting pace! I always have a ton of thoughts while I'm reading and then forget them all when I start writing. So I'll just stick with the stuff that's foremost in my mind.

Tree of Life: I'm missing something here. You guys are all excited about it. What's the deal?

True Grit: Check out this blog post by Adrienne--
with all our talk about westerns, you'd get a kick out her perspective. If you do read it, leave her a comment and tell her I sent you. She'd get a kick out of that.

Netflix Instant Watch: It's funny how we all have this. I've only recently started subscribing, and I never would have known anyone else had it except for when John mentioned it. It's kind of like how until you've tried pot, you don't know anyone who smokes. But after just the first time, all of a sudden they come out of the woodwork. Like, um, people who have Netflix. I noticed that a few of Truffaut's films are on Instant Watch. I'm hoping to watch them as soon as I stop getting distracted by Drawn Together.

Aronofsky: I would call myself a fan, but I do see Brandon's points. Visually, his work is very compelling and beautiful. But there is a certain degree of detachment evident in his work. Even the Wrestler, perhaps his most accessible and straightforward film, has a main character who is detached from reality. I find myself always getting excited about his stuff and liking his films, but not recalling them much afterwards. The Wrestler was a bit of an exception, but it too faded after awhile. His films still typically make it onto my wanna-see list based on his involvement alone. Pi is still brilliant and might be his best work, as far as the whole package goes.

John, I'd forgotten about the music videos in Beavis and Butthead. Like I said, I'd only seen a few episodes, and because in those days I was only listening to Christian music, I didn't have a frame of reference for the bands. You're right, it's a big loss. They're still funny without it, but it's too bad they had to cut the videos. Watch the episode where Beavis and Butthead make an animated short (it's in season 2, one of the first three Netflix episodes).

Will I finally catch you all up on my movie watching? Or will I get up from my bed and get a bowl of ice cream? Or both? Stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Netflix on My Mind

I started a different post a little while ago, but I'm way behind, so catching up seems more and more daunting the longer I let it go. Not because I haven't been watching movies, but because I've been watching them instead of writing about them. I'm glad that you found Holy Rollers, John, because now this post can be a little shorter.

I know you hate Facebook, John, but it's a easy way to share what I've been watching with a much wider audience than I'd get by just posting on the blog. I want to be able to do both, but Flixster is fast and easy, and I can always come back to it to mine and expand upon my reviews for the blog.

I've been kind of addicted to Netflix lately. After seeing it in action on my friend's iPad, and seeing the amazing selection (yes, it's more recent films, but there are a TON of foreign and special interest films and TV shows), I decided it was well worth $8 a month. I'm definitely getting my money's worth out of the free first month! My biggest problem is that I'm watching stuff I've discovered on Netflix and still putting off the films from the library that will need to be returned soon. I've told myself that I won't sign up for the DVD option until I've caught up with what I own and what I've got from the library. At this rate, that's going to take a while. But it has cured me of impulse buying $5 DVDs at WalMart, so that's something anyway.

One thing Netflix has opened up for me is its wonderfully wide variety of TV shows- there's really a lot of good stuff there, John, and not just South Park and The Office. Since I can't review TV on Flixster, I'll give a brief rundown of the shows I've dabbled in:

Beavis and Butthead- I didn't see enough of these as a teenager. It's nice to know I can finally catch up with my generation. I love Mike Judge's work, pretty much across the board.

The League of Gentlemen- only watched one episode and was intrigued. British TV comedy is so superior in many ways. They're always pushing the boundaries, and this show is no exception.

Man v. Food- I've watched two episodes and was thoroughly entertained. I don't think it could sustain me over the course of three seasons, but it's nice to be able to pick and choose the cities that are interesting to me. Syracuse is in there. He eats at Dinosaur Barbecue, of course.

Bunny Shorts- If you haven't seen these, you'd get a kick out of them. They're 30-second humorous recaps of about a hundred popular films from the last thirty years. All starring bunnies.

Whale Wars- I watched the first episode with Ethan. There are a lot of shows like this that are educational and family-friendly. Also a decent selection of National Geographic documentaies.

Man vs. Wild: Alaskan Mountain Range- see above

Little Britain, series 1- My whole family has been watching and loving this. It's a sketch show, but with recurring characters. It doesn't always work, but has been good for lots and lots of laughs. We've had to skip over certain skits that push the boundary a bit too much for my son, but for the most part it's been good family entertainment. Watch for the Scottish hotel owner with the flute. We're almost done with the first series, and there's a second, too.

Blue Mountain State- I don't know how I got hooked on this show about a division 1 college football team, because it's offensive to me on several levels- it pretty much rides the stereotype of the college jock and his sex, drug, and alcohol-fueled excesses to a ridiculous extreme. But it's mindless entertainment and the humor is solid. It's all very tongue-in-cheek, and the writing has gotten better over the course of the show. The second season has been probably twice as good as the first. Guilty pleasure for sure.

Drawn Together- I watched the first episode of this Big Brother inspired reality show involving cartoon characters. It's all right, and the episodes are short. It will probably prove to be another Blue Mountain State type distraction.

30 Days- This is one of the kinds of shows that really makes Instant Watch worth what I'm paying (or will be paying- I've still got about 20 days left of my free month). Morgan Spurlock of Super-Size Me fame hosts this show about people on different sides of a number of controversial issues spending 30 days with the other side. It's really an incredible show, and I've been impressed that even the staunchest advocates of a position can move toward the other side if they have even the slightest openness towards it. It's something that I can watch with my family, it's education, socially relevant and very aware, and entertaining. So far we've watched the episodes on illegal immigration and eco-consciousness. I highly recommend it.

Life After People- After reading The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, I got really excited when I saw this Discovery channel show advertised. It's a little unfocused and a little melodramatic, but I love the subject matter, which involves exploring what would happen to the world over time if humanity instantly disappeared. I watched the first episode and will definitely be finishing the season.

I'll get to my movies eventually. Or you could check out my reviews on Facebook ;).

Friday, October 22, 2010


I watched this last night and can't seem to get it out of my head. Here's what I wrote on Flixster:

"Every so often a film comes along that I don't know how to rate. This film made me sad, angry, depressed, helpless, and hopeless. But it did so because of an effective story and characters. So is it a good movie or is it irresponsible filmmaking?
The plot is so far outside of my frame of reference it's hard to believe. Is this what urban kids really are like? Are they really that unsupervised? Why don't their parents give a shit? Where are their parents, even? That was probably one if the saddest parts of the film- the absence of caring, guiding adults. Sigh.
One scene you're thinking to yourself, These kids are gonna get exactly what they deserve for being so stupid. But the next you're thinking But they're just kids and they honestly don't know any better.
KIDS is what happens when babies grow up with unchecked ids and ego...
It reminded me of Lord of the Flies."

It was interesting for me to see how my attachment to the film changed when Jennie gets her big news. Before, I was watching purely from a sociological perspective, but when it came down to life and death I became much more emotionally involved. Let me say that the film is a universe away from my personal adolescent experience. It was only after reading some reviews on Flixster attesting to its truthfulness that I was even able to get over the fact that I couldn't even really believe that there are children out there that are that neglected. Or let me check myself (and perhaps reveal a little about my own ignorance)- I couldn't believe that there were white kids out there that neglected. I think part of the brilliance of the film is that it's about white city kids. Where a film like Boyz n the Hood is powerful and deeply affecting, it remains other for me. Certainly I care about poverty in the inner city. But it's an overwhelming problem, and it affects largely a culture and race I am not immediately part of and with which I don't have regular contact. But a film about white kids (and their black, Asian, and Hispanic friends) hits me in a more personal way, right or wrong. For me (and for Clark's intended audience) it is a lot harder to detach myself because I am able to see the particulars of these kids' situation more distinctly instead of lumping the whole thing together. While all the major races are represented, the white kids are the primary instigators, sexually and physically. Unsupervised children is a universal problem, not just a black one.

Caspar is an interesting character. He starts out as the foil for Telly- passive to his aggressive. He smokes and drinks while Telly preys on young girls. One might start to idealize him or let him comfortably settle into a pothead stereotype (he evens gives change to a man on the subway, while Telly doesn't even notice the man), until he initiates a vicious attack on a young black man (one of the more disturbing sequences in the film). He still can be compared favorably to Telly, though, until the final scene in the film, where he takes advantage of Jennie and we realize that there are no white hats in this movie. But there are no bad guys, either, because these are all KIDS.

