Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Sin City

It has become increasingly apparent to me that moviegoers are interested in visuals. This should not be surprising; film began as a visual medium, its images are enormous, and movies are commonly seen as a pastime rather than an opportunity for serious reflection. So the popularity of Sin City is not in the least surprising. Most of my friends have seen it at least once, and nearly all have loved it. Not liked; loved.

I can see plenty of things to like. Decent, eclectic cast. Violence and sex. Action. Snarky humor. Striking visuals—and I will say I consider this film quite an achievement on that front. The translation of comic to film is beautiful and quite well done; it’s rarely you see modern actors lit from one side only, and it brings to mind film noir. Unlike film noir, whose purpose was to not only save money but to expose the gritty, real side of city life, this film goes so far towards gritty realism is totally lost. Not that that’s a horrible thing. The use of color, while arbitrary, is interesting. Overall, this movie is worth seeing only for the aesthetic concepts it pioneers.

But to love it? Aesthetics are not enough to get me into a movie. I want characters, plots, subtext. This, I’m sad to say, are lacking here. Rodriquez has made some wonderfully fun action movies in the past, such as Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico. The visuals and the over-the-top style convinced me I was to have fun with the blood and violence and gunplay. In Sin City, amongst the dregs of society and in a suitably dingy visual style, I have trouble enjoying the funny violence. The tone the film gives me is not the tone of carefree melee. And so I am torn; am I suppose to laugh when a dead character talks? The film displays a complete lack of morality or redemption and coupled with an atmosphere of such despair it’s difficult for me to accept this. I love a good violent movie. As I said, I think Rodriguez has already made at least two of them. This is not one.

There was potential here. There were characters who, had we been given the opportunity to follow them more, might have had interesting stories. But Rodriguez jumps between tales without apparent reason, leaving the audience unsure of whether a particular thread will get picked up or whether there’s a whole sweater in it anywhere at all. If he wanted to give us a picture of Sin City, we needed to see more people in different situations. If he wanted us to care about anyone, he needed to stop jumping around. I’m glad I saw it. I’m glad someone’s finally made a movie true to the spirit of a comic. But it’s not my comic of choice, and while impressive, it is essentially empty. Empty calories are fine, but as with the films of Quentin Tarantino (a “guest director” on this film, however that works) I’m never sure whether the director thinks he’s serving a five course meal or a snack, so I never know how much to invest. Read more!


I’ve read 1984 already, thanks. In all fairness, this film starts out wonderfully. Gilliam has a sense of the visually absurd that takes him a long way; unfortunately, he often forgets to get off in time. For the first hour or so, I am always taken in completely by this movie and by Jonathan Pryce’s character’s plight. Pryce is a surprisingly appealing and underused actor, and his gradual introduction to and disenchantment with the restrictions of his society are done very well. The best bits are his interactions with working life, such as the tiny office or his relationship with Ian Holm as his boss. It’s when the love story kicks in that I have to sign off. We aren’t given any reason to like the girl; or to have any feelings for her at all, in my case. Perhaps it’s the jarring American tones in the midst of all that British. But in my defense, I’m American. And all I feel for her is a distance and an annoyance that Pryce is so taken with her photograph he risks not only his own life but hers and the Resistance as well. As a catalyst for discontent or rebellion a love interest is fine, but when it becomes the focus of a much larger and, in my opinion, more interesting story, it’s just frustrating. The love story isn’t the only problem. That is a quarrel of a more personal nature, I admit. However, the film goes on far too long, and with nothing more to add after about an hour and a half. Freedom fighters drop from the ceiling. Then they do so again. We are treated to quite similar scenarios of chase, escape, and double-talk in slightly varying locations. Gilliam’s created a fascinating world, a visual complement to Orwell’s book which could easily rest just below it for those of us who enjoy that sort of thing. But by altering the spotlight from Pryce’s socio-political journey to his romantic one, the director’s cutting off his own legs. Not everything has to have a love interest to keep the ladies watching, and this one turns out to be far less interesting or thought-provoking than the first part of the film shows it had the potential to be. Read more!

