Friday, December 22, 2006

Scarecrow Video
























I'm flying to Seattle tonight for a visit and of course I'll be seeing movies while I'm there. One of my favorite places in the world happens to be Scarecrow Video. I just get a warm and tingly all over feeling when I walk through their doors. They've got upwards of 75,000 videos to rent, including thousands from other countries that take a special all-region DVD player to see. They've got a mammoth foreign section--you want to see films from Chile, Mongolia or Finland? Then Scarecrow is for you. Unreal horror, science fiction and anime collections too. But, my personal favorite thing about it is the massive section that is separated strictly by director! That completely appeals to my film geek DNA. I'll be taking in some of my favorite local theatres like the Harvard Exit, Neptune and Egyptian but I can promise you I'll spend hours over the next week just absorbing the sights and sounds of one the best places on planet earth...Scarecrow Video.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Five films I hated in 2006

I could have put more than this on a list of the films I hated in 2006 but I’ll whittle it down to a measly five. In no particular order here they are…the gloves are off!

The Pink Panther—This was flat out embarrassing for Steve Martin and everyone else in this miserably dull, unfunny and shameful remake of Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther films. Martin, utilizing a French accent and style of physical comedy that makes him seem borderline retarded, gives the most annoying performance of his career (I’m a fan of his actually). There is absolutely nothing of worth in this film (okay, Emily Mortimer, a perinial Top5 of mine is in this and I also like Kevin Kline but even this pair can't save the film) and should make anyone considering remakes of classic movies think long and hard about shooting themselves in the head to save us all the pain of having to watch another retread, inferior movie. Peter Sellers is rolling over in his grave as I write this.

Failure To Launch—Some things never change, another year, another bad, bad, bad Matthew McConaughey movie. I have to hand it to the guy—he’s consistent in his crapness. The pairing of McConaughey and Sarah Jessica Parker creates romantic tension of the likes of the possible pairing of Abe Vagoda and Britney Spears in a remake of Love Story (I know, unfair to poor Abe!). Translation: the duo has less than zero chemistry in this romantic comedy about a guy who doesn’t want to leave home. Plus, am I the only person that thinks Parker is wearing enough makeup to stock an entire city block and looks like a man in drag? Yet another reason to avoid this—Terry Bradshaw bares his pasty ass multiple times. Yes, multiple times.

Down In the Valley—Granted, I’ve seen a lot worse this year but I’m not sure I watched something that I loathed as much as this phony piece of trite with Edward Norton pretending to be a cowboy in the San Fernando Valley, Cali. The only thing I was rooting for during this was for it to be over as it is just a ridiculously over the top story that should have been left in some writer’s desk. Norton, a fine actor indeed, picked this as a "statement" role but by the end I was just laughing at this absurd waste of my time.

Poseiden—I reviewed this earlier in the year for CineRobot and I asked in the review, “Is it possible to see something so mediocre, so unrelenting in its average, aim for the lowest common denominator” goals? The answer in 2006 is no. This is as average as average can get. Poseiden is predictable, has no tension and is just another silly remake of a film that didn’t need to be redone. Enough is more than enough, Hollywood!

The Benchwarmers—Let me quote from my very succinct review in Kinetoscope after I saw this on June 28, 2006: “Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid. But at least it only cost one dollar.” Everything, and I mean everything, you’d expect from a comedic vehicle starring Rob Schneider and David Spade. I’m not normally a guy who knocks a film with as many blows to the groin as sentences (groin pain: always funny) but I’d almost rather take a blow to the groin than to watch this again. Maybe even two blows to the groin?

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

I somehow avoided the bombardment of Stranger Than Fiction’s trailer—it was on every two minutes for a few weeks—to make it into the theatre with no clue what happens in this movie. That’s kind of hard to do in this day and age of too many people giving too much of the story away in reviews/trailers. Can these critics just stop writing what happens in the movie for 3/4 of their reviews! Rehashing the plot for the bulk of the review is not good criticism and many professionals seem to do it all too often. It’s lazy and takes no skill to rehash a plot.

Now, let me discuss the plot of Stranger Than Fiction (ha!). Will Ferrell is a guy named Harold Crick who hears a voice in his head…is he crazy? Is it the narrator in a book narrating his life? Will what the narrator say what will happen to Crick in his life? There, that’s all you need to know about this comedy-drama to know enough of what goes on in the film. Why not let the rest of the story be a surprise? To me, there is nothing greater in a movie for events to happen that you didn’t see coming. It’s magical to not know.

I really liked Stranger Than Fiction. It’s funny, it has depth to it, the story has interesting things to say about topics such as the nature of writing, discovering how to live and to love and tax codes. Ferrell, who I’m hardly sold on as a dramatic actor, gives a performance that is part loopy, part serious. Word was this was in the vein of madcap screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)—it’s not. Kaufman is Kaufman and there’s only one Kaufman writing movies in Hollywood.

Maggie Gyllenhaal gives one of the most charming performances of her young career as a tattooed baker who has tax issues which results in the IRS agent Crick paying her a visit. It’s the kind of role a lesser actress would have done nothing with but she’s one of the finest actresses at the moment (when will I get to see Sherrybaby damnit?!). Gyllenhaal makes her screen time count every second she is on the screen and isn’t it amazing what talent can do to a character’s depth and appeal?

Director Marc Forster, whose career is littered with over hyped films such as Monster’s Ball (a film I really hated) and Finding Neverland, has made his most interesting film here. He doesn’t wallow in cheap, emotional ploys to tug at your heartstrings as he did in those films. Don’t get me wrong, he still wants you to like and be moved by his characters, but thankfully he reigns in the over the top maudlin crap he drowned the before mentioned films in.

Stranger Than Fiction is quirky, funny in a thinking kind of way, has some interesting things to say about the nature of writing, it’s romantic, has the enchanting Gyllenhaal and will likely make it onto my top ten of 2006. That sounds like a recommendation to me.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Fountain

Darren Aronofsky, the director of The Fountain, is someone I’ve not really responded to in his first two films—Pi and Requiem For A Dream. I admit, he’s an audacious visual stylist that makes technically brilliant films, but I found his first two films lacking in various ways. Pi was too thinly conceived to work to the finish and Requiem For A Dream was too unrelenting and ended up one of the most dour, joyless films I’ve seen in years.

The Fountain, a film that was in production for about five years (it was actually scrapped by Warner Bros. a few years ago after they’d spent 20 million and saw they were going to throw about 80 more down the well, this is the cheaper version), is by far my favorite Aronofsky movie. If I went into the out-there plot you might see why about half of the 15 people at this late night screening walked out of the theatre. Their leaving just emboldened my enjoyment of this extremely artistic and idiosyncratic movie.

I’m not going to really go into the story, as it will just come off very convoluted and strange--which it is. The story spans about 1,000 years with Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz playing a variety of characters. There’s conquistadors, Mayan jungle scenes, the search for the fountain of youth, science experiments on monkeys, an astronaut floating in a bubble in outer space who lives with a giant tree (yes, this is true), love and more love…and just a lot of other elements to make this the most “out there” mainstream release of the year.

The story is pretentious (it is Darren Aronofsky after all), confounding, complex and wildly romantic all at the same time! Aronofsky has never been a director to shy away from striking visuals and he stacks so many memorable images and ideas into The Fountain it’s hard to process the story as it shifts from Spanish Inquisition to 1,000 years in the future to what seems like now with the one element that links all the timelines--the search for immortality.

As I mentioned, a lot of people walked out of this—including two loud, obnoxious people behind me so good riddance to them—and I think this is a very divisive little movie. Either it’s going to a work of visual and thought provoking art you get swept up in. Or, it will be a ridiculous, pompous mess that you will loathe. I’m in with the former on this one.