Telly is probably the most reprehensible character in the film, for obvious reasons. But in his final monologue, he reveals the the audience that sex is pretty much all he has to live for. So even this young man, who at first seems only callous and vile, turns out to be hanging on the edge of the precipice himself, clinging to the one thing that gives him any sense of control in his world.

I felt that Clark also let the camera rest deliberately on the younger kids in many of the group scenes. The most memorable one is the group of prepubescent boys squeezed together in a chair, talking and smoking pot that one of them got from his brother. In the absence of caring adults, younger kids learn their values from older children, who are clearly in no place to be passing them on. There are a number of other scenes, too, that give us a clue as to how this cycle of bad decisions and deformed or aborted morals is going to continue on to the "next generation," who only are a few years younger. It is telling when Clark pans the camera away from Caspar's rape and points it at a younger boy lying passed out next to them? Will he be the next one to give or accept a diseased adolescence to one of his peers?

Jennie's predicament seems to shake her out of the unreal world that all these kids are a part of, where the present is all that matters. Aside from Telly planning his next conquest, we don't ever hear any of the characters talk about the future at all. Only Jennie (who, by the way, seems to be one of the few characters who we can assume comes from a more well-off family, expanding the socioeconomic scope of the film in a subtle but effective way) mutters to herself in the cab, "I'm not going to die, I'm not going to die." She sets off to find Telly to preach to him the harsh gospel of reality (which will likely spread like wildfire among the group, especially considering the number of Telly's escapades), but she is waylaid by a drug dealer in a club (played by Korine, interestingly enough) who pretty much renders her attempt impotent. There will be no pin to puncture the festering boil these kids are trapped in. Not yet.

I wonder how necessary the final scene, where Caspar seems to break the fourth wall, really is. Is it the director saying, "I have a conscience about this film but have deliberately stayed away from trying to be preachy to hit my points home more effectively"? Or is Korine saying, "My adolescence was F%$&d up- what happened?" If it's the former, then I didn't need it. I felt that in subtle ways Clark showed the audience that he felt and knew he was filming a tragedy. Any detractors who say that he was being exploitative for the sake of sensationalism is not really watching the film. If it's the latter, then it just makes KIDS all the more tragic. Korine, only 19 at the time, was likely writing what he knew. Now that he's out of it, in the real world, he still has no sense for "what happened"- which may be more indicative of how many urban kids feel once they've escaped the teen years than any of us would like to hope or believe.

I really, really hope one of you has seen this! I want to hear other opinions.

Also, I watched Greenberg finally and know I need to write about it. But as I mentioned earlier, I couldn't get this out of my head.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Flixster Update

This goes back about 2 1/2 weeks. Jabberwocky and The Town should also be in the list, but I wrote independent posts about them both.

The Hills Run Red
: The film-about-a-film aspect is fun, but Masters of Horror's Cigarette Burns did it waaay better. Pretty typical gore horror otherwise. Stupid add-on ending partway through the credits ruined what was actually a halfway decent one.

Scoop: Scarlett Johansson is really cute here, and Woody Allen is really funny. I don't watch a lot of Woody Allen, so I haven't been burned out yet on his brand of humor. Definitely a light, fun, enjoyable film.

Justice League- Crisis on Two Earths: I really like the idea of these PG-13 superhero movies, but I'm typically underwhelmed. This is one of the better ones. Some of the voices didn't really fit- like Batman's and Superman's, but the story was relatively solid overall with some really bright spots. Owlman's character and dialogue was particularly well written. I can't decide between 3 and 3 1/2 stars, but I'll play it safe and go with three.

Dead Man: A wild ride. entertaining and unique. I watched this again recently, and gave it an additional star. Visually arresting, clever dialogue, and a story that takes you far beyond where you thought it would or could go all make this one of Jarmusch's masterpieces (does he make any films that aren't) that improves with each viewing (times two so far).

Survival of the Dead: The tongue-in-cheek humor was funny, but overall this movie was terrible. The plot hung in shreds barely recognizable over a flimsy frame. Lines were cliched and plagued with wooden deliveries. The extra half star is for the humor. I'm so sorry, Mr. Romero.

Up in the Air: Got kinda schmaltzy and life lessony just before the end and I thought I was gonna have to like it less. But then it turned itself around and became more like real life. Kudos for that. Kendrick is delightful, really. Clooney is as handsome and charming as ever. Lots of nice moments, nice interactions between characters. I could have done without the wedding stuff altogether. Bleah. That's why it gets 3 1/2 stars instead of 4.

The Fourth Kind: A lot of this film's success depends upon the viewers buying into the "facts" of the film. Of course, there are consequences afterwards, when the thinking audience goes home and looks it up and finds out it's not true. It raises the question of whether or not it's ethically responsible- especially when you consider that there are those who *won't* look it up afterward and will think that it's based on fact.
In terms of how it was filmed, I don't think it was given enough credit for trying something new. I don't know that I've ever seen a film that uses "documentary" footage side by side with reenactments. So aside from the ethical considerations, is this an effective way to tell a story? I think I'd need to see more like it before I could tell you for sure.
My rating loses a half star because the film is not actually true.

Big Fan (watched because of John's review): This was really tough to watch. Not being a "big fan" myself it was hard for me to relate to the protagonist making one bad choice after another. As a character study, however, it was quite effective and thought-provoking. I couldn't help but make the connection between what happened to Paul and abusive relationships- the shame, making excuses for the other person, continuing to support the other at your own detriment, etc. You want to empathize with Paul but you can't because he in such denial he can't empathize with himself. I ended up thinking about it all day afterwards...

Carriers: Surprisingly good and well put together. It's rare for a film like this to rely on plot and characterization to tell its story rather than SFX. I was impressed. Note: I'd really like to watch this again to see how it holds up. I was very surprised by this film.

MacGruber: 1 star for the 2 minute skit towards the end that the entire film was built around, and a half star for throat ripping. Heck yeah! I knew going into it that it was going to be bad, so I'm not mad or anything. But it was crude without cause in many instances (though the celery in the ass was funnier than I wanted it to be), and so much of it didn't resemble the SNL skits that I have enjoyed. Kristen Wiig always makes me smile, so I don't fault her for anything. She probably had to do it because of her contract. Heh. Probably.

Cecil B. Demented: This was my first John Waters film. Finally! Based upon what I've heard and read of him, this seemed pretty mainstream, relatively speaking. It was sloppy but really, really fun and funny watching Waters poke fun at both Hollywood and independent film.

Have either of you seen any John Waters? I'd be curious about what you think. He certainly has a reputation for being a distinctive director.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Ben Affleck is a Much Better Actor When He Doesn't Yell A Lot

He just looks silly, really.

Here is what I wrote in Flixster when I saw The Town about ten days ago. I've been wanting to write about it, but the truth is that I figured you'd both see it and I wanted to wait to hear what you had to say first.

4 stars: "Tense all the way through! Good ending was a mix of happy and sad... Great job by Affleck- I was losing hope for the guy as a successful lead... "

It's funny but I don't know that I have a lot more to say than that. I'd have to watch it again to comment on the construction of the film and the particulars of the performances. But as far as the story goes, I have little to say because it was really a very satisfying experience. There was a good balance between characters, drama, and action. The romance wasn't too sappy, the action wasn't too phallic. I liked that he got away at the end, but there was a huge cost. And as I hinted at, Affleck's performance was verrrrry impressive. I've been actually avoiding movies he's been in lately because I've been increasingly dissatisfied with his acting. I saw Jersey Girl, Paycheck, and Daredevil all around the same time, and enough was enough. As I was looking through his list on IMDB, I realized that I haven't even seen a film (Clerks 2 doesn't count) he's been in since Jersey Girl, with the exception of Extract, which I didn't know he'd be in (and I raved to my wife about his performance, commenting that he "should stick to supporting roles because maybe he's better as a character actor"). So in The Town, not only did he hold himself back- and leave the dramatic spotlight to Renner- but he directed the thing! Verrrrrry impressive.

Otherwise, I'd say I'm inclined to agree with you both about the film, which is a two-edged sword. I'm happy to see our tastes overlap (and on such a good film), but then there's nothing to argue about. Except...