Metropolitan and Last Days of Disco

What can I saw about Whit Stillman other than that he should make more movies? What’s he doing? With accolades pouring in, including a nomination for Best Original Screenplay for Metropolitan, Stillman probably has the cache to have done a lot more. Maybe he works slowly, but dialogue like his is in short supply in Hollywood these days.

Stillman has cited Jane Austen as an influence, and you can see it in his stories of a small circle of friends and acquaintances who meet in specific environments, pair off, break up, and talk about each other. But one can also see someone of the classic Hollywood comedy or a Tom Stoppard stage play in the witty banter. And while Stillman is a good director and a great writer/director, the strength of his films definitely lies in the dialogue.

One could argue that the films’ characters are all shallow, the anti-establishment intellectuals hypocritical, the subject matter trite. But the films are none of these things. Stillman has somehow managed to transcend the milieu he himself is/was apparently part of to create films with characters and situations I relate to while simultaneously realizing that I have nothing at all in common with them. In fact, I don’t particularly like most of the characters, except perhaps those portrayed by Chris Eigeman (Nick in Metropolitan and Des in Disco). Which is funny, really, as Eigeman’s roles embody everything trite, shallow, and chauvinistic; at least he’s honest, in his way, and besides that he’s one of the most entertaining actors I’ve ever watched defend the Tramp (from Lady and the…). Definitely of the lovable rogue type, and someone you want at your party but not otherwise in your life. In fact, most of these people are more entertaining than likable, and since we’re watching a movie instead of living with them that’s okay.

I’m not discussing Barcelona, Stillman’s second film, because I’ve only seen it once and didn’t much care for it. Sure, it had the banter along with banter’s premier stylist Chris Eigeman, but I felt that it was trying too hard to break out of the self-contained worlds of the other two by drawing in Cold War current events from Spain in the early 80’s. It didn’t help the flow of the film, I thought, to take us away from the characters Stillman writes so well. Metropolitan and Last Days of Disco work precisely because we are forced to live in the world of debutant preppies and yuppie disco fans for the course of two hours each, without reference to our “normal” lives. The isolation sets a kind of stage on which Stillman’s self-involved characters become interesting and important to someone other than themselves; namely the audience. Read more!

Stardust Memories

I want to dislike Woody Allen. I want to find him unpleasant, and I’m not even talking about his private life, which is his alone and no bearing on his films. No, I’m talking about the blatant self-involvement of his movies, the presumption that we the audience have nothing better to do than sit through hours of his analysis and his insecurity and his overt fantasy fulfillment of scoring hotties far above his physical class. Everything about his neurotic, whiny, selfish, arrogant filmmaking should make me turn away in annoyance.

But somehow, I watch. Not many of them, and not often, but whenever an early Woody Allen film comes my way I wonder why I didn’t seek it out. There’s something there that’s more than it seems either before or after I see it, and I don’t know what that means. Perhaps it attests to Allen’s skill at bringing us into his world so completely that while we are watching, we have none of the above-mentioned hang-ups. What I think when he’s not around and what I think when I’m watching him are completely different things, and come to think of it I have friends like that too; the lovable rogues, the entertaining assholes, the endearing sociopaths. Not that Allen’s any of those things; he’s a neurotic depressive, and somehow it works for him. I found myself actively enjoying Stardust Memories, laughing out loud and wondering why no one talks about this film.

Yes, it’s extremely self-absorbed. More so than most of his films, I think. There are pretentious filmmaker conceits, like shifting levels of reality. Woody plays "Sandy," a neurotic depressed Jewish filmmaker who used to make "funny" movies but spends the entire film wondering why he can’t make something that means something. In the end, in the height of vanity, we learn that we’ve been watching Sandy’s new movie, all about Sandy’s (and Woody’s?) struggles with moviemaking. What’s real? Who’s an actor? Does making a movie about wanting to make a movie with depth confer depth to the project? Does anyone really care?