I was completely mesmerized by The Fountain from the very start. It's kind of a headrush of ideas, beautiful images, an interesting love story (or two, or three love stories) and will challenge the crap out of you as you watch it. And that is so refreshing to me in this day and age of market segmented filmmaking. With The Fountain, I'm not sure Aronofsky gave a damn and just made a crazy, all over the place film that will sparkle you if you are weak to this sort of magic.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Is anyone out there?

I know it's a bit annoying when people whine about comments and all...but I've written about 9 reviews in a row and not sure anyone has posted a thing...is this thing broken? Agree with me, debate me, tell me I'm crazy, I'll take anything in the comment box!

The Ballad of Cable Hogue

When you think Sam Peckinpah western, you might think of gritty characters, slow motion shoot-outs and lots of people dying. His most infamous western, The Wild Bunch, featured all of these elements in spades and is probably his most notorious and famous film. The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) is a western but it’s one with a great deal of levity and is one of Peckinpah’s most pleasurable films to watch because it’s such a curveball.

Jason Robards plays Cable, a man left without water in the desert and left to die. He stumbles around in the heat and sun but luckily finds a freak water hole when he was about to give up. Cable stakes a claim to the land with the sole desire to wait for the two fellows who left him to die make their way to him, then he plans to kill them.

Cable goes to town some and meets the busty prostitute Hildy (Stella Stevens). I wouldn’t mention her bust line but when the pair meet Peckinpah does some really funny quick cuts over and over regarding her chest as Cable can’t get his mind on anything else (he has been out in the desert about to die after all!). Cable is in town to entice the local stagecoach line into funding his new town, Cable Springs, while he waits to exact revenge.

As I said, this was more a western-comedy from a director not known for lighter moments and I really enjoyed those elements in the movie. Robards gives a great, lively performance as Cable, he’s a ranting, randy character. Slim Pickens shows up to deliver a few one-liners and any western with Pickens is usually something worth watching.

The film even has some statements on the changing nature of the western frontier in it toward the end, which was a nice surprise, and it throws in a little romance before the final showdown too for a different kind of western from one of the genre’s most unique directors. The Ballad of Cable Hogue is not Peckinpah’s best film, but it is right up there with his most fun to watch. Great.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Bicycle Thief

Sheer perfection. This is a perfect movie—perfectly conceived and executed—and is one of my favorite movies of all-time. I’ve seen it at least six times now and it never loses its ability to wring out the emotion as I watch it. The Bicycle Thief hurts so good.

Director Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 film is among the canon of the neo-realist movement in post-WWII Italian cinema. Neo-realism was a movement that attempted to toss away excess and to tell real stories with real human beings. These films attempt to address everyday moments of a normal person in a heartbreaking, moving and dramatic manner. “My purpose is to find the element of drama in daily situations” De Sica said regarding the storyline of The Bicycle Thief.

The film's story is set around the poverty and unemployment of a single family. Antonio is out of work. He gets a job to put up posters but needs his bicycle to do the job. To get the bike out of the pawn shop the family hocks their linens. On the first day of his job, the bike is stolen. Antonio and his son Bruno go on a search trying to find the bike that will put food on their table.

That’s the simple version of the story. The film has so many layers to it that each time I watch it another is peeled back for me to discover. Only the great movies can do that for you as a viewer. Sometimes I notice the father-son elements, sometimes I pay attention to the way poverty/ unemployment have a significant role in the film’s story. This time I really noticed the use of God/religion/psychics in the story and how it relates to Antonio’s plight.

Most of the time I just get swept up in the desperation of the father who knows the consequences for his job and his family if he doesn’t locate the bicycle. With the bicycle, they aren’t well off, but he won’t bury himself in the shame of unemployment and the struggle to survive that losing the bicycle will cause.

The Bicycle Thief, like other neo-realist films from this period, relies heavily on non-professional actors and extensive location shooting. This adds to the feeling of “realness” in what you see on screen. You see real alleys, churches, building stairwells, streets and apartments.

The Bicycle Thief has one of the most devastating endings in the history of cinema. I don’t care how many times I watch the film, I’m blown away and crushed for the rest of the day. That’s a good thing in my book. Any movie that takes you into another emotional state because you love the characters and the story so much is a complete success to me. In the case of The Bicycle Thief, it’s simply one of the best movies in the history of cinema.

Inland Empire

When I was writing the post a few weeks ago regarding films I'm itching to see--I somehow forgot the one I want to see most of all--Inland Empire!

I keep reading about how this is THE David Lynch movie he's been waiting to make his entire career that has all the quirky and strange elements + some more. Years in the making, shot entirely on consumer DV (Lynch has sworn off film which kind of bums me out), scenes with talking rabbits and who knows what else will be in store for us brave enough to enter the world of Lynch.

I really want to see the movie!

Thursday, November 30, 2006

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

It's about time someone exposed the MPAA for the fraud and sham that they are. I’ve been ranting and raving about the ratings system for a long, long time now so watching this documentary was right up my alley.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated tells a story long needed in regards to film history. You see, the ratings board, also known as the MPAA, has long held an agenda in how they come up with their ratings and filmmaker Kirby Dick attempts to expose that agenda. He does it in a funny way too--by attempting to expose every person on the super secret ratings board and show just how faulty the whole process is.

The MPAA looks at films in uneven ways--violence is better than sex, studio pictures get away with more than indies and woe is the film to put any kind of homosexuality in it. The MPAA claims to be made up of "normal" parents who sit in judgement of every movie released in the USA to guide other parents but Dick finds out a lot of these people have children in their 20s and aren't advising a rating at all--but actually censuring films.

I'm amazed that some brave filmmaker w/ deep pockets hasn't sued the MPAA on some kind of 1st amendment issue as they have such overwhelming power and control regarding a films ability to play in theatres by the threat of an NC-17 rating that they force artists into altering their picture to get a lesser rating. As the film shows at the start, hundreds of filmmakers, many of them legends, have had to deal with overzealous ratings board decisions regarding films that forced them into cutting their movies into something they don’t want.

If you like seeing behind the scenes docs set in Hollywood, this is for you. Lots of directors show up and talk about their own battles with the MPAA. I wish this would be the first step in getting rid of the current system or altering it into a more workable system with public raters and a more clearly defined set of parameters—but that's probably a pipedream as Dick shows in his film—the MPAA is controlled by the studios and theatres and they wouldn't have it any other way.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Movies I'm eager to see

The holiday season is pretty insufferable for a scrooge like me. I want the Christmas music, the shopping masses and anything else related to the “spirit” of the season to just go away. The only good thing about this time of the year is some high quality films are released that try to garner awards. Here’s a few films that have yet to make it to Tulsa or are about to be released that I’m anxious to see.

The Last King of Scotland: A few months ago I wrote about how I love Forrest Whitaker. Word is he is tearing up the screen with so much manic energy in this film where he plays the mad as a hatter dictator Idi Amin. I read the book a few years ago, which also piques my interest, as the book was pretty enjoyable. I don’t understand what the hold up is for this coming to Tulsa, all I know is I need to see it!

Sherrybaby: Another one that’s already been out for awhile on the coasts and in larger cities that hasn’t made it to T-Town yet. Just like The Last King of Scotland, my main interest in watching it is there is supposedly a blazing performance by Maggie Gyllenhall, who is a favorite of mine. Gyllenhaal gives a fearless and raw performance—at least from what I’ve read as who knows how long I’ll have to wait before it comes to town.

The Fountain: I’m not a huge fan of director Darren Aronofsky but I’ve been reading about this epic sci-fi romance of his for years now so I’m eager to finally see it. The Fountain has almost been made and then not made and now it’s finally been actually filmed. The story concerns characters over a thousand year arc in very different settings and is trippy as all get out. Another reason I want to see it—Rachel Weisz.

The Good German: Director Steven Soderbergh is completely hit and miss with me now. He’ll make an interesting film and then go off to make crap like the super mainstream Ocean series or some quasi-pretentious endeavor few people even want to see (Bubble). With The Good German he has tried to recreate the flavor of ‘40s filmmaking by using sets, lenses, filmstock and technique used in films from the studio system era. I’m very intrigued. Plus, there’s an interesting mystery set in post WWII Berlin.