John, Inception was waaaay more high concept than The Town. Affleck told his story well, but it's not a new story. I can't recall EVER having seen a movie where people STEAL STUFF FROM PEOPLE'S DREAMS. So, I could be wrong, but it's a film with an original idea in Hollywood, which rarely ever happens. I give extra brownie points for original ideas.

There is one irritating scene in The Town, and that's when he buries the money in the garden and she finds it and uses it for the skating rink. Schmaltz! First of all, you can't get me to believe that she's going to think to look for a big bag of money while she's gardening that's well hidden enough that some other yahoo's not going to find it first. Second, we already liked Affleck's character. We would have liked him if he'd kept the money. No need to try to turn him into some kind of Robin Hood with a last heroic act. ALSO- I find it hard to believe, unless she sat on the money for a while, that a sudden large donation to the community in the primary suspects's mother's name is not going to raise some eyebrows.

Aside from that, I'm good.

I've seen a bunch more crap, but I don't have time to REPOST my other Flixster reviews just yet. Feel free to check 'em out, if you think your consciences can handle it.

Speaking of the evil empire, anybody seen The Social Network yet?

I'm going to NY Comic-Con this weekend for work. Be jealous of me.

Friday, September 24, 2010


What a treasure to see early Gilliam after having seen so much of his later work. Imaginarium is incredibly compelling visually, but it's so slick and clean (of course because it's CGI). Jabberwocky is dirty and messy and dark and smoky and mismatched.... but every scene is so visually stimulating, every set chock full of interesting details that will reward repeated viewings. I couldn't tell you whether or not it was historically accurate, but it's so compelling that you think that it is.

There are definitely Pythonesque moments- knights playing hide and seek, a herald endlessly pontificating as the king repeatedly tries to speak. But the film really has Gilliam's distinct mark. It is funny, but not as funny as you would think, and downright foreboding in places. The progression to Time Bandits and Brazil seems natural and obvious if you start with Jabberwocky.

The Jabberwocky itself is entirely convincing in the context of the film, despite technological and budgetary limitations. The scene is even a little nerve-wracking.

The ending is lovely, and again reflects Gilliam's tendency towards the bittersweet. Gilliam rarely allows his characters the happiness the audience wants for them, but he often does give them what they deserve. It can be unsatisfying at times, but upon reflection I often have to admit that Gilliam's characters' fates seem appropriate given the decisions they make and their particular approach to their individual situations.

I was not sure what to expect beforehand, given it was Gilliam's directorial debut, but I was surprised overall at how good it was and how many, even that early in his career, recognizable elements there were.

Of All the Mindless Horde, John Hates Teenage Girls the Most

Let's take a closer look at what I wrote, John, and we'll see that I put a little more thought into the statement than appears at first blush:

"The reason I cited my use of the Tomatometer was to say that sometimes I will weigh more heavily the audience percentage than the critic percentage because I believe these people are going into a film with fewer preconceived notions and prejudices. These are folks who either like something or they don't- film watching is a much more visceral experience for them, more honest sometimes."

There are a few elements to this assertion, which I will list and elaborate upon.

1) "fewer preconceived notions"- I did not say "no preconceived notions" and I did not make any claims about what types of preconceived notions the mindless hordes were bringing into the theater with them. I believe that "fewer preconceived notions" is an accurate statement because a film critic can add intellectual and learned academic preferences and prejudices to the list of instinctual ones they share with the masses.

2) "film watching is a much more visceral experience for them"- At it's core, film is about pleasure. Yes, there are messages of life and there is beauty and there is craft, but we wouldn't be watching films if it didn't feel good to do so. The masses respond to films on a much more primal level that cinephiles do- they like what they like and they don't like what they don't like and they disregard what they don't understand.

3) "more honest sometimes"- This instinctual response to film is more useful to me as one who analyzes films more thoroughly because I can layer my own thoughts and theories and opinions on top of gut-level reactions in a way that I can't with more intellectual analysis. Those layers are already there- the critic's own intellectual experience with film clutters my own thinking and makes it harder for me to know what it is that I like or don't like about a film and why. That's not to say that I'm not ever interested in those kinds of opinions, just after I've had an opportunity to form my own opinions first. Because of this, I feel that the audience's general consensus is more useful to me initially.

I have a rough guide to how I use the Tomatometer (which is not always, for sure- I use Fandango's "so-so" and "must go" ratings system in a similar way)- high audience and critic ratings generally mean a good film, but not necessarily a thought-provoking one. It is a film that does everything right, but possibly plays it safe on a number of levels. A film with a high audience rating and a low critic rating usually means something that is entertaining but likely forgettable. A high critic rating and a low audience rating usually means something slow and dramatic, with great characterization. I've found that the best films are ones with a high score in one category and a so-so score in the other. This means that one side or the other is not quite sure what to do with it-it's either entertaining, but with a soul, or well written and crafted and dynamic to boot. I really don't want to know a lot about a film before I go to see it- I even try to avoid trailers if it's by a director I'm familiar with. But I Iike knowing what a film's aura is, and in my opinion the best way to get that is by getting an average score of the reviews. Rotten tomatoes is unique in that it separates the paid critics from the mindless hordes, and thus gives me an even better sense of that aura.

Other than that, dear John, I appreciated what you wrote about films like Tall in the Saddle, about your start as a cinephile (it was Ben Gallman's fault in my case, combined with the excellent selection of films at the Houghton library), and about why you are negative about more modern films than older ones. Actually, your explanation of the last part made a lot of sense- presumably if you had watched as many films from 1944 as you had from 2010 we'd be exposed to a lot more of your negative ramblings where the so-called "golden era" is concerned.

I'm quite pleased that we've had this discussion, I must say. I feel like I have a much better understanding where both of you are coming from and what you're looking for, and I would go out on a limb to say that I think we're looking for a lot of the same things. We differ in where we think we're finding them, but that's what makes the whole thing so interesting. Thanks, fellas. This is good stuff.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Right On

What fantastic answers to my post- I really think we're on the same page here, Brandon. I feel like from start to finish I was on board with what you were saying and the way you were saying it. Balance is something that's very important to me and I saw a lot of that in what you were writing.

A few points of clarification:

1) The reason I cited my use of the Tomatometer was to say that sometimes I will weigh more heavily the audience percentage than the critic percentage because I believe these people are going into a film with fewer preconceived notions and prejudices. These are folks who either like something or they don't- film watching is a much more visceral experience for them, more honest sometimes.

2) I hope that you are getting that I DO very much enjoy slower paced foreign films. It's just that if I try to start one at 10pm, chances are it's going to put me to sleep, where more mainstream horror, action, or comedy won't. It's all about stimulation, not so much about quality or likes or dislikes... After ten is about the earliest I can start a film that my son can't watch because of when he goes to bed. Occasionally if he's at a friend's house, my wife and I will watch something together, and she often enjoys foreign films. So it happens a lot less often than I wish it would.

3) I enjoyed Lady in the Water, but not necessarily because I thought it was a particularly good film. It's Shyamalan's weakest, in my opinion. But I loved his f$%# you attitude towards critics and the movie business in general. The movie had an underlying sass and I really got a kick out of it. I mean, how many times can you take someone telling you you can't make a better film than your first before you just want them all to shut up? The fact that it was in his fifth film that he finally broke says something about how having to put up with it for so long may have affected him.

4) I read Bordwell last night and was impressed. I like how he does focus a lot on technical aspects- frame counting, cinematography, and the like. I picked an entry that I thought I'd have some knowledge of so I could analyze it intelligently: This is one on superhero films, particularly Dark Knight, which didn't impress him. He's not a fan in general of the genre, and he says so pretty outright, but you don't get the feeling that he's not going to let the reader be a fan, either. He admits that he has a lack of knowledge (or interest) on the subject of superhero comics and it underlies the tone of his post really clearly. He even adds a postscript that includes some new information he learned since writing the post and how it altered some of his opinions. I liked it a lot, and I was taken with how unassuming he comes across for someone who clearly has watched at least three craploads of film, and then some more.