I don’t. I liked the movie, I enjoyed it, and even if it was two hours of wandering through Allen’s twisted and ever-more-interesting-to-himself psychology, I had fun traveling with him. I don’t want a steady diet of it, and I’d probably rather not hang out with him, but for a little brain candy it’s a good time.

The black and white cinematography is interesting here, with the whites (at least on the VHS I viewed) sometimes glaringly bright. I don’t know if this is intentional or not, but I went back and forth on whether I liked it. On one hand, it made some scenes difficult to watch, but I also eventually felt that it fit the tone of the film. Charlotte Rampling as Dorrie is not only very good but of striking appearance, like a female Peter O’Toole (especially around the lips and eyes) but when he was hot. I was unable to take my eyes off her. Also appearing is Jessica Harper of Suspiria and Phantom of the Paradise infamy and a favorite of mine. She gets to play a slightly less ingénue-ish woman here, which is nice, especially given the smoky low tones of her speaking voice. Oh, and watch out for a scene in which Allen and Rampling fight about Allen’s supposed flirtation with a too-young relative of hers, which predates by quite a bit his notorious domestic troubles of a couple years ago. Read more!

Bad Education (La mala educacion)

I always had trouble finding Barbara Stanwyck attractive. There was something about her that didn’t sit right with me; and maybe that’s the way it had to be for her to work as well as she did in Double Indemnity. Maybe it isn’t physical beauty that ensnares the hapless male into destroying himself for the femme fatale. Thinking about it, it’s obvious; there’s something so much more dangerous about an individual who has to use their brain and their cunning to manipulate and can’t rely on their body alone. Something sexier about the face that isn’t quite perfectly proportioned.

And for once, Gael García Bernal might be too pretty. Playing the homme/femme fatale in Pedro Almodóvar’s new movie, and comporting himself very attractively in each of his roles, he fails to inspire me with the sinister attraction a noir or a noir-homage needs. While the gender switching is exciting, there is something too naïve in his character for me to believe in his success as a manipulator. There are plenty of pretty people out there; most of them cannot command the kind of devotion that leads to the ruination of the devotee’s life. I just don’t believe it of Angel.

And perhaps that’s part of the point. I don’t know what Almodóvar was thinking. He has said that he intended this film, or at least certain scenes of it, to hearken back to film noir classics (such as Double Indemnity). Maybe the central figure’s clumsiness signifies the director’s desire to move past the imitative stage and into a statement on the genre. Regardless, there is too much going on here. Reality and fiction intertwine and merge in intriguing but not always cohesive ways, and the audience is asked to follow the threads of different characters played by the same actor and different actors playing the same character. The result is fascinating and beautiful, but not altogether satisfying. I was rewarded by a second viewing; knowing the ins and outs of the plot I could concentrate better on the motivations and felt better about the characters. But I think Almodóvar has attempted too much here.

I still can’t blame him, though. While I like Talk to Her (Habla con ella) more, this is by far the most visually beautiful film he has ever made. While he and cinematographer José Luis Alcaine have not worked together in over ten years (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), they should definitely not shy away from collaborating in the future. Some of the images from this film will stay with me for awhile. While its homage to noir exists mostly in little touches and not a prevailing style (which distracted me greatly, especially on first viewing) I can’t bring myself to find fault with it. There are beautiful sequences in a swimming pool, at a soccer game (both with lovely use of slow-motion), and numerous shots that comment visually on the characters themselves. As any good film should have.

The Sea Inside, the film that gobbled up all the Spanish awards this year, has yet to open here. But while I am a fan of Almodóvar’s work, and while I wish him the best, I can see that there is room to top this movie. Luckily, there’s room to watch and love it, as well. Read more!