Children of Men: I’m into near future dystopian science fiction (1984 is the benchmark) in a big way and this film is set in a dark future where people can’t reproduce. A man and his ex-wife (unfortunately Clive Owen, he annoys me most of the time) are drawn into dark paths trying to protect a woman who is somehow pregnant. I hope everything looks grey, the world is a police state and people have to fight to survive day to day against the forces that try to control them. Sounds like fun, huh?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Slither

This was a fun movie! I’m not sure how I missed this when it came out earlier in the year but I did. Slither is an alien/zombie hybrid that wears its b-film roots cheekily on its sleeve and that sense of fun lets writer/director James Gunn’s debut rise out of the mire of the genre.

Slither isn’t full of dread and darkness—it’s full of one-liners, blasts of violence and a quirky sense of fun from start to finish. I love it when I see a movie and have no expectations and it sneaks up and gives me a surprisingly good time as it unfolds (I shouldn’t have been totally surprised as Gunn wrote the recent Dawn of the Dead remake—one of the few remakes I’ve seen in years that I liked). Slither is such a movie. It doesn’t aim super high because it doesn’t want to be anything other than the gory, funny b-film it is, but it succeeds on nearly every level.

Slither concerns aliens who land in a small town and begins to slowly take over the locals one by one. The aliens turn you into zombies after they take over you but these are zombies a little different than the normal walking dead, as they exist to support the alien they are connected to. I liked that little twist in the story as I’m always looking for different takes on the zombie film.

Gunn gives most of the actors lots of funny things to say in the film. Firefly’s Nathan Fillion plays the local sheriff, Elizabeth Banks (who might be in my next Top5 list) plays another local and a character actor named Greg Henry plays the foulmouthed mayor in a lively role. Jenna Fischer from The Office has a small role and gets to use the word “skeeter” in a sentence.

I haven’t looked at the films that might make my top 10 for 2006 but based on sheer fun level—Slither is going to be up for inclusion. It’s got everything you want in a mainstream b-film: aliens, zombies, giant worms, graphic cartoon like violence, funny one-liners left and right and a fast pace that knows not to stay around too long and wear out the welcome. Isn’t that more than enough?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Desk Set

I don’t review many old movies, so for a change of pace I’ll write a little bit about a 1957 Walter Lang film I saw over the weekend on Turner Classic (the best channel on tv?). Desk Set is an enjoyable Katherine Hepburn/ Spencer Tracy vehicle that is a great piece of romantic comedy to watch on a sleepy, autumn Sunday afternoon.

Hepburn plays Bunny, a whip-smart reference librarian for a large company that is considering installing a new, high powered “electric brain.” That’s computer to you and me, but in 1957 the correct title was electric brain. I kind of like the ring of that… electric brain.

Tracy plays Richard Sumner, the man installing the EB into the company. Sumner is drawn to the quirky librarian (of course!) even though she’s attached to a man who has put off proposing to her for over seven years. Romantic complications ensue.

Desk Set is an easygoing little film that has all the effortless charms that so many films from the 1940s and ‘50s had. It’s just a fun, solid movie filled with lots of good dialogue and marvelous professional actors—Tracy gets to show off a gifted “doubletake” quite often in Desk Set. I’m quite fond of the doubletake.

There were so many studio styled films from this era that are beguiling and have an appeal that is timeless and Desk Set is certainly one of the ones worth watching. I mentioned it earlier, but films like Desk Set, and others from this period, just seem so effortless as you watch them. They entertain and charm without trying at all and that’s why we’ll watch them for fifty more years.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Half Nelson

A few years ago I swore of the “drug” movie as a genre I was just sick to death of. The last thing I wanted to do was to watch some self-destructive nitwit stick a needle in a vein in his neck and inject heroin. Or watch an equally self-destructive yahoo waste his education, throw away his family or all the other negative after effects that would come to those characters in the myriad of drug movies that were coming out at the time.

Recently I decided to watch Requiem for a Dream for the first time years after it came out. The film was about the most bleak, overrated movie I’d seen in a long time and I swore again—no more drug movies! Dang, I wish I’d kept that promise as Half Nelson is just another in a long line of films that show addicts destroy their lives for 2 hours.

This movie is getting a lot of hype (why I watched it) and Ryan Gosling is indeed very charismatic in the lead while delivering a great performance. Gosling is without a doubt, one of the finest young American actors working in film—yet Half Nelson is a story that I’ve witnessed before and rings in all the drug movie clich├ęs.

The story, set partially in a school setting, as Gosling attempts to teach inner city kids, while balancing a secret life ingesting lots of chemicals in the night hours. The teaching methods he employs are pretty ridiculous and highly unbelievable in such a school as he tends to lecture middle school kids in a drug hangover, strung out on some substance, stream of conscience rambling and spinning out philosophy masquerading as history. No teacher would get away for this long, yet he appears to have done it for years. Come on.

The setting of the film in inner city schools never quite feels right and is a little off. HBO’s stellar show The Wire has similar backdrops for a few of its many storylines (kids in school, ravages of drugs) and it is so chockfull of gritty reality it makes Half Nelson seem like the phony-at-its-core film it is.

My relationship with these drug films is kind of like someone swearing off this or that—I seem to fall off the wagon and watch one of them every so often—but this time I’m serious. I’m quitting these drug movies for good. If Half Nelson is an over-hyped film, it at least got me back on the wagon.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Borat...

Since I posted a few times about Borat, I might as well write very briefly about it. Hilarious! The funniest film all year, no contest. I knew what to expect going in and it still didn't disappoint. Now I'm counting the months until Cohen lets loose his next character on unsuspecting marks: Bruno! Is nice!

Night of the Living Dead/Dawn of the Dead

Sorry for the lack of film stuff—super, super busy for next couple of weeks. Grad school + work = less movies and even less time to write about the ones I do see.

A couple of weeks ago we showed George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and the original Dawn of the Dead at the Circle. Yes, it was a Halloween weekend zombie double feature and it was great. I hadn’t seen either film in years so it was both fun and interesting to watch them back-to-back to see how different they are as films.

I’d never seen Night of the Living Dead in a theatre before and the experience greatly enhances its overall impact and tension. I was kind of surprised just how claustrophobic Romero made the interior action in NOTLD. If you don’t know the story of the 1968 film—a group of people retreat to a remote farmhouse and attempt to stave off the walking dead who are outside.

Romero’s film is chock full of atmospheric (black and white photography never hurts upping the atmosphere) tension as he utilizes tight, composed frames that adds to the enclosed, impossible to escape feeling the film has. NOTLD is pretty gore free—the horror is mostly an internal level of fear as the terror comes from the confusion in the situation and the fact these people might not ever make it out of this house. The level of dread is palpable throughout the film. Classic.

Dawn of the Dead, released 10 years after Night, is a completely different film. Rather than enclose a group of people in a tiny space, Romero sticks them in a much bigger location: a shopping mall. He then unleashes a tremendous amount of zombie killing and hammers home an anti-consumerist message (too much of this at 2 in the morning) at the same time the bright red/orange fake blood is flowing from the wounds of dead zombies.

Dawn of the Dead has so many zombies shot in the head moments it reaches a point when it’s very cartoon like, with the violence being not realistic, frightening or jarring. You have to kill these damn zombies or they will kill you and that’s exactly what the people in the shopping mall do—kill some zombies!

I like both the films for different reasons—one is full of inner psychology and drama and the other is just a torrent of fake blood and killing zombies. But how can you go wrong with either of these films if you like zombies as these are two that I’ll keep coming back to and I’ll love them every time.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Star Trek II : The Wrath of Khan

Since I wrote about Logan's Run earlier this month I might as well write about another favorite sci-fi film I love. I'm really into '70s/'80s sci-fi--the period right before CGI took over--and I'm an admitted lifelong Star Trek fan (there's no shame in it!). Like a lot of people, my two favorite films in the Star Trek series are parts 2 and 3 (The Search for Spock). It's been awhile since I've seen Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and it still warms the cockles of my Federation lovin' heart.