5) I have not seen Tall in the Saddle, obviously, but descriptions of the whiskey drinking scene made me think of a shot in All the Pretty Horses that has stayed with me even though I haven't seen the film in probably ten years. The scene takes place in a Mexican prison (I think) and one of the characters asks an old guy in the prison a question. The old guy doesn't answer and the camera just rests on his craggy beautiful face for a bit longer than you'd expect it to. The film didn't get great reviews, but it really made an impression on me because of how skillfully it was shot (despite, apparently, suffering heavy cuts). Could we say that a powerful moment like that could be compared with similar little moments like those in Tall in the Saddle? Could we leave room for modern films that don't blow us away initially to age better than some of the more high profile Scorceses and PT Andersons and the like? That maybe some kid in 2030 might be writing about All the Pretty Horses and saying that "there's nothing comparable being made today"?

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Few Loose Ends

I went back and read your posts (for perhaps the third or fourth time- they are so dense, it's hard to respond to everything) again and there were a few more things I wanted to comment on. If you've just arrived, read the previous post to this first, please.

The reason I'm not interested in The Killer Inside Me is the same reason I'm not into torture porn horror so much anymore. Horror tends to be a step removed from reality due to its extreme and often unbelievable violence. I needed only to watch a few films like Hostel, Wolf Creek, and House of 1,000 Corpses to realize that they were cutting a bit too close for comfort to that line between real-life horror and fantasy horror and that I needed a break. I haven't yet seen Hostel 2 or Halloween 2 (or The Human Centipede, god have mercy), which may call into question my devotee status for Rob Zombie or Eli Roth, and their ilk. I've watched a lot more vintage than modern horror since then, with the exception being ghost and zombie films, which tend to stay more in their "fantasy horror" fences these days. It doesn't mean, though, that I don't respect what directors like Roth and Zombie are trying to do to add to the genre. I can just only take so much.

Incidentally, I was looking to see if Julien Donkey Boy was in the library system (sadly, it's not) but a book about Dogme 95 came up. I read a little about it (interesting movement- would make for a fun "watch all the Dogme films" project) and discovered that Cabin Fever is a Dogme film. This swings my Eli Roth pendulum (wow that sounds bad) once again towards the genius side. I maintain that he knows his film history; this seems to be more evidence of it.

Tell me more about Tall in the Saddle, John. My impression is that you would be more positively inclined towards an older movie without knowing much about it than you would a modern film, if you put the two side by side. Is this a true statement do you think? How much weight do you give nostalgia when considering a film? In what way is there "nothing comparable" to Tall in the Saddle being made today? It sometimes seems that you hold contemporary films to higher standards than you do Golden Age films. How might you might respond to that assertion, I wonder? I hope you don't take my questions/comments as being antagonistic; you and Brandon both seem to have a preference for older films, which I will admit I have not seen as many of. But it seems like it's almost too easy to eschew what's out there now for what came before. Just because something's stood the test of time doesn't make it a better film than one of equivalent quality made in the present, right? It just means it's an as-good film but for more years... You're just taking more of a chance that a film you're comparing to a classic isn't actually going to stand the test of time...

Finally, John, you overestimate my "love of The Phantom Menace." You hate it, while it is merely my least favorite Star Wars film. It does improve over repeated viewings, but it will always be a latrine for Empire Strikes Back.

Everyone's a Critic

I have so many thoughts about this topic- I wish we could talk in person about it, because the best I'll be able to do is a rambling post where I leave a lot out...

First of all, I appreciated both of your posts. The idea of standing on someone else's shoulders to see better (figuratively speaking, anyway- at 6'2" I usually have a pretty good view of whatever I need to :D) is not one that's foreign to me. I'm not trying to say that no one has anything to tell me about film. But in my little experience with academic-type film critics, I have encountered a lot of negativity and cynicism. I haven't yet checked out the link you shared, John, but I will.

You wondered what I meant when I made a statement about "why people go to films." Of course I don't know why everyone goes to films, but the basis for this statement has to do with Rotten Tomatoes. When I am interested in a film, I don't want to know a lot about it ahead of time, so rather than reading reviews, I will go to Rotten Tomatoes and look at the critic rating and the user rating. A film that has low critic ratings but high audience ratings I will still seriously consider paying money to see. It is fascinating to see how widely sometimes the two percentages diverge. And we're talking about people who are at least motivated enough and literate enough to be able to manage a user account on Rotten Tomatoes. I realize that encompasses a WIDE range of intellects, but I still have a hard time with the phrase "mindless hordes" and what that implies.

My son had a hard time with North Face. I'll admit it was my failing for not doing my homework. I'd read that there was some language and intense scenes, but I didn't see "everyone dies" in anything I read. Of course, I didn't bother to look into the actual history of it. Nevertheless, my son was pretty upset after having watched the film. I was trying to console him by reminding him that "in real life when you make dangerous decisions, sometimes these are the consequences." His response was something to the effect of "that's why I don't like watching movies about real life." I think that we can all agree that that's a fairly common sentiment when it comes to your average filmgoer. There are many times when that's why I myself go to the movies. I get to see the good guys win, the lovers reunite, and the villains get justice. And I LIKE it. Precisely because real life isn't like that. And sometimes I come out of a film like that with a renewed sense of idealism and purpose- that there still is that kind of goodness in the world and maybe I can be a part of making it happen. I also LOVE films about real life. Films that show me, as you said, truth and beauty despite tragedy. Or sometimes that just show me tragedy and ground me and give me purpose for a different reason. Sometimes I don't want a renewed sense of purpose; I just want to watch a good story. I thought Dogville was an excellent film, challenging and unique. But holy hell it was a LOT of work to watch. I can't do that all the time; in fact, more often that not I watch lighter fare because it's all my mind can handle after a tough day. I lament that I don't have more headspace to watch the half dozen French new wave films that are still sitting on my shelf at home, because I REALLY want to watch them, too.

I feel like hard-core critics don't give enough credit to mainstream fare. I know I'm lumping together a HUGE subculture and that my opinions to some degree represent misinformation and stereotypes (I can't help but think of Lady in the Water and how utterly thoroughly I enjoyed the critic's demise- this is one of the reasons I like M. Night so much. His movie making is so from-the-gut, so even when it's not masterful, it feels genuine somehow. He's telling a story that HE wants to tell). But when I think of a film like Gentlemen Broncos and read review after review about how Jared Hess is mean spirited and making fun of people who are like his characters and how terrible it is because the potty humor is so cheap and pedestrian, I think to myself, "You have NO IDEA what you just watched. Jared Hess IS his characters. His movies are love letters to misfits and social pariahs. How many of his films do you have to see before you realize that?" It's honestly really upsetting, especially when I think of how refreshing it is to see a movie where the idiot is the hero. How often does that happen?

One thing that I appreciate about your reviews, Brandon, is that they're precisely how you describe them- your opinion based upon your experience. I don't mind someone being critical if they're saying "I didn't like this"- but if they're saying "this is a worthless piece of trash", well, I don't think that anyone has the right to say that about anyone else's art. Period. I hear voice saying "Can you qualify mainstream film as art?" Maybe it doesn't fit some person's description of art (is Danielle Steel art?) but it is someone else's creation- something that (and I'm sure there are exceptions) someone put time and effort and energy into trying to make as good as possible. I will admit that studios that interfere endlessly with directors because they (studios) are trying to put out a money-maker to the detriment of a good film are VERY bad for the industry. But I've been hard pressed to find a director (remember I watch a lot of making-of special features :)) who doesn't give a crap's ass about the film he's making. SO, if I'm reading a critic who is saying "I didn't like this and this is why" I'm going to be a lot more interested in what he has to say than if he's trying to tell me that his vision and standards for film are absolute somehow because he studied it in college and writes about it in the newspaper.

All that to say that I will admit that my lack of knowledge and exposure to good film criticism leaves a gap in my undestanding of film and film history and I am interested in learning more about it (as long as it doesn't make me think too hard and use too many big words). But I also think that film speaks very capably for itself and that sometimes the best film education is watching a crapload of films. And then watching some more.