Heavenly Creatures (1994)

At one time Peter Jackson was not a household name. Neither was Kate Winslet. Watching them both work in Heavenly Creatures puts a little pressure on this odd film based on a true story about the tragic friendship of two teenage girls in New Zealand. Pauline and Juliet inhabit an outsider world of magic and romance of their own devising, like so many other young girls I know (including myself, at one time) who, for one reason or another, don’t quite merge with the herd. In this film we watch the girls get entirely too caught up in their world, and each other, with dramatic consequences.

Without (hopefully) giving too much away, the film is made both easier and more difficult to deal with by the use of real people. Much of Pauline’s diary is used word for word in the voiceovers, and so the story is constrained somewhat by what actually happened. On the other hand, it is the kind of story I would have scoffed at had I been asked to consider it "realistic" fiction. This way, I am forced to believe.

Jackson’s directing plays with the dichotomy of real life and fantasy, though both are nearly always shown through the girls’ eyes. One problem with watching the film now is Winslet’s stardom, which makes us think (erroneously) that Juliet is the protagonist. This is a frustrating point of view, because Juliet’s actions are the less motivated and thought out; it is Pauline’s journal we have access to, and her mind we must attempt to understand, however bizarre her motivations appear. Jackson, too, provides some directorial distraction. He’s like a newly-graduated film student, overeager to show off what he can do. His techniques are varied and interesting, but do not always serve the plot or the themes. Towards the end of the film we are subjected to numerous shots of various clocks and watches as time progresses. This is fine if we, the audience, have been given a deadline; but a ridiculous attempt at wratcheting up tension if we’re not sure why 11:05 should mean anything to us. Jackson also tends to move too quickly past things that we might want to linger on, like peoples’ reactions to appalling suggestions. He tends to cut right to the next scene. That said, there are some beautiful images in this film, and a lovely depiction of love between two girls, despite the film’s tacit equation of homosexuality and mental instability.

Anne Perry, author and assumed name of the real Juliet, has stated that there was not a hint of the homoerotic in her relationship with Pauline. She has also said that she does not believe movies should be made about living people. For her sake, I agree. For my sake, as a moviegoer, I’m glad this film exists. There is enough here, around the flashy editing and some histrionic acting, to make a remarkably watchable gem of a film. It's a shame that there are real people who are impacted by it. Read more!

Vera Drake (2005)

It probably doesn’t need to be said that abortion is a touchy subject, or that there is a very real risk for a filmmaker who tackles this subject to fall into preachiness, on one side or the other. There is also a risk for the reviewer who attempts to come at the picture objectively in spite of the fact that one cannot escape the opinions one has formed prior to seeing it. A fan of Kinsey’s sex research is going to say that Kinsey portrayed him (and the field of sex research) in a positive yet fair light.

So given the fact that any opinion I have of this movie is going to be colored by my opinions on the matter itself, I must say that it is much more subtle, nuanced, and realistic than I had given it credit for. Vera Drake is a quiet, absorbing film of such strength I almost feel bad pointing out its flaws.

And there is plenty here that is not flawed. The title character is a bubbly, energetic, relentlessly cheerful woman we’d all love to have as part of our family. Her family is a loving one, and we see numerous evidence of their comfortable interaction. Throughout her day, Vera cleans houses, cares for the bedridden, and works quality control at a lightbulb factory. Indeed, some time passes before we see her perform what is the subject of the movie, and even then it is portrayed as another part of her busy day. Ah ha! you say. Bias! She’s only helping people. But it’s not that simple. No one but the woman who sets up the appointments knows of this extracurricular activity. And when her secret is revealed, only her family stands by her. Even they are motivated only by love and loyalty. Not morality.

Morality has little place in this film. Very herself never utters the words “abortion” or “pregnant.” In her own words, she “helps young girls out.” In her eyes, it isn’t a matter of right or wrong for the baby but for the mother and for the children that must be provided for. “If you can’t feed them, you can’t love them,” one character points out. This is as close as the director gets to a statement.

