Thursday, July 28, 2011

Black Death

First off, this is not a horror film. Drama? Sure. Action/adventure? Ok. But not horror. Even though there's a witch it in. Still probably NSFL, but if she were to watch it with someone else, maybe it'd be okay. Did you watch Braveheart, Lisa? This is less violent than that.

I loved your reference to The Wicker Man, Brandon. It reminded me of how much I loved the original and HATED the remake (you should have never left Las Vegas, Nicholas). What a creepy film. I need to see it again, and so do all of you.

Okay, so I enjoyed Black Death. No surprise there; I enjoy most of what I see (except for Godard, that bastard). But there are specifics: great setting, nice cinematography, wonderful mood. I agree with Ben about the first part creating tension and setting the stage. I almost enjoyed that anticipation more, when we didn't know what they were going to discover in the remote town. SPOILERS next.
So, a part of me was thinking, maybe they're not really pagan and this is going to be one of those mistaken identity/bloodthirsty Christians kind of films. But then they were pagans. So then I thought, maybe they'll be peaceful pagans and will be contrasted with the bloodthirsty Christians. But then they were bloodthirsty pagans. I agree with (?) that our sympathies are meant primarily to lie with the Christians; I honestly don't see any redeeming qualities presented for the pagan side, especially when the narrator pulls the rug out from under their secret to staying healthy by saying that they were just remote. Their paganism didn't save them from anything, any more than the Christians' religion saved the Christians.

So I suppose then that the message is plague (and whatever it's meant to represent) destroys us all equally, pagan or Christian. That we're all subject to the same pits and snares as human beings, whatever our religion. Which is a fine message, if you subscribe to the Christianity that is presented in the film. Which I don't. And I don't mean the violent side of it (which is about its historical context), but the defiant, never-say-die, Mel-Gibson-freedom side of it. If you believe them, there abound stories of martyrs who sang and called out to God when they were about to be burned or quartered or flayed or whatever. They submitted peacefully. These guys swore and yelled and beat their chests (or the equivalent) but never called out to God once. My recollection could be wrong, but even the first guy who was singing was singing a drinking song, not a hymn. I thought that seemed odd. So even though these guys were supposed to represent my kind, and seemed noble enough, I didn't feel a kinship with them. It's true that I now ally myself with a fringe group of Christians (Mennonites) that themselves were persecuted by Christians back in the day, but I didn't even recognize that much of the more evangelical or fundamentalist strains that I came from, which in addition to holiness and purity also emphasized a personal connection to God (yes, it's true, not all fundamentalist Christians are hateful assholes. Imagine it!) that none but the novice priest seemed to have, which itself is even called into question by the end of the film.

Which brings me to the next part, where I agree with John that the most compelling aspect of Black Death is the young priest's transformation from a man who protests the murder of a young woman to a killer himself bent on vengeance. I actually have to go to work now and am out of time, but I don't know that I'd have more to say about it except to talk about the things that lead him astray and perhaps relate them to the things in life that lead us astray in similar ways: guilt, unforgiveness, lack of confidence in our beliefs, etc. It was really a sad and tragic film for me, but not for any reason other than the one young man's downfall. Other than that, it was an entertaining period action film.

Side question: why are witches in films either super hot or damn ugly? You don't often see normal-looking people as witches in these kinds of movies. It's the patriarchy again, isn't it? Dammit.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Oh, and Also

I loved the Village and never saw the ending coming. Too bad all you cynics have to try to figure everything out before the end of the film. You missed a great picture. And I will maintain that The Happening is totally underrated. Nature Strikes Back? That's freaking brilliant, if you ask me. Kirk Cameron isn't worthy to wipe M. Night's ass, if indeed he even wipes it himself.

La La La

I cried during The Passion, I thought Crash was really clever, I laughed a lot during Sideways, and I own the Garden State Soundtrack as well as three albums by The Shins. So screw all of you. 

I also hate change and don't post in protest/out of despair each time a new member gets added. Nothing personal, Chris. I've linked to you on my blog now, see? There is going to be a point where I'm really not going to be able to keep up with all the posts, but that's not yet. You guys write a lot. Damn.

Brandon, I'm so sorry you didn't like Insidious. Maybe I played it up too much. But I also have an uncanny ability to lose myself in even the worst storylines, so I don't always get distracted by the same things you all do, I think. A movie has to be really bad for me to dislike it, unless it's by Godard. Speaking of which, I think I may understand a little better why I don't like him. But more on that later. Maybe. I thought Insidious was really fun and scary, except for the very end which disappointed me. God forbid anybody make a horror film with a happy ending. I agree the demon looked like Darth Maul, but I didn't let it distract me. And I agree that once you see the monster, it takes away some of the fear. That's why I liked the second part of the movie so much. We moved from being afraid of this demon creature to being afraid of this spooky netherworld. The "monster reveal" didn't end the threat and I liked that a lot. I also liked that the film changed from being a creaky-door ghost film to a alternate dimension (Hellraiser, anyone?) demon film. It was interesting to a guy who's seen far too many horror films.