As a postscript, I will say that I appreciate film writing that synthesizes ideas and does compare/contrast with films on an objective level- that kind of analysis I find very useful.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Props, Opinions, and Two More Movies

Thanks for the encouragement, Brandon. It's not necessarily that I feel I need to apologize for my opinions, though, it's more that I often associate movie critics with, well, criticism. And sometimes I judge how good a movie is based upon my degree of like, as opposed to like vs. dislike. Part of me feels that even the "worst" movies warrant some kind of recognition for even being made. Sometimes movie criticism (not from you and John, whose criticism really does come across as genuine, but in general) strikes me as similar to the guy staring at Jackson Pollock in the museum saying, "I could do that." All art is so subjective and there are so many variables involved in making it that any truly objective criticism is pretty difficult. and I'm not the sort to make assumptions about what a director means or doesn't mean. I can only talk about how things strike me, and sometimes about what certain technical aspects communicated (or didn't to me)- like shot framing, particulars of dialogue, editing, etc. So it's not so much an apology as it is the question, "What am I missing, if anything?" Obviously, there are many critics who are well educated and know their film history waaaay better than I do. But if all that education makes you desensitized or cynical, how effective can your analysis really be? It reminds me of how seminary seems to affect people, to be honest :).

In other news, when I read your mention of Margot at the Wedding, I had not to that point realized that it was a Baumbach film. Then, the next day, I discovered that The Bad Lieutenant was a Herzog film. And I had seen both of them at the closing-down-Blockbuster! So I called and had an employee set them aside for me- only $2.99 each. Score! I don't feel quite so jealous of John's loot from Hollywood now, though he did get a number of nice foreign films, which were more in short supply at Blockbuster.

Has anyone seen Gentlemen Broncos? I'd be really interested in discussing it if anyone has anything to say about it. It's a rare case where I loved a movie that was pretty universally reviled.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Blockbuster Branch Closes

...and Jason comes away with some booty. Here's the result of my visits to the store on three separate occasions (each time after the prices had been reduced):

$5.99 batch:
Hogfather (V. Jean)
Steamboy (Otomo)
Jabberwocky (Gilliam)
Last House on the Left (Craven)
Moon (D. Jones)
No Impact Man (Gabbert/Schein)
Trouble the Water (Lessen)

$3.99 batch:
Me and You and Everyone We Know (July)
A Serious Man (Coen)
Gigantic (Aselton)
Next Day Air (B.Boom)
Capitalism: A Love Story (Moore)
Gentlemen Broncos (Hess)
Youth in Revolt (Arteta)
Eagle Vs. Shark (Waititi)
Sarah Silverman Program Season One
G.I Joe Resolute (W. Ellis, writer)

$2.99 batch:
Stardust (M. Vaughn)
Absurdistan (V. Helmer)
My Name is Bruce (Campbell)
Home Movie (Denham)
Transylvania 6-5000 (DeLuca)
I Sell the Dead (McQuaid)
Lemon Tree (Riklis)
Hellboy Animated: Sword of Storms (P. Weinstein, based on a story by Mignola)
Hellboy Animated: Blood & Iron (V.Cook, based on a story by Mignola)

All in all a good haul, I'd say. And of course I thought of you, John.

All Caught Up!

Read on below, gentlemen.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Response to Brandon (early August- present)

1) I am a Peter Weir fan as well, though what that really means is that Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave had such a huge impact on me that he could have stopped making films at that point and I would call myself a fan. Perhaps it was Gallipoli (which I confess I have not seen) that really launched his career; after that his films take on a decidedly more mainstream feel. Not that there are not excellent films among them, but I have never felt such a strong mysterious mystical presence in a film, Weir or otherwise, that I felt when I saw those two of his early films. I have not followed his career religiously, but I am certainly interested in seeing anything he has put his hand to.

2) I recently purchased the original Last House on the Left and am curious to see how it compares to the remake. Craven knows what he's doing, doesn't he? I'm sorry you had to endure the remake, but at least you validated my opinion :).

3) Speaking of horror directors who know what they are doing, say what you will about Roth- he knows his horror. Cabin Fever was such an underrated, irreverent, middle-finger-homage to horror (can there be any other true kind?) that I can't speak highly enough of it. It is not the best horror film ever made by a long shot, but it has a self-awareness without self-consciousness that really makes it stand apart from others like it. I thought that Hostel was a natural and logical progression to Cabin Fever- it did suffer from being slightly less tongue-in-cheek, but it was well-informed and executed horror. Roth's genius is that he is intelligent about horror and it comes out in his films, but his intelligence doesn't turn his horror into drama, if you know what I mean. It's still stupid horror. It's kind of a paradox and I don't know if I'm stating myself well. I am disappointed with the existence of Hostel 2 (which I have not yet seen), but I see it for what it is: capitalizing on the success of its predecessor with a lesser sequel. Again, something that horror is fantastic at. Again, genius on the part of Roth. Or selling out. Or both. I was tickled at your statement of dilemma about whether or not to like or hate the protagonist. In your review of Piranha 3-D, you talked about characters' sins being avenged by death; this is classic horror. Roth creates a dilemma by allowing the ignoble character to triumph, thus turning our expectation of the film (due to our conditioning by the genre) on its head. But, you see, it's still crappy horror. It makes points about itself without rising out of the muck. I can't imagine that's an easy thing to do. And Roth may not even be doing it consciously, but because he has steeped himself in horror lore and because he perhaps is a prime example of the mindless hedonistic/moralistic characters horror is so good at portraying. I love that he makes obvious cameos in his films and if you've ever seen him interviewed, he doesn't take himself or what he does so seriously. He's just screwing around like he did when he was a kid, going for shock value, going for the jugular.

True horror doesn't set out to be social commentary. It's lack of self-awareness is why it often becomes such good social commentary. It exposes the fragility of our societal moral construct- a simple sex act is all that lies between us and a gory death- because it stetches it to its most extreme conclusions.

I liked Roth's Grindhouse trailer and thought it was a tantalizing promise of what's to come. I am eager and anxious to see what he does next to see whether or not I'm making more of him than I should be. The beauty of it is that I don't know if he's a good horror director or not- his films have a way of sliding unnoticed into the fray.

4) I want to clarify that the thing that I thought was brilliant about House of 1000 Corpses was the way that Zombie was able to create even the slightest bit of sympathy for his characters. We're talking classic Leatherface evil murderer types, but with a shred of humanity. I've said this before, but if I find myself even accidentally sympathizing with a psychopathic killer, how terrifying is that for me? What Zombie has done with Michael Myers is really an obvious and natural progression of this theme. He is trying to break through the wall of objectification and disassociation that is pretty standard for those of us who like horror- it's all other. These evil characters are other. At the end of Devil's Rejects, when the protagonists (see what I mean? the bad guys come across as protagonists) are running from the police, for the briefest second you feel what you do when Butch and Sundance burst out of the building, six-shooters blazing. And then you feel queasy because you were just rooting for a bunch of sick f*&!%ers to escape. Genius.

5) Snatch is one of my top ten favorites. I never get tired of watching it. Leap Year was not a great film, but Amy Adams is great. I love her. I love Amy Adams. Have I mentioned that already? I liked The Suburbs so much that I gave it away. And then bought another copy. I'm currently listening to Mumford & Sons and the Weepies' new album. New films on my list: Ghost Writer and Sweetgrass.

Response to John (late July- present)

I'd be lying if I said I read all of your (plural) posts super carefully- I'm just trying to catch up. But I do want to respond to each of your blogs individually and highlight some things that stood out to me:

1) I tried to skim your Greenberg comments, because I didn't want to know anything about the film beforehand. One of the downsides of these blogs- we try not to give away any spoilers, but it's hard to talk about a film if you can't talk about all of it, right? And we are all watching such different things that we'll criss-cross on a film maybe one out of ten (you and Brandon more perhaps). It becomes impractical to say "I'll wait to say more until the others see it." In any event, I just got Greenberg today and will see it soon. I still have Brandon's blog to catch up with as well [update: I am waiting to read Brandon's thoughts now until after I've seen it], so my head will be filled with others' ideas when I see it :). Oh well.

2) I will not be here on the 18th. My sister is going to England to study for a year and this will be my last opportunity to see her for a while. I hope that if you do come up, you will not have used up your going-to-Rochester bucks, because I'd really like to see you before too many more years go by. And I'd like to meet Brandon very much as well.

3) I am still posting to Flixster on Facebook. I do wish that you both were more frequent users, but I have compromised finally and cut and paste a number of my Flixster mini-reviews in my earlier post. Please reward me by noting and commenting on them. I could say more about Scott Pilgrim than my mini-review if you wanted to start a discussion about it, by the way.

4) I am absolutely not interested in seeing The Killer Inside Me. However, I am intrigued by Edge of Darkness and The Last Exorcism. I am on the fence about Dragon Tattoo. Mostly, though, because it and all of its ilk are all the rage right now and I want to be defiant about it.