There are a lot of reasons to love this film. There’s a great villain in Ricardo Mantalbon as the genetic superhuman Khan. What makes this villain resonate is he’s a character from the TV show that wants revenge on Kirk, who sent him into exile on a barren planet years earlier. Mantalbon, the one time Fantasy Island actor, is wonderful as the bad guy. He hams it up in his beefed up rubber muscle suit in very entertaining ways.

Wrath of Khan is so great because it has a suspenseful revenge element that blends in bits of humor and great action as Admiral Kirk returns to the spot he loves: the helm of the Enterprise. Khan wants to get his hands on the Genesis Project (a technology that creates livable planets on ones that were not livable in the span of a few days) to start again on a newly invigorated planet but he wants to kill Kirk even more. Revenge is a disease in Khan's mind and he can't control it until he either kills Kirk or dies trying, it's good stuff people.

I'm a Spock man myself and would have liked to see more of the genius Vulcan and much less of the always annoying Kirstie Alley (who was seriously miscast as a Vulcan--she doesn't deserve to step on board the Enterprise!). No way did I believe for a second that she's a Vulcan. Come on!

I need to re-watch all the Star Trek films now after watching this. Except maybe Star Trek V, the crap one Shatner directed, I’ll pass on that mess. The word is, JJ Abrams is directing the new Star Trek film and it’s going to be about Kirk and Spock at Starfleet Academy. I’m excited at the thought of such a movie. Don't even try to tell me Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan isn't good and remember, live long and prosper.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Bio-Zombie

I like my zombie movies to be chock full of gore and tension. If it doesn't have those two things it better be funny. The best zombie movies can have all three of those elements that work together. The Hong Kong film Bio-Zombie (1998) is kind of low on the tension and the gore but it’s still fun because of the humor on display.

Bio-Zombie is definitely a tribute to American zombie films as we get a couple of video store slacker clerks who work in a mall who accidentally unleash a biological weapon that turns people into zombies if they drink it. Naturally, the mall is soon running over with the undead and the pair plus their fellow mall workers have to fight for their lives.

Bio-Zombie’s gore is pretty lackluster. So is the tension level as this is more of a horror-comedy than something that is either going to scare you or gross you out. Bio-Zombie uses some of the usual Hong Kong comedy stylings—lots of physical comedy, broad, over the top acting, and general silliness by all the characters. I like that kind of stuff, so I found myself chuckling quite a bit as these people fought off these zombies.

Bio-Zombie is a fun little film from Hong Kong (with terrible subtitles by the way, which kind of adds to its charms) that takes the simple premise of “zombies” and runs it through the Hong Kong comedy blender. Expect to laugh a little but not be scared or disgusted by the low-gore levels.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Poseidon

I know, I know, I’d trashed remakes and sworn them off when writing about Logan’s Run and I go out and watch a remake. I was at a friend’s and choices were few. And what a mistake it was as Poseidon (2006) has to be the worst piece of garbage I’ve watched all year. I can’t imagine how a film could be worse—that’s how bad this embarrassingly overdone, empty and lifeless film is.

At least I had the satisfaction of knowing that Poseidon was a complete bomb at the box-office when it came out over the summer. Not that that will change the mentality to make another one as it’s failure will be blamed on poor marketing tie ins rather than the fact it’s an awful bit of moviemaking across the board.

Coming next to the multiplex near you: Inferno, which is of course the remake or Towering Inferno. Or, better yet, Airport ’07, which will be an extension of the other ‘70s “Airport” films. You have to love the current state of Hollywood for putting this kind of junk out time after time after time.

The only redeeming element of Poseidon is that SD and I just sat there and ragged on the silly dialogue, the over the top dramatics and the lack of tension. That was kind of fun. The Poseidon Adventure, which came out in 1972 looks like one of the great films of all time compared to this shite and it’s not really even a good movie!

Avoid Poseidon with all your strength and courage. I’m going to swear off remakes (again) and this time I’m going to up my resolve and make my pledge stick. Why wouldn’t I, when they (film studios) try to make me suffer through films such as Poseidon and their ilk. No thank you.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Borat will soon be here

Less than a month until Borat arrives in theatres! Borat! Borat! Borat!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Logan's Run

Since I reviewed Planet of the Apes yesterday to combat any perceived film snobbery, I might as well talk some about another sci-fi tale from my youth that I really enjoyed. Sure, Logan’s Run (1976) is a bit dated but the ultra-futuristic setting in the 23rd century completely blew me away as a kid and I still love this movie. One reason the Logan’s Run is dear to me as it was an early foray for me into the fantastical world of science fiction films.

The sad thing about Logan’s Run is they are in the midst of a remake (how many times do I have to write it--Hollywood is so out of ideas now they’ll redo anything, from cheesy TV show--C.H.I.P.S. anyone?--to cult films from the '70s like Race With the Devil, or yes, Logan's Run). It makes me sick to think about how they are going to CGI it up like there’s no tomorrow and ruin it of the b-movie fun that this 1976 version has. In a way, it was remade in The Island, a crap Michael Bay film from 2005 that stole all kinds of ideas from Logan’s Run.

I love the first hour or so of Logan’s Run as we see a futuristic utopian pleasure world that is inhabited by those 30 and under. Every person who lives in this society is beautiful. When a person turns 30, time is up and a crystal installed in their palms begins to blink. When the blinking starts, you have two choices: you turn yourself in or become a runner. Runners are chased down by men known as Sandman who look at it as if sport, to hunt a runner down and kill them. I love it!

Michael York plays Logan 5, a sandman who begins to see his world in new light after he meets Jessica 6 (played by the sexy as hell Jenny Agutter--American Werewolf in London, Walkabout). Faced with this choice, the pair go on a “run” that leads them outside this sealed world and an eye-opening discovery.

I admit, the last part of Logan's Run becomes kind of silly and drags itself down, but as I said, the first of it does a good job of trying to create a future, utopian city. And the fact it is done without all the computers that are used nowadays, with lots of miniature work and other tricks, make it way more visually interesting to me despite its age. Logan’s Run may not look as “real,” but I prefer the futuristic design efforts in this instead of a generic, computer drenched film released now.

I love not only Logan’s Run, the movie but check out that poster! Now that is some great ‘70s science fiction design right there. Fits the film its promoting perfectly. In fact, I need to find me a Logan’s Run t-shirt or something to really let my nerd out.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Planet of the Apes

To combat the fact that I’ve reviewed a lot of foreign films and docs recently, I want to do a couple of genre pictures that I love so y’all won’t think I’m a “film snob”. Actually, calling me a film snob is one of the worst insults you could deliver. I like it all, as long as it’s good.

I love genre pictures and The Planet of the Apes (1968) has one of my favorite premises in movie history: a world run by apes, where humans are the animals who reside in zoos, cages or live in the wild, trying to avoid being captured. That’s genius, folks, pure genius.

The idea of 'apes as humans' is so engrossing to me that I can ignore the couple of dated moments or the overacting by Charlton Heston ("Get your stinkin' paws off me you damn dirty ape!"). Those elements actually add to the film’s overall charm.

Set late in the 38th century, Heston plays Taylor, one of three astronauts who crash onto an unknown planet. The men begin to look for other forms of life and when they find it, aren't they surprised when a bunch of apes ride up on horses carrying and shooting off rifles in their direction? Taylor gets a confused, stunned, what the hell is goin' on look on his face when the apes start to speak to one another. Friggin’ genius!