I watched Tree of Life a second time and it was actually a lot easier to understand. He really does lay out his premise right at the beginning. The line "Mother. Father. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will" underscores the theme. Not grace, not nature, but the two of them battling together in each of us, producing good and evil. "I do the things I don't want to" and all that. And I think the ending is not heaven but perhaps a dream. The first time we see the older Jack, he's waking up and he gets flashes of the landscape we'll see more fully later. The creation scenes were even more stunning the second time around. I really love this film. Especially the penis fish.

Here's what I've been watching lately (pulled straight from Flixster, because it's easier).

Captain America: This movie made me feel good, even though I'm a pacifist. The story was well told, and aside from a couple things here or there (not counting that super soldiers are even possible), I didn't have to suspend my disbelief too much. I especially loved the evolution of the costume. It fit well in the story. Chris Evans may be perfect as Captain America. I loved that Dum Dum Dugan was in it but not named as such. It felt like a little treat for us comics fans, and there were a few others, like Agent Carter (Sharon Carter's mother, perhaps?) and Tony Stark's father.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows II: I liked part one better, for the same reason I like Empire Strikes Back better. The scenes in the first part where they're just waiting and it's quiet and beautiful are amazing.

Green Lantern: I was disappointed, I'll admit. Too much going on. Parallax was too big for a first movie and Mad Thinker was too distracting. Reynolds makes a good GL though, and I'm glad they're planning a sequel.

Cold Souls (2008): Great concept, muddy follow-through. Barthes spent too much time trying to sell a complicated plot when she should have trusted the strength of the premise more (and Giamatti's always fantastic acting) and worked with that. Too many unanswered/unsettled matters at the end. It wasn't satisfying.

No Impact Man (2007): Challenging and thought-provoking. The whole baby subplot seemed really unnecessary. I live with constant guilt that I don't live up to my values when it comes to being green. My ass is so lazy about some things.

Fail Safe (1964): Very interesting watching this after Dr. Strangelove. Two unique takes on a similar situation. Strangelove is superior, but this one definitely has some powerful moments. I had a hard time with the quick explanation for the computer glitch that sent the attack order; I found myself distracted by wanting more information. It just seemed so improbable to me, given the complex process by which an attack order wound be made.
It's impressive that a movie that is almost nothing but a bunch of people talking in rooms could be such a nail-biter.
After a crazy opening dream scene, the film slows way down for a half hour or so, until the glitch and jamming signal cause the planes to head for Moscow.
One of my favorite scenes is the first conversation between Hagman and Fonda with the Russian premier. The way two were on either side of the frame, with the phone in the middle and the blank wall behind them, made it a powerful moment in the film.

Mary and Max (2009): Beautifully animated and acted. Great dramatic timing and voice acting. PSH is not even recognizable as himself! Sad ending, but not as sad as it could have been, I suppose.

Transformers Dark of the Moon: 20 minutes too long, at least. It was like a 5 scoop hot fudge peanut butter and strawberry sauce sundae. It seems like a good idea at first, and it tastes good going down, but then you get a little belly ache and you have to take a massive dump a few hours later.

Sleeper (1973): Really funny in parts, but uneven. I got it (except the Miss America scene) and I liked it, but it didn't work as a sci-fi film. I understand that's not the point, but as a fan of sci-fi, I felt the genre deserved a *little* more respect. For the sake of comedy, Allen asks us to constantly suspend our disbelief, and it gets to be a lot after a while. All that said, however, if I watched this again, it'd likely get an extra half or whole star. It made a mildly good first impression on me. 

I'd be interested, Jeff, in where you think Sleeper stands in Woody's oeuvre. 

Ben, I'm excited about Season 2 of Walking Dead as well. Have you read the comic yet?

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Tree of Life--Also, Days of Heaven

Well, it took me a couple of hours (and a loss of sleep two nights ago) to catch up on the big Tree of Life discussion and here are my nutritional facts:

80% of your daily allowance of Apologizing
110% of Discussion about the Discussion about Tree of Life
55% of Defending/Disregarding the general filmgoing public
15% of Actual observations about the film Tree of Life by Terence Malick

So don't feel bad, Ben, you didn't miss much. I would still like to hear more specifics about what film club members think of the film itself, without all that other stuff. Of course I missed the in-person discussion, so maybe I'm just SOL.

A couple of things stick in my mind from what I read, however. I really liked John's analogy to a symphony. I actually thought that myself while I was watching it. I like the idea of repeating themes and movements. I'm not a big classical music fan, but I have listened to classical music that felt like a story. Tree of Life was a multimedia symphony: music, lyrics, and visuals.