5) I really, really liked Date Night. I laughed hard and often. Is this a matter of taste, or do I really not know how to determine good film? I always have thoughts about films, but the truth is that I tend to generally like most of what I see. I'll take issue with this point or that, but even if I'm initially turned off by a film, simply watching the making-of special feature will result in my developing a respect for the film's process at the very least. You and Brandon often have very clear-cut opinions on whether or not you've liked a film and it's a curious thing to me. You both certainly have done your research- I tend not to read film criticism. I think it often over-analyzes particulars of a film to the detriment of a bigger picture- the bigger picture of why anyone goes out to watch a film in the first place. I don't always get film criticism, honestly. But I have watched a lot of movies on a lot of different topics and lot of different genres. So I do think that I have a leg to stand on. But what is the nature precisely of the leg I'm standing on?

Please don't think this is a reaction to anything either of you has made me feel. It just seems like I am looking at films differently than either of you sometimes and I'm trying to put my finger on what it is that's different... I can't figure it out.

Hanging in There

Man, it's been a busy August! A family trip in the beginning of the month and a hiking trip towards the end sandwiched one of the typically busiest months of the year for me. I haven't actually been watching many movies that I felt like I had a lot to say about- mostly mainstream and family fare. And I'm waaaay behind on your blogs, John and Brandon- I hope you haven't given up on me...
Here's a list since the last time I posted:

The Blind Side (well done, don't understand how it's an Oscar movie)

Surrogates (a one night sci-fi stand- I need my fix. Read the comic, don't worry about the film)

Night at the Museum 2 (utterly illogical and ridiculous, but I laughed my rear end off)

Transformers 2 (Entertaining, great special effects- no disappointments there. Can I lambaste a movie for having a lame-o storyline when I went into it fully expecting it?)

Legion (awesome special effects- I love how horror FX guys are so committed to doing it without CGI as much as possible. It really does make a difference in a film, I think. But the content of this film was deplorable. "You gave God what he asked for; I gave him what he needed." BARF)

Pirate Radio (This doesn't work at all as a linear narrative. Too much feels forced because it tries to fit into that framework. I didn't really like it at all until I watched the deleted scenes and realized how much good material there really is in the film. Curtis should have presented it as a series of episodic snapshots into their lives- more open-ended, day-in-the-life kind of stuff. Otherwise, who cares? It's not even historically accurate, so why even play that aspect of it up at all?)

Extract (I like Mike Judge, I like Bateman, I liked the film. Judge's most thoughtful work to date. and he does it without sacrificing the unique sense of humor he is so well known for. The infidelity stuff made me sad and uncomfortable, but I found myself very forgiving of the characters because they were all so genuine, even lovable.)

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (I hated how they messed with the original ending- I mean *really* hated it. So I've been recommending that folks read the first 5 volumes then watch the movie. I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more had I done it that way. Still, until the end, I was fully on board and throroughly enjoyed myself)

Gentlemen Broncos (This film totally doesn't deserve all the bad reviews it got. Hess loves his characters and presents them without guile and affect. We laugh not because we are mocking them but because we know that deep down there's a little of them in us. This film was an unpretentious breath of fresh air. I'm actually really curious if either of you have seen it, J and B, and what you thought of it. I think Hess is onto something really important where characterization is concerned and he doesn't get the credit he deserves for it)

Hogfather (I got this to watch with the family, and while it requires several suspensions of disbelief, it was a lot of fun. I read Pratchett's novel a number of years ago, and figure any adaptation of a book of his has to retain at least some of his trademark humor. The character of Death is really a hoot.)

Julie & Julia (Great film; more heartwarming and entertaining than the real story of Julie Powell... Amy Adams trumps real life every time! Streep is unbelievable as Childs. A lot of people thought it should have been all about Childs, but I thought the "compare and contrast" element of the film was new and very entertaining. I'm not much for the biopic, really, so this gave me some of what Ilike about biopics without having to sit through 2 1/2 hours worth of it.)

Nordwand/North Face (Intense, tragic. Starts slow but finishes furiously. I did a bit of reading of the history afterwards and was impressed at how well the fictional elements were incorporated into the facts if the account. The love story was not overdone at all and added a real human and cinematic element to the narrative. I'm a sucker for mountaineering drama and thought this was on the level of Touching the Void, which may be the best mountaineering drama movie I've seen so far. Highly recommended.

I'll try to catch up soon and post with responses and such. Here's to hoping John hasn't publicly flogged me again.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Revisiting Shaun of the Dead

The only thing I've seen since Inception was Shaun of the Dead for the third time- but this time with my wife, who is not a zombie movie fan. I promised her she'd like it because it was clever and humorous, and I was right. And I think she was proud of herself for making it through the whole thing.

A few thoughts came to me about it afterwards. I was a little disappointed that some of the shine came off the film after the third time. It still opens brilliantly, but once they all get to the Winchester, the movie seems to lose focus for a little while. It's like Wright got them there and then was as clueless as the characters were about what to do once they were there. There is plenty of humor and drama to finish out the film, but it's not quite as sharp as it is before they get to the pub. It still does not diminish my regard for the film, however, or the primary players (Frost, Pegg, and Wright)- I'm a big fan. If you haven't seen Spaced or Big Train (two British TV series which preceeded their movie-making), please go out and do so immediately. You won't be disappointed. I thoroughly enjoyed Hot Fuzz and am looking forward to seeing it again with my wife (who has seen Spaced and Big Train and liked them). I also just found out that Wright has written and directed the Scott Pilgrim screen adaptation, which I'm really looking forward to.

Shaun of the Dead
is exceptional because it works a serious zombie movie while seriously parodying zombie movies (it even works a bit as a romantic comedy). In my experience, there are zombie films and there are zombie parodies. Zombieland is more a parody- which doesn't take away from how fun it is, but shows that even a good zombie parody (intentionally good, in contrast to the so-bad-it's-good fare of which Return of the Living Dead is a prime example) has a hard time taking itself seriously ultimately (enter Bill Murray). But Shaun's zombie world is real and terrifying. What makes it so funny is the characters' unconventional responses to this very seriously set zombie reality. There are some moments in the film that are as nerve-wracking as they are funny (when they're posing as zombies to get to the pub or when they're being attacked by the zombie in pajamas), and some that are not funny at all and are very emotionally affecting (when Shaun and Liz have to leave Ed in the basement to escape the Winchester, and even more so, when Shaun's step-father expresses his love for Shaun in a surprisingly effective scene). I have a sense that the British in particular are very good at this kind of storytelling, Edgar Wright especially so (as we saw in Spaced). Americans can be very good at one or the other, and while no example come to mind, my sense is that any American attempt to try to be both usually falls on to one side of the fence or the other. Though now that I'm thinking of it, Wes Anderson can pull off a little of both, but you can't really shake the sense that it's all tongue-in-cheek with him. Would you call that dramatic irony? That's where the audience understands something about the characters that the characters don't themselves, right? I don't completely get irony. You don't get a sense of dramatic irony in Shaun of the Dead. You really believe that Shaun and Ed and the lot would actually behave in the ways that they do, while often Anderson's characters (as endearing and entertaining as they are) can feel a bit like constructs more than real people. I think that I felt that in Darjeeling Limted more than any of his other films to that point. And, to bring it all full circle, I think that's why my wife could make it through a zombie movie- because the focus is on characters rather than gore. But it still delivers on the gore front, too, making it a film that has a little bit for everybody.

Brandon, I liked your twice-through commentary on Shutter Island. Though before you cast your final judgment on Inception, I think it should be allowed to settle before a second viewing as well. It's a different kind of movie and I don't know that it was meant to be taken seriously in some of the ways people are taking it. It's a summer blockbuster with a brain. And that's the last thing I'll say about the film for this discussion.

John, I'm glad you gave Baghead a fair shake. Send it to me, though, before you put it in the resell bin. As far as Netflix is concerned, I've told myself that once I've watched what I've got out from the library and gone through my personal collection, I can sign up. But I can't seem to stop checking movies out from the library that I have no time to see. It's a blessing and a curse. Just today, Extract showed up in the return bin, so into my pile it goes (though I'll likely see it sooner rather than later because I can watch films like that late at night, when I do most of my movie watching, where slower foreign films will put me to sleep, so they get put off even longer. Someday my son will be old enough to watch more of them with me. A few years, perhaps).