Planet of the Apes is a real classic of the period, when science fiction meant ideas, unlike today, where effects are at the forefront of any sci-fi movie. Planet of the Apes can mean a lot of things and makes statements on evolution, race relations, science and the role of man/ape, oppression and class. Or, it can just be an entertaining yarn about apes controlling man in the future.

Co-scripted by Twilight Zone's Rod Serling, the film has his earmarks all over it, as it is full of his paranoid vision from the get-go. The DVD has all the trailers from future ape films and boy do they get cheesy, so unworthy of following this first film. So ignore the films that followed and just think how great the first one is.

I have a very fond memory from my youth connected to the Ape films. I was 11 or 12 and sick, home from school. At around 10 in the morning the TV began an all day ape festival with all the films from the series. I lost myself for the next dozen or so hours in a haze combining my illness and the ape universe. I so loved these films that day I was happy to be ill. Decades later, I still love Planet of the Apes.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Rebels of the Neon God

I love Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang. He’s one of my favorite directors and he has such a unique and beautiful vision of the world. His films are a running collection of the same themes—urban isolation, loneliness, love, and the power of the mundane daily existence. Tsai’s style is deceptively simple as he often barely moves the camera or delivers unbelievably long takes on his non-action. His films are always beautifully shot and at times resemble paintings or vibrant photographs.

Unfortunately, living in Oklahoma means I’ve missed his most recent films—I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone and The Wayward Cloud—but I recommend these two I saw in 2001 while living in New York and Goodbye, Dragon Inn and What Time Is It There? as must see Tsai.

First up, Rebels of the Neon God from 1992. Tsai’s first feature is a brooding rumination on the lonely wanderings of lost youth during the night in Taipei.

Rebels of the Neon God uses little dialogue (a Tsai trait) and has damaged, lonely teens that drench Taipei with neon lights, seedy wet streets, back alleys, kids on motorcycles, love hotels and video game parlors.

Ah Tze lives with his brother in squalor in an apartment that has serious problems with drainage as water seeps up and covers the floor with an inch or two of water. Ah Tze and his pal Ah Ping sleep days and at night commit petty robberies, such as stealing from phone boxes so they can play video games all night.

Hsiao Kang (Lee Kang-Sheng, who is in all of Tsai's films and is kind of his screen alter ego) is silently drifting through life. Not into school, at odds with his taxi driving father and his mother thinks he's the reincarnated, mischievous god Nezha (which produces a very funny scene with Hsiao Kang pretending to be possessed). Hsiao Kang begins to follow Ah Tze around during the night and trouble may ensue.

I like Tsai's style, as he will linger on a shot or scene much longer than usual in films today. Sometimes there are these long takes where hardly anything at all is even going on, just a person sitting smoking or wandering around Taipei streets minute after minute. Tsai’s willingness to hold the camera on these mundane aspects so fearlessly allows him to really carve into the void of these empty young people's lives.

Rebels of the Neon God is not only good and unique, it is a great beginning place to discover the world of Tsai Ming-Liang.

The Hole

Next up, The Hole from 1998. This movie was a part of the series from France that had various filmmakers doing stories on what year 2000 might be like. Tsai's 21st century Taipei has a monsoon of a rainstorm (he has a thing about severe rain and water in apartments as leaks are a common theme).

The rain is so relentless most of the city has been evacuated except for a man (the ever present Tsai regular Lee Kang-Sheng) who lives above a woman (Yang Kuei-Mei) in a dingy, faceless, leaking apartment building. Due to the incessant rainstorm leaks create a hole in the middle of their floor/ceiling and the pair become acquainted whether they wanted to or not because of the hole.

This is a strange and interesting little film that mostly takes place without dialogue and in these two crappy apartments. Most surprisingly, and kind of bizarrely, the woman breaks into these musical song and dance numbers all over the apartment building! She sings and dances in the elevator, the halls, stairwells and all in colorful dresses to the music of Grace Chang from the '50s.

These fantasy musical numbers have color that is bright and eye catching when the rest of the film is shot kind of drab and grey. Toss in the epidemic of "Taipei Fever", an illness that makes people think they are cockroaches and causes them burrow into closets or other lightless areas and you see what I mean when I say there are some interesting story elements in The Hole.

The Hole is all at once an odd, end of the world drama, a romance, a musical that equates to another wonderful movie from one of the world’s most unique cinematic voices—Tsai Ming-Liang.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Head-On

With the German film Head-On (2004), writer/director Fatih Akin has fashioned a film that is powerful, intense, gloomy, romantic and drowning in the kind of despair that you only get to witness in movies from another country. Head-On is just so unrelenting in its bleak outlook on life that there is no way in the world it would have been made by Hollywood.

Head-On is a great movie and all, but I wonder sometimes why I subject myself to such heavy, unrelenting stories when I could just be watching The Guardian like all the other multiplex loving drones. The answer: deep down (well not that deep as this is a surface love) I love film and the experience of cinema and I don’t care if it’s fun and laughs or tears and anguish that is on display. If a movie is good—I want to see it.

Sometimes film is a raw, painful and harsh experience that doesn’t uplift you in the end. Real life doesn’t always have happy endings. Films like Head-On make me realize just how sugarcoated the entire Hollywood mentality is. I don't need happy endings or sugary romances all the time, I do need good movies.

Head-On is a romance as two people come together in Hamburg and go on a swirling, out of control relationship that is doomed from the moment the pair meet in a mental hospital after both attempt to kill themselves. You’d think that a couple meeting after committing suicide would have nothing left but good times ahead of them, right? Yeah, sure.

Sibel is a beautiful young Turkish woman who is so desperate to get out of her stifling, conservative family she begs Cahit to marry her despite the fact he’s twice her age and basically a step above bumland. Cahit is Turkish and that will please her family. Sibel wants to go out and have sex with lots of guys, do drugs and live it up while pretending to be married. Cahit is drunkenly buried in the grief of his wife dying. It’s a match made in heaven afterall as Sabil convinces Cahit of marriage after she sticks a shard of broken glass into her veins. Didn’t I say this was a romance?

Head-On does not flinch. Not once. It swims in so much despair from beginning to end that I felt a wave of gloom weighing me down when it ended. There are moments when you feel hope in your heart for these two lost people but Akin doesn’t want to make that kind of film. Head-On will stick to you for days after you have seen it—can a film like The Guardian say the same?

Head-On
is one of the saddest, most depressing films I’ve seen all year, but it’s also one of the best, as I admire a film that is brave enough to look despair in the face and not look away.

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Illusionist

I love magic. I am particularly fond of magicians and escapologists in the early parts of the 20th century. In fact, Harry Houdini is one of my all-time historical figures. I’ve even been to the Houdini museum in Appleton, Wisconsin to further investigate the man and his life (magic geek!). 2006 is a good year for period magic lovers as we get not one but two films set in the early magic world with The Illusionist and then The Prestige following later this year.

It’s easy to see why I really enjoyed watching The Illusionist, a romantic drama set in turn of the century Vienna, as all of its elements are things I’m into. First, there is a lot of great magic in the movie, the film delves into the world of spiritualism (another interest that is often connected to magicians during this period) and The Illusionist also has a romantic, mysterious story that reeks of atmosphere thanks to director Neil Burger. Magic, romance and mystery—what’s not to like?

Edward Norton plays the new to Vienna conjuror Eisenheim. Audiences are quickly awestruck by the otherworldly quality of his act and word spreads to the pompous prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) that here is a magician who might have tricks too complicated for the prince to figure out.

The story develops a romantic triangle when Eisenheim’s teenage love Sophie (Jessica Biel) shows up as the soon-to-be-bride of Leopold and the pair haven’t seen one another in fifteen years. Sophie is drawn to the intense Eisenheim but the pair’s relationship puts them in jeopardy from Leopold and his police inspector (Paul Giamatti) who hounds their every move.

The Illusionist is drenched with period atmosphere thanks to some nice choices by Burger regarding the look of the film. He wisely chooses to create scenes awash in hazy, soft focus images. He uses iris techniques to further give the film a period feel. The atmosphere and look of the film is one of dusk and romance and this adds to the romantic elements already in the film’s story.