I also thought Jeff's first post about the film really captured a lot of what made the film meaningful to me, and this bit here almost said it all for me:

"I think it might be unfair to lump Terry Malick in with someone who would shoot a 10 hour film of a brick wall or something. I think he’s too genuine and sincere for something like that. If someone like Hanake (who I really like mind you) made a film like that, I wouldn’t be surprised because he’s an asshole and he likes to pontificate. Malick isn’t like that to me though. He really is sincere, almost naively sincere you’d think at times. He’s just a kid with a movie camera who is in love with everything he sees. He treats every image with reverence. He’s Ginsburg at the end of Howl shouting “Holy Holy Holy Holy Holy Holy.” He’s got an earnest poetic spirit that is just rare for a filmmaker, which is one reason I love him so much. He’s one of the only people who can shoot an image of grass swaying and REALLY REALLY mean it."

Not bad for an atheist. Are atheists spiritual, by the way? How exactly does that manifest itself?

In terms of it being accessible, it really was for me. I didn't understand it all, but my mind is only one part of me that I bring to a film. My eyes were glued to the screen the whole time. I actually held my pee for about a half an hour longer than I should have because I didn't want to miss a single frame. Not bad for a film that has been criticized for not having a story. Besides, Malick told us exactly what the film was about right at the beginning. Nature vs. grace. Granted, there's a lot you can do with that, but the film was a meditation on those two themes and how they relate to and oppose each other, as far as I could tell. I didn't need any more than what I was given. I was (and am still) okay with not understanding.

And in terms of the narrative, I was actually able to connect quite strongly to it. I know Lisa took issue with the emphasis that was placed on the whole father-son aspect of the film, but that was very powerful to me. Here's a little personal tidbit, too. I felt that it validated me as a father. I inherited a son when I got married and have struggled with legitimacy as his father because I came into his life later on. But we struggle in some of the same ways Jack and his father struggled. And I ached for them both because I know hard hard it can be to connect and to guide, to be both transcendent and imminent to your son. And then to try to be human yourself. Tree of Life made me feel like I am a real father. 

I have never seen anything like Tree of Life. I don't even think I can categorize it. I watched it with my wife (who also was moved by it) and felt closer to her because of it. We had experienced something important together that was beyond words. I am trying to figure out when I can see it again in the theater. I feel sad to think of what it will lose confined to a smaller screen. Malick was able to capture something that I have seen few other filmmakers able to. It's true that being genuine has a lot to do with it. A lot of auteurs can come off being a little cynical or detached, even if they don't mean to be or don't want to be. You become a good director because you can see things that others don't, and unless you have a lot of faith, there's a lot in this life that can get you down. But there is no pretension in Tree of Life, no guile, no double entendre. There is hope and doubt and faith and loss and life and relationships and death. I loved it. And I want to write more about it after I see it again.

I watched Days of Heaven tonight, and I'm sorry to say but I was disappointed. Crazy, I know, but do you blame me? After being spoiled by Tree of Life and The New World, it's hard for Days of Heaven to compete. Don't get me wrong; I liked it, but it was a shadow of what was to come for Malick. I also wish that dramatic movies didn't always need to have someone important die in order to be dramatic. It's why I liked King of the Hill so much. There was real suffering, but the family got to be together at the end. The end of Days of Heaven, as my wife said, seemed to fizzle out. She also said that she felt that the Shepard's character seemed out of character when he went crazy. The burning of the field makes sense, but not tying up his wife. So I liked it, but it was a little too sad at the end for me. And maybe it's just the mood I was in. Tree of Life made me feel uplifted by the end, and so did The New World (I mean, we knew how Pocahontas died already anyway). But I kept hoping that Days of Heaven wouldn't end like I had a feeling it was going to. And, Lisa, you might appreciate this, but I think I would have enjoyed it more had I not known it was by Malick. I had higher expectations than the film deserved. I really hope you see The New World, Lisa, I have a hunch you will like it and it might help you to understand Tree of Life better. Or at least make it more accessible.

I haven't seen Thin Red Line in a long time, so I only have a vague impression of it. But it still seems like there's a definite progression in Malick's films, moving away from traditional narrative into a more visual (symphonic?) narrative style. I think he'll have a hard time topping Tree of Life in that regard.

Also, I don't think Tree of Life was anything like any of Kubrick's films. Even the most obvious film to compare it to (2001) doesn't have a heart like Tree of Life. It has beauty and evolution and even awe at the vastness of the universe, but the killer robot ship kind of makes it the opposite of Tree of Life. I'm sure I will be taken to task for that simplification, but I just don't see Malick as being like Kubrick in many ways (except for the last three letters of their last names).

One more thing. The ending of Tree of Life took me out of the the film a bit, because it was so abstract. It's not that I didn't like it, though; I wasn't expecting it. I think I might appreciate it more the second time around.