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Limbo Postscript

The other thought I had about limbo was that it was universal- not specific to any one person. Perhaps it's so vast that Cobb was able to construct his city where he did without bumping into anyone else who might be in limbo. It reminded me a little of What Dreams May Come (connecting it to Matheson, connecting it to The Box- isn't this fun?) in that folks in the afterlife were able to construct their own complex, far-reaching realities that somehow could exist simultaneously). So then Cobb would have to go searching for Saito like Robin Williams did for his wife, and maybe once he'd found him, ride his connection with Saito on the plane back up to that reality. A stretch, perhaps, but one that would fit if you wanted to go that far with it.

A New Hope (for Inception)? Probably Not, if We're Talking About John

Thank you, John, for your dedication to bashing Inception. Your efforts and insights are truly appreciated.

I would like to take issue, sir, with your sense that you and Brandon are more agreed than you and I are. I would say that I see Inception's faults clearly, I'm just more willing to forgive them because I like so much more what is good about it.

As far as the dream levels are concerned, I would agree with you about limbo. I was a little confused as to who precisely was in charge there. My understanding was that because Fischer Jr. was hooked up to Cobb and Ariadne, that was why they were able to extract him from limbo. But that doesn't explain how he got Saito back, unless he actually didn't, and everything that proceeds from that point is because Cobb has become completely lost in his dream world. Which actually could be a good explanation of what's happening. Adrienne is convinced that the final scenes make that really clear. From the time they all wake up on the plane, the film does have a dreamlike quality to it. I think that the presence of Cobb's father indicates to the contrary, as well as a few other details, but I don't think Nolan wants us to think he's saying which is the case one way or another.

Heyyyy, maybe it's a "sideways flash"- that would just explain everything!

I also have a response to your criticism of the relative bumpiness of the various levels, but you noted that you didn't really care, so I won't go into it :).

I don't believe that the ending calls into question anything that's been established because Nolan has been careful not to establish any reality in the film. There are clues strewn about that could give one something to work with if they wanted to decide for themselves what's real in the film and what isn't, but even if we thought he was pinpointing a specific reality as primary, he plants a seed of doubt when (I can't remember who says it to Cobb, unfortunately) someone points out to Cobb that his supposed primary reality (guy on the lam trying to get back to his family, enemies all around, constantly on the move) is a little far-fetched in itself. Sounds a little like a dream or two I've had myself.

I think the difference between Inception and Memento is that Memento relies heavily on "the big reveal"- because it in an instant changes the audience's perception of what's been happening all this time. When you watch it again, knowing this important missing bit of information, it's a completely different film. In Inception, there is no such reveal. Nolan is creating a structure (a dream architect himself, if you will) that he's asking his audience to buy into, and because it's not resting on the success or failure of delivering that crucial plot point, he's taking the chance that some people (John?) will think the whole thing is a bunch of hooey. Which is why I think that Inception will hold up better after repeated viewings than Memento does.

Hey, I also saw The Box recently. You both have seen that, haven't you? Kelly's another guy (like Nolan, like Shyamalan) who will take a chance on tanking a film for an idea- or, in his case, lots of little ideas littered around all over the place. Southland Tales got mixed reviews, but I thought it was a beautiful mess of a film. I also really liked The Box, for which there is also not a clear consensus.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Dream Wars, part three: Revenge of the Curmudgeon

Come on, John, where are you?

Just a few more thoughts:

Bedside scene- I liked this scene because it was his own consciousness that was reinterpreting to his own advantage the actual event of his father expressing his disappointment. Apart from how it fits in the film as a whole, I love the psychology behind it. I have experienced in my own life freedom by adding a new truth to old scars. Taken out of context, Fischer Jr.'s epiphany is a beautiful thing. Genesis 50:20- "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good..." I would say that the man is better off in the end, despite the self-serving ends of his dream invaders (there's a good name for a band). Of course, this serves Nolan's purposes perfectly. He's still fixing the sink, but his butt crack is showing. Does he know it? Does he care?

Cillian Murphy- Did either of you see Red Eye? I saw it twice, by accident. What's funny is that I didn't remember that I'd seen it until the very end, but I enjoyed it both times. So what does it say about a film when it's enjoyable but forgettable? No matter. In any event, I think that's my strongest association with Murphy, and even there, as a the villain, it's hard to take your eyes off him. Though now that I'm thinking about it, he was such an asshole in Red Eye, maybe he had it coming to him in Inception. How's that for karma?

Mal's deaths- I think the craziness of spending 50 years in limbo and what the implications of that far overshadowed for me either of Mal's deaths. After all that time, does it even matter? Cobb was right that they did grow old together. Think about it: fifty years! All that aside, despite the presentation and role of the dead wife, the focus is always on Cobb and the effect her presence in his consciousness has on him. I mean, consider Memento for a minute. We're led to believe Leonard's on a mission to avenge his wife, to solve her murder, but in the end it's all about him. There's definitely a connection between Leonard's and Cobb's characters where that's concerned.

I cared about the characters, too. Ironically enough, I felt like the other thieves were more innocent than Cobb because of their one-dimensional motivations for being there. You felt pity for them once you realized what Cobb had gotten them into. Especially Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He's just so adorable! Who'd want anything bad to happen to him? And I'm with you on Whip It, Brandon- it was a great feel-good movie that made its own way. I really like to watch Page act. And I LOVED Juno.

The snow scene just comes down to taste, I think. Again, though, we see a progression and contrast in the different dream settings and they go nicely together. Remember also that Ariadne designed all three of them, and she *is* still a relative beginner. She could be forgiven for falling back on her childhood love of James Bond for inspiration, couldn't she?

Incidentally, I was checking IMDB once again to get character names (I can never remember them- I always just remember the actors' names) and I realized I haven't seen The Prestige. I've seen all of Nolan's films post-Following (I might have seen that in college but it was likely late and night and I was either half asleep or had already seen three or four films that day and have forgotten it)- or I thought I had. The Prestige is going on hold right away.

When specifically are you going to be in the area, Brandon? And where? I'd like to be able to carve out some time, but I'll need plenty of advance notice. We're going on vacation starting next Thursday, so I hope I don't miss you...

Dream Wars, part two: Attack of the (Dream Security) Clones

John, I did get that your post was tongue-in-cheek. But I also got that you hated the film, because, well, you said it outright. Perhaps I should be glad that you hated it, as opposed to being indifferent about it, because at least I know Nolan got under your skin.

As far as your comments regarding "psychic rape"- shock value notwithstanding- I would agree with you that the film doesn't address the moral implications of the extractors' behavior. We do get the sense that they are rogue but en vogue and we are rooting for them. But we were also rooting for Clooney and his gang in Ocean's 11, even though the money they are stealing constitutes the livelihood of many an addicted gambler. There are no Robin Hoods in that bunch to be sure. My point is that sometimes a film needs to be amoral so as not to distract the audience. It's a story, right or wrong, and I don't always want to be preached at. Samson wasn't exactly a good guy, but we love reading about him. The consequences of his actions caught up with him, but we are never told specifically by the narrator that his actions are sinful (I don't think- it's been a while). Besides that, we are not certain by the end of Inception that Cobb isn't stuck in his own unreality, and maybe he never will be either. That's a pretty heavy consequence if you ask me.

I would agree with your notion (though not necessarily the framing of it :)) that we are led to believe that Fischer, Jr. ultimately benefits from being mindbanged. I took issue with this as well- I mean, they're being hired after all to eliminate the competition. Saito goes from being victim to collaborator to martyr, Fischer finds himself and decides to forge his own path out from under his father's shadow, Cobb learns to let go of his dead wife... it's a freakin' after school special! And people are saying it has no heart? Hence my use of the pacemaker analogy- it feels a little forced. Nolan is massaging the heart of the film and is seems a little overwrought. However, we have to relate to Fischer and Cobb and the whole bunch because if we don't, we get distracted from Nolan's Big Idea- what if you could steal something from someone's mind through a dream? How could that work, and how would it screw you up? We'd be too busy worrying about morality and good guys and bad guys- there aren't really good guys and bad guys in this film. The real antihero, the real nemesis, is Reality itself.