The scenes filmed in the darkened, intimate theatres, candles flickering at the front of the stage, as Eisenheim entrances the rapt audiences, were thrilling to watch. It’s some of the best magic scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie—actually, there hasn’t been much in the way of these kinds of scenes over the years. From what I’ve read of the era—these scenes seem very authentic as I watched them.

In a way, I’m an easy mark for this film just based on the magic scenes alone, but luckily, The Illusionist is about more than just Eisenheim doing tricks. There is a lot to enjoy here—the romance and mystery of the story offer as much satisfaction as the terrific look, production design and magic. After seeing The Illusionist and enjoying it so, all I can think is how long before The Prestige comes out?

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Borat!

Circle this date on your movie going calender: November 3rd. That's the scheduled release date for Borat and one of my most eagerly awaited films of the year.

The trailer is hilarious, word of mouth is the film is too. Borat! Borat! Borat!

Monday, September 04, 2006

Touchez Pas au Grisbi (Hands Off the Loot)

Touchez Pas au Grisbi (Hands Off the Loot) is one of my favorite films I’ve seen all year. I’m kind of ashamed I’d never seen it since I love films about heists, criminal behavior and gangsters. What kind of film robot am I to have missed this unbelievably good gem from 1954 and director Jacques Becker? I loved this movie!

Jean Gabin plays Max, a weary, well-respected, aging Parisian gangster who has just pulled off a massive heist of gold with his long-time partner Riton. The pair plan on letting the gold sit for a while but Riton can’t keep his lips shut to his flighty, dancehall girlfriend Josy (played by Jeanne Moreau). Naturally, Josy is two-timing the older Riton and she tells her younger lover (also in the criminal underworld) about the gold and soon Max, Riton and their gold is in serious jeopardy.

Hands Off the Loot is a sheer joy from the very first shot of the film. Becker is in complete control of the film and has crafted a wonderfully understated film about gangsters in Paris. Every shot in the film is composed and thought out—I’m terribly impressed with the level of detail that is packed in the ninety-five minutes the film runs. There is truly not a wasted moment onscreen. Becker lets the story unfold in a patient way that is the hallmark of a great director.

Another thing I loved about Hands Off the Loot is the assured calmness of the performances and the story. Gabin is intense and soft spoken as Max (but he’s not above bare hand slapping some people if he needs to get rough to get some answers in a hurry. One of my favorite scenes has him slapping three different people in about 12 seconds when they don't tell him what he wants to hear.) and by the end you are truly sympathetic to him and his loyalty to Riton. Here is a man who is a gangster, yet he's a gentleman and lives by a moral code even though he makes his living robbing people.

Becker drowns Hands Off the Loot in so many great images and details its impossible to list them. We see nightclubs, on the lam hideouts, restaurants catering to other gangsters, various groups of gangsters holding conversations while discussing future jobs, dark lit streets and stairwells and other classic noir haunts. The film is shot in such a wonderful lustrous black and white that color would have ruined the film. As it stands now, Hands Off the Loot is an ageless story that comes off romantic considering the subject matter, location, the look and the sound of the film.

My favorite kind of gangster films are the ones that make me want to be a gangster—Hands Off the Loot is such a film. I’m really kind of stunned I’d never heard of Hands Off the Loot, as after only watching it once I’m ready to put it into the list of my favorite gangster films of all-time. Hands Off the Loot is that good a movie. Highly, highly recommended.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

O.C. and Stiggs

A few months ago when the Circle was screening A Prairie Home Companion a few young people in their early 20s/late teens came up to me with the bold claim—“Robert Altman has never made a bad movie!” with all the enthusiasm youth can muster. I’d say to them, “Well, he’s made a lot of movies. None of them were bad?” while thinking of recent duds like Dr. T and the Women and Pret-a-Porter (which was a flaming disaster!). I love Altman as much as anyone but come on, he’s made more than his fair share of failures over his fifty plus years as a director.

Case in point—O.C. and Stiggs from 1985 sees Altman trying to make a ribald teen comedy that satirizes all the ‘80s style teen films from this era. Altman claims to “hate” these teen films on a DVD extra but his satire just doesn’t ring home and comes off as just another zany teen film in the end.

The film is about two oddball teens that are waging a war of revenge against a local Arizona insurance salesman who ripped off O.C.’s grandpa from his retirement fund. The boys pull off a very unbelievable string of stunts to get back at the man and his caroonish family. Very little of this is either funny or entertaining. In fact, both O.C. and Stiggs are mostly annoying!

The boys also go on a trip to Mexico—which is ridiculous as they raft down rivers on tire tubes!—get an absurdly tripped out car (see movie poster), meet up with Vietnam vets who still think they are in a war (Dennis Hopper spoofing his Apocalypse Now performance) and even woo a girl or two. Sounds pretty much like any number of films fitting the ‘80s teen film genre, right?

O.C. and Stiggs isn’t terrible or painful to watch but that doesn’t mean it’s a good film. The film is too confused, the performances are too over the top and silly, it's not funny and it’s too long to be good (or even average). The reason it’s extremely forgettable, while the films that Altman hates aren’t, is those films had a clear direction in story—O.C. and Stiggs is a wildly uneven picture that wants to be a clever satire but comes off as just a poorly conceived film.

I think Robert Altman is one the best living filmmakers making films and all, but he’s not perfect and O.C. and Stiggs is one of Altman’s failures. Those youngsters who came up to me making bold claims just need to make their way to this one and they might rethink their statements. Believe it or not, there are some films in Altman's past that don't work and O.C. and Stiggs is firmly on that list.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Reel Paradise



I loved the set up of the 2005 documentary Reel Paradise: a man (John Pierson) who has done a variety of things in the indie film world from producer to TV host (IFC’s Split Screen show) moves to a remote village in Fiji (Taveuni) with his wife and two kids and dedicates a year of his life to showing free movies to the locals at a fifty year old movie theatre called 180 Meridian.

Wow, is that an idea that appeals to me and here’s why. I obviously love movies or I wouldn’t be doing CineRobot. Also, I am drawn to the notion of living in isolated, remote locales and the notion of spreading the sheer joy of the “film experience” to people in such a place just really kick starts my dreamer heart.

The 180 Meridian is a ramshackle structure with torn up seats, windows that go open-air, is powered by a generator and utilizes an old, quirky projector. Every screening is an experience and the theatre is packed most of the films shown over the month the documentary was filmed. I wish filming would have taken place over more than a single month as I would have loved to have seen more movies screened at the 180--as it is they get to see all kinds of films from Jackass to Apocalypse Now Redux.

My favorite part of Reel Paradise was how director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Stevie) would focus in on the locals as they watched whatever film was being screened. More often than not—the bits of business and broad physical comedies were especially popular—the audience lapped up the images as if they were starving. It’s magical to me to watch the glowing faces of the crowd as they laugh or concentrate on something flickering in the dusty light of a movie theatre in Fiji. They are caught in a 24 frames per second spell. It’s the same spell I’ve been under my entire life.

The film was probably too long and I could have done with a lot of the family drama that was also filmed—rebellious, bratty sixteen-year-old daughter got old real quick. But, if you are like me and love movies and the whole idea of what they represent, Reel Paradise is a charming documentary about a little movie theatre at the far ends of the earth.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Grey Gardens

I’d always read about this 1975 Maysles Brothers cult documentary about a mother and daughter who live an eccentric lifestyle in the very upscale East Hamptons, NY but just got around to seeing it. Glad I did because it’s a strange and intimate portrait of two originals that are completely disconnected with the world around them.

The dilapidated mansion, dubbed Grey Gardens, is a squalid, falling down structure with holes in the walls, dirt everywhere, raccoons living in the attic (fed bread and cat food by Little Edie), numerous cats roaming the house and brush overtaking the outside. The doc opens with clippings from newspapers about it being declared off-limits to the Beales until it was cleaned up. They get to move back in but the house is still an utter mess.

The mostly bedridden “Big” Edie and her daughter “Little” Edie, spend ninety minutes in or outside the house in various states of argument, song or conversation. Both love every second of attention that the camera gives them, which makes me doubt the honesty in their actions at times. The Maysles film the goings on with a level of intimacy that draws the viewer into the oddball ramblings and philosophies of both Edies.

Grey Gardens is a strange little doc that reminds me of another documentary filmmaker—Errol Morris. This story is right up his alley but without the structured interviews he’s known for. The Maysles just try and capture the Beales roaming the house, engaging in odd conversations, as they are likely to do every single day.

When the Levees Broke

I'm loathe to get political on CineRobot but after watching When the Levees Broke, a recently shown on HBO documentary by Spike Lee that chronicles Hurricane Katrina and its ghastly aftermath, I have to mention certain politicians after seeing it.

What struck me as I watched this is that the hurricane did a tremendous amount of damage to the city but it can’t compare to the damage done by the federal government, FEMA, inept local politicians, the Army Corps of Engineers, insurance companies, some neighborhood never do wells and a host of other people after the storm. As usual in cases like this, those that have paid the price have been decent, tax-paying, insurance buying people from children to senior citizens.

When the Levees Broke is a riveting four hours that will make you completely angry and boil your blood regarding what happened during and after Katrina to these people. The one-year mark just passed the other day and President Bush made grand statements about “never forgetting” and “rebuilding” the city—but his words are so unbelievably hollow in the face of his actions during this disaster that it makes me sick to my stomach. Bush's disregard for these people is tantamount to a criminal act in my opinion. Sure, the mayor and governor were incompetent too but the president should have taken control IMMEDIATELY when he saw that these events were over their heads. That is what presidents are supposed to do, right? They are supposed to take the initiative in a disaster situation, right? Bush didn't. Bush failed these people.

I don’t know why the government has held these people in such disregard or contempt since the disaster but I’ll wager a guess: class and race. These are largely poorer people who also happen to be African-Americans and let’s be honest here—poor, black people don’t quite register with this administration. Had these neighborhoods been full of wealthy white people the levees would have never been allowed to get dirty much less break. This is just one more example of Bush’s lack of concern with a segment of the American population and it’s kind of sickening to see from an American president.

Lee has assembled a diverse and varied collection of individuals who either lived through the disaster or have some level of expertise to the region. The anger and pain in most of these people is so palpable that it jumps from the TV screen. When the Levees Broke is a mesmerizing documentary that is horrific and painful to watch, it’s also surprisingly inspiring to witness the resolve of the New Orleans people as they face down a government that doesn’t really give a damn about them, their histories or their future.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

Sometimes I see a much-hyped film like Little Miss Sunshine and I spend the entire movie wondering why this film is being fawned over by press and audiences alike? The first hour of this dysfunctional family comedy I didn’t laugh at all. Maybe I was in a bad mood or something? Maybe it was the crowd around me that caused me to not enjoy what I was watching? Maybe the film was not as good as advertised?

But miraculously, as sometimes happens, the film won me over and the ending was probably the best ending I’ve seen all year in a movie. It’s a funny, joyous, unpredictable and full of life ending and it completely changed the way I thought about Little Miss Sunshine. Now I’m thinking of watching it again to see if I misjudged the early bits.

I think a big problem in my enjoyment of Little Miss Sunshine was the fact I went to a free screening at the local crappy multiplex. If you’ve ever been to one of these freebies you know they stuff them full of chattering yahoos, who are there to see a free movie regardless of what is being screened.

Well, I found myself sitting next to a young girl who couldn’t have been older than ten who guffawed and laughed every single time people around us laughed. Little Miss Sunshine has a smart script, full of sometimes sophisticated dialogue about Proust, Nietzsche, suicide, drugs and other “adult” subjects.

Frankly, I just do not believe this kid understood what was happening well enough to find the material so humorous. Unless, she’s some kind of savant or is really sophisticated but I swear this girl was about nine years old. Listening to this kid laughing and covering her mouth started to really annoy me and I couldn’t really get into the story. Seriously, it was worse than a cell-phone going off next to me.

Then the ending was on me and I really loved the last part in spite of the phony laughing of the kid next to me. So, I’m confused. Was Little Miss Sunshine a lot better than the first hour seemed? If the entire film was as good as the last twenty minutes (especially the ending), then I let some kid ruin a good movie experience.

One thing is for sure, I don’t know why I keep going to those crowded free screenings, as all they ever do is frustrate, distract and annoy me. I guess the "free" keeps enticing me no matter if it means I'll sit next to some person who will irritate me the entire film.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Made In Sheffield

It seems every month I see a great little music documentary about some band or scene or style of music. August’s entry is the English documentary Made In Sheffield that is on the short side (slightly under an hour) but one that I really enjoyed.

I think the post-punk period from say, 1977-1984 was perhaps the most creative and vibrant period in sheer diversity and newness in rock n roll history. Sheffield was known for their collection of bands in the late 1970s and those bands are chronicled in Made In Sheffield.

What makes this film really timely is that post-punk music has seen a massive “re-birth” in the past few years as every hipster band on the planet it seems has suddenly discovered albums and bands from this era. The kids seem to like all these new bands but the fact is they are largely mimicking a lot of these post-punk bands from 20-30 years ago.

Born in the frenzy of punk rock, post-punk is a much more interesting form of rock music from this era. Punk rock may have kicked down doors and limitations but it quickly became music of stasis, frozen by the rigid narrow mindedness of those writing the so-called rules. To me, punk rock quickly became a reactionary style of music and most of it hasn’t held up artistically in the passing years.

Post-punk though, it is a completely different animal with a wildly diverse collection of groups that relied on guitars AND synthesizers AND anything else that pushed the boundaries of sound and music. The goal was to create new sounds and there were no rules. While punk rock bands were too busy in creating rules that limited what they could do and who could be in the club, post-punk bands were busy making far, far superior music that holds up much better over time.

One reason I'm so into this is I love analogue synthesizers. The synthesizer is the most revolutionary instrument created in the past 40 years, as it’s the only modern, futuristic instrument not based on some string instrument of the past. I have a long running love affair with music made with synthesizers and the zenith is the 1978-83 period that sees a lot of attention in this documentary. So, any film with early Human League footage is going to be adored by me and Made In Sheffield has that and so much more.

Here’s the bands you see and hear about in the film: The Human League, Heaven 17, ABC, Caberet Voltaire, Pulp, Artery, The Future, Vice Versa, 2.3, The Extras, I’m So Hollow, Comsat Angels, Clock DVA and even Def Leopard (!). That’s an incredible list—a few of them I’d never heard of but was blown away by footage I saw in the film—Artery and I’m So Hollow were great and I’m going to look for records by them the first chance I can.

Made In Sheffield is a short look into a city who had a brief explosion of musical creativity in the late ‘70s and whose bands were influential at the time and that influence is still felt thirty years later. Highly recommended for music lovers.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Watching movies while traveling

I’ve been out of state the past week +, New Mexico mostly. Of course, I happened to catch a few films while I was traveling. The best thing about the films I saw was getting to see one in Trinidad, Colorado in a really special old movie theatre called The Fox. More later about that.

In Santa Fe I saw the French action film District B-13. Yes, I wrote “French action film” in that sentence. It’s not a style of film that I’d connect with that country but there are a few good ones from France—La Femme Nikita and Brotherhood of the Wolf are a couple that jump out of my memory.

District B-13 has some thrilling action and chases moments—it’s a style that is known in France as Le Parkour. Le Parkour mostly involves jumping off buildings and using urban elements as props that the participants react off of. So, you’ll see lots of full-on running, jumping, swinging and climbing these urban locations and in District B-13.