I would say that of the big three (idea, character, effects) idea is most important to me. Not that I only can enjoy films with a Big Idea- I'm just more forgiving if I like the Big Idea in a film but other elements are out of place. I need more, however, than just well-developed characters or great special effects to carry me through a film- generally speaking. But I get excited by ideas, and Inception has more than a few exciting ones. This is why I love The Happening. I'll try not to go on a "why does everyone hate M. Night" rant at the present moment, but I love that he had the audacity to try to turn a B-movie sci-fi premise (Nature Strikes Back!) into a serious movie. And I've loved pretty much everything he's put out because of it. He's sticking his middle finger up at the movie industry, and often it's messy, and not all the pieces are in place, but he's getting a reaction out of his audience. Nolan, in a less extreme way, is trying to do something similar. I have often noted that I could watch ten crappy sci-fi/horror films before I'd watch one sappy rom-com, or 5 snobby arthouse films. Give me a good idea to think about and I'll be on it for days.

I appreciate, Brandon, your comment about critics writing off SFX. The Day After Tomorrow is one of my favorite recently made films. Is it because it's got a great plot and well-developed characters? Or even a logically sound central idea? No- it's because I believe that that's what New York City would look like frozen and half underwater. And I think, How awesome would it be to walk around in that? I get a kick out of all those big-budget disaster movies for the same reason. I, too, watch movies to escape sometimes. It's fun to lose myself in an otherworldly setting. Inception gave me that, and I'm not complaining. Maybe my standards are too low :).

Dream Wars, part one: The Phantom (Mal) Menace

Unlike Brandon I *do* have James Bond dreams- where I'm being chased or I'm discovering something or on a mission of some sort- they're really exciting and often a welcome change of pace from my more or less ordinary "real" life. And it's true that my dreams jump around a bit more, but you have to remember that these guys are presumably skilled at manipulating the dream world and using it to their advantage during extractions. So I was on board with the dream world setting right from the start. I also liked the fortress in the snow- it was very different from the other two settings, which I felt effectively kept it visually interesting. The contrast between the relative darkness of the hotel and the brightness of the snow was striking and I enjoyed switching back and forth among all three dream worlds. Again, it was like an amusement park ride. Plus, I love snow action scenes. Snow Job was my first and favorite G.I. Joe figure, after all.

What I consider to be the major flaw in Inception, and what I think opens it up to accusations of not having a heart, is that it tries to play the human interest story card too obviously. And because its heart needs a pacemaker, the assumption is that the whole film is flawed. You both made comparisons to Shutter Island- while I would agree that it was overall a better film, I would perhaps disagree with your reasons. Scorcese is better, as I mentioned, at knowing how much a story can hold; Nolan put too much on his support beams and the whole thing is creaking a little. But the general design is solid. Shutter Island, as I mentioned, had a very straightforward premise- confusion between two realities. It relies heavily on the audience buying "the big reveal" at the end- and because Scorcese is so skillful, we do. But Inception requires the audience to buy the basic premise (a perspective of the very nature of reality itself) throughout the entire film, something that is much more difficult to accomplish. What would Scorcese do with dreams within dreams? With the notion of limbo beneath the deepest levels of consciousness? My guess is that it's not something he cares too much about, given the type of film he's been known for to this point. Conversely, Nolan took some pretty big risks with Inception, and they all didn't pay off. But I have to admire him for taking them. And, unlike Shutter Island, Inception has been giving my imagination a lot to do in the last few days.

I really do wish he had done something different with the dead wife subplot. What it accomplished in adding another level of peril (DiCaprio's character endangering the rest) I liked, but there are a number of different ways Nolan could have done that without having to go the "man who will do anything to get back to his kids including kill his dead wife who's really just a projection of his own consciousness" route. You know, because that's been done before ;).

I had the thought at one point that DiCaprio's character actually had a part of his wife's consciousness trapped in his own mind (I watched Fringe not too long ago, remember)- which would have been an interesting subplot, albeit one that would have confused the film even further.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Such a Shame

I'm so bummed that you didn't like Inception, John. I just saw it last night and am trying to figure out when I can see it again. I didn't swallow the film hook, line, and sinker, but there was enough that I liked to more than make up for what I didn't. Your point about Page's flat performance is well taken, but I think that asking for well-developed characters, a well-developed complex philosophical premise, and exciting and convincing special effects is asking too much of a film. I can't think of any that have all three off the top of my head; if they exist, I would be happy to be proven wrong. But all three elements take time to accomplish in a film, and even the best films are hard pressed to manage to do two of them well. Take Shutter Island, for example. It has well-developed characters and exciting effects. But the philosophical premise is quite straightforward- the guy is in denial because of a staggering loss. This doesn't make it a lesser film- it's just a film that is not trying to be too many things at once. Inception is choosing to sacrifice character development for a complex idea and exciting special effects. The fact that it tried at all to make as much of DiCaprio's character's psychological/emotional situation as it did is one of the few shortcomings of the film. The dead wife subplot was interesting to a degree (comparisons to Shutter Island notwithstanding), but not essential to the success of the story, in my opinion. But it didn't ruin the film, either. It just Hollywoodized it. So, in response to John's post, I will respond with a top ten list of my own. So here are the Top Ten things I liked about Inception (in no particular order):

1) The shifting gravity fight in the hotel. It was so skillfully done- graceful and fluid. I felt like I was on an amusement park ride.

2) The sets in general, but specifically the post-apocalyptic limbo setting.

3) The notion of dreams-within-dreams and how one could use them in an extraction-type scenario. I could probably get a couple points from this one, but I felt that Nolan set up and executed logically and clearly how something like that could work. Which brings me to...

4) The exposition. I knew precisely when certain scenes were written to explain what was going on, and I appreciated them. When a premise is simple, I don't need a film to explain to me what's going on, and it's irritating when it does. But the idea of exploring dreamspace in the way the film does was new to me, so I liked hearing the characters explain what they did. And even though I knew it was exposition, I felt that it was inserted naturally into the course of events. I went to see Inception because I wanted to see a movie that explored the subject of dreams and their relation to reality in an exciting way, and not an action movie that used it as a hook to get me to see an SFX fluff piece. I was not disappointed.

5) The special effects. You can have a movie about the strangeness of dreams without them, but grandiose effects in a dreamworld setting can really engage me in a way that telling me something is a dream and throwing a midget in there to prove it doesn't. I especially liked the scene where Page's character folds the street on top of itself and then they walk around it like an Escher drawing. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is another good example of effective SFX to create a visually compelling dreamworld.

6) The fluid nature of reality throughout the entire film. Nolan throws a dream-within-a-dream scenario in there right from the start that makes you question throughout the entire film whether or not anything that's happening is real. And he doesn't answer that question in any kind of definitive way ever.

7) The discussion potential the film. I felt that Inception contained a number of events around which substantial conversations could be formed. I love and could discuss over again many times the nature of reality and what that means, so the fact that this was a central theme of the movie makes it all the more attractive to me.

8) The cast. Granted, not a lot of time was spent on character development, but the actors did an excellent job within those constraints. Yes, Page was a little flat, but only a little. And I don't blame her for it. Joseph G-L is always fun to watch, and Tom Hardy's solid performance was a nice surprise.

9) The director. I like Nolan's style, and have enjoyed so far everything of his I've seen. It was nice to see that post-Batman (straightforward premise, great SFX, inconsistent character development), he could still tell a compelling story.

10) The ending. When the camera panned towards the spinning top, I knew that Nolan was about to wedge himself between two cliches for the sake of a dramatic ending. That final minute was going to affect in a huge way my perception of the film: a crappy ending will undo for me two hours' worth of enjoyment, and my anxiety at that moment had almost more to do with whether or not the ending Nolan chose was going wreck the whole thing than the question of whether or not what was happening was real. I don't think he could have executed it more deftly. Everything from the timing of the pan, to how long the camera rested on the spinning top, to the slight wobble just before cutting to the credits was just perfect. The response of the audience was wonderful (gasping, chuckling) and, as I found out in a discussion with Adrienne, it wasn't as straightforward as I thought (I thought that it was obvious that it was meant to be "real" and Adrienne was sure that it wasn't).

Finally, John, please tell me you didn't mean it about Jonah Hex. There's no way Jonah Hex could have possibly been better than Inception. Come on, man. You're just being grumpy now.