Le Parkour is the best thing about District B-13 as the fight scenes get repetitive and the story/script is a bit dodgy but on the whole this is a fun twist in the action genre.

On my last night in Santa Fe I got to see Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and thought it pretty humorous. The first half of it I really enjoyed as it has some really unhinged, absurd moments. The last 1/3 begins to drag a little but it’s just so goofy and silly that I had a great time watching it.

The best thing about seeing this was I got to see the trailer for Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat. I’m a big fan of Cohen’s and Borat looks absolutely hilarious.

As mentioned, I saw a film in Trinidad, Colorado at the Fox Theatre. I was staying in Raton, New Mexico and on a whim decided to drive the twenty-one miles north across state lines to see if there were any old movie theatres in Trinidad. I hit jackpot with this 1908 beauty.

The Fox was an absolute behemoth that I could see from the highway as I drove into town. I paid my $5 to watch Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and entered the cavernous room that was darkly lit. The Fox has seen its better days as it is kind of falling into disrepair but the place reeks of history. There were ghosts of nearly a century of people watching movies in the place and those ghosts were sitting right there with me.

Pirates of the Caribbean sucked. Big time. This will be one of my least favorite films of the year. The story with all the supernatural stuff was absolutely ridiculous, the script too. Johnny Depp’s performance as the fey pirate rogue was charming in the first film—here he’s cartoonish and overacting most of the time. Come on Johnny, you are better than that. Orlando Bloom and Keira “Fake Top Lip” Knightley were there usual awful selves. This movie is raking it in too, ugh, it hurts me when movies are really bad yet get swept up by the masses.

After the film I got to go on a tour of the Fox by Michael, the projectionist and manager. I got the Fox history, went backstage (it was originally a theatre called the West) and even up to the second balcony. There are two balconies in the Fox! They sit on top of one another but the top one—which has these super tall wooden benches hasn’t been used in decades. I left Trinidad after spending an hour looking in all the secret hidden places of the Fox as midnight came and drove back to New Mexico. The Fox may be slowly crumbling but I loved spending some time in it as cookie-cutter multiplexes have nothing theatres like that. Seeing a movie at places like the Fox is real movie watching, not going to the depressing AMC 20 and their ilk.

I was driving home to Tulsa through the panhandle and on a whim stopped in Guymon to watch the horror film The Descent. I’d seen director Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers (about werewolves attacking a group of soldiers) a few years ago at a midnight movie in Seattle and really liked it so I was kind of excited to see The Descent.

The film starts out as a kind of all-girl survival film as a group of thrill seeking women enter a scary looking cave to do some rock climbing and exploring. They encounter much more than being able to climb down and back out as something might be living down in the cave.

Ah heck, if you’ve seen the trailer, you know something is down in that cave and the film turns into a complete f'n bloodbath. I’m talking serious gore. I love the gore and caves, with their small, claustrophobic spaces kind of freak me out, so I liked this film.

Although Marshall tries to give the film deeper subjects, The Descent is pretty much attractive girls crawling around in caves with some serious bloodletting. What’s not to like about that? The weird thing is the film could have been a straight up survival thriller about whether or not these women could find a way out of the cave but then these cave creatures show up and start killing and it’s suddenly a completely different film.

There you have it, four films, three states including stops in out of the way places like Trinidad and Guymon.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Schultze Gets the Blues

Stories that have someone transformed by single moments in their life fascinate me. Sometimes the moments are enormous while sometimes they are small enough to almost slip by. It’s one of these tiny moments that change Schultze’s life almost overnight. Schultze Gets the Blues is a completely charming German drama/comedy from 2003 that had me under its spell from the beginning.

Schultze is a quiet man who gets “retired” from his job in a salt mine (parting gift: a salt lamp that can light up or be licked for salt). He spends his days doing not much of anything whether he’s alone or spending time with a couple of other guys who were also retired. He fishes from a bridge, he watches his buddies play chess and he plays accordion in the local polka band. Life is simple. Every day is a day of routines.

Routines change when one evening he is flipping through the radio dial and hears a form of accordion playing unlike anything he’s ever heard: zydeco! Schultze is bewitched and a tad confused by the ramped up accordion playing in the song. He tries to walk away but can’t. Soon the song is barging its way into any normal polka song that Schultze tries to play and he's cooking Cajun food for his buddies.

Schultze soon goes on a journey that he would never had noticed beginning had he not paid attention to this song on the radio. It was his nearly invisible moment but Schultze noticed it and let it change him. Sadly, I don’t think many of us notice these kinds of moments in our lives. Or, if we do notice them, we surely aren’t brave enough to let the moments take control and alter our path when we are faced with them.

That is what’s so sweet and rewarding about Schultze Gets the Blues—it is chock full of the notion of giving yourself over to the innocence of something new, anything new, no matter where the idea, the feeling or the moment leads you. To do that takes courage and Schultze might be quiet and soft spoken, but he’s got a lot of courage. And he's got a desire to play that zydeco!

There is very little dialogue in Schultze Gets the Blues and I get the feeling most of the actors aren’t professionals (at least the supporting roles)—something I actually like most of the time as it lends a realness and natural quality to a film if done right. Even with little dialogue, the film flashes by in a blur because it’s just got this magical story to it that swept me up.

Schultze Gets the Blues is one of my favorites for 2006 and is especially recommended for music lovers and romantics (or anyone else who just wants to see a/ a good movie or b/ a movie that makes you feel great to be alive!).

Monday, July 24, 2006

Emperor of the North


I’m always ready to watch a film set among hoboes, wanderers and others lost in the void of the Great Depression. Maybe it's the Grapes of Wrath existence a lot of my relatives lived during that period? My grandpa Benton had colorful stories about riding on trains during the 1930s. So, it's not a surprise I'd take a liking to Emperor of the North with hoboes battling the railroad cops who desperately try to stop them from riding their train.

Rail workers and train riding tramps were notorious enemies in this era. There was a savage brutality that often ended in blood spilling and even death. Early on we get to see how serious this can be as the meanest S.O.B. of the train cops—Shack (played by the great Ernest Borgnine)—takes his big hammer to a free rider's skull and he’s soon cut in half by wheel on rail.

Emperor of the North, which is based on a story by Jack London drawn from his experiences riding the rails, tells the story of such a battle between men. Lee Marvin plays A-No. 1, a tough as nails, seasoned ‘bo who decides to take on the sadistic Shack. No one has ever ridden on Shack’s No. 19 train. Nobody. The men battle wits and brawn as the train heads west. When I say battle I should include the list of weapons: fist, hammers, axes, boards, chains and wits.

The film is an odd mix of action, gritty ‘70s pulp cinema and social commentary. It works wonderfully. I loved seeing how A-No. 1 and Cigarette (an inexperienced tag-along ‘bo played by Keith Carradine) tried to ride No. 19 while Shack attempted to get rid of them any way he possibly could to save his reputation.

I also loved seeing all the hobo groups and camps talking it up with their slang, nicknames (other ‘bo names were Hogger and Hee-Haw Mike) and gambling up a storm on whether A-No. 1 is the first to ever ride the No. 19 train and live to tell about it. It was a hard life to be a tramp during the depression but the men seemed to have a code and community all their own.

Plus, these were REAL stuntmen doing something called stunts in Emperor of the North! No komputers were involved in any stunt in this movie. When you see a guy fall off a train backwards in Emperor of the North, it’s a real person risking life and limb for the sole art of making a picture better. Action films now are just a bunch of phony komputer aided scenes stripped of the danger because nothing is real. There’s something missing in the spectacle of the CGI films now because that “realness” has been lost.

Emperor of the North is just another example of a hidden gem from the 1970s. That decade had so many great films it’s unreal compared to now. Even their b-films like this were a lot of fun and more interesting than most of the pap out now. This is a fun film that has an epic train throw down from two of the all-time Hollywood tough guy actors in Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine and is worth seeking out.