The movie is, however, quite slow. In the beginning this is bearable because Vera is such an adorable woman. You are drawn into her circle, and you care about the people she cares about. Nothing about this woman suggests that she would do anything to hurt anyone. And this proves to be the downfall of the movie. For when things go bad, her vigor, her cheer, her energy disappears and we are left with a barely articulate woman who seems ten years older. I cringed when I watched all the things Vera did for others, thinking about how it would sap my energy and maybe my will to live. But it was that caring and that usefulness that gave her energy. Once that was taken away, she was lost. And the film suffers for it. I thought at first the chin-wobbling and choked back words were overdoing it a bit, but I later realized that someone as ebullient as Vera, whose sense of self comes from her service to others, would indeed be brought low by the removal of that outlet.

One word about technique; the director uses very little in the way of establishing shots and no indicators of the passage of time. Characters appear in contiguous scenes which take place across town, as if stepping from one apartment and one day to another . Strangely, this was less disorienting than it sounds and lent itself to the “slice of life” approach the movie took. And it is that very realism that makes the movie so good. We are not being preached at. We are observing.

But the film presents no easy answers. We are convinced Vera believes she is helping people. We might even be convinced that she is. But she risks hurting and even killing them. Do we consider the unborn children? Or do we consider the society that makes people like Vera necessary? Read more!

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1975)

Poor movie. You give me such images, such expanses of David Bowie, such provocative editing as a kabuki swordfight in a Japanese restaurant inter-cut with the violent coupling of a professor and his student, and yet you give me nothing in the way of a plot I can understand. You span an uncounted number of years without bothering to tell me when or how much time has passed. You have the perfect actor to portray a not-quite human alien’s descent into the debauchery of human existence, and yet I have no way of knowing if that’s what the film is actually about.

Nicholas Roeg’s 1975 science fiction epic is impressive in the way that a mural by a very gifted 10 year old might be impressive. There are going to be some amazing sights, and some bizarre metaphors, but in the end there’s not enough behind it to make any sense. There is so much to think about in this film’s visual offerings that it’s a shame one’s left with the sense that nothing they saw actually means anything since the script just couldn’t put itself together long enough to give any of the characters motivation or articulate dialogue. David Bowie’s title character is arresting to look at, letting me in finally on the secret of his fame (although I did like him as Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ). And while his character is a bit stony, his acting is quite good. Candy Clark fares less well, but she may be more annoying than bad. Rip Torn is a disillusioned science professor who comes in on Bowie’s project to get back to his own planet, which is suffering from a drought. We never learn how exactly Bowie is going to fix this, or why he is prevented from leaving. If we ignore the lack of rational plotting, there is a nice visual trajectory of his metaphoric “fall to earth.” It’s just too bad it isn’t actually a good movie. Read more!


Alexander Payne seems to be in love with misery. In his two previous films, Election and About Schmidt, he portrayed the rapid downfall of an everyman character. Perhaps they had not so far to fall, but there was definitely a marked progression from bad to worse. Mediocre to miserable. With Sideways he finally starts with a character who is already hit his low point.

Paul Giamatti is the perfect actor to play this role. And this brings up an interesting point: why the sudden windfall for a pudgy balding actor? Aren’t we supposed to go to movies to watch Brad Pitt and Ashton Kutcher? And while I personally would rather watch someone good and real than the latest pin-up, it does seem odd that Hollywood or society or audiences have recently decided it was okay for Giamatti (he seems to be an advanced scout for this group) to have a main role in a film. Thus far we’ve only seen it in smaller, quieter, less market-driven movies like this one and the incredible American Splendor, and it remains to be seen whether this trend will continue, but it’s curious none the less.

But on to the movie itself. It’s a quiet film; so quiet, in fact, that while I related to Miles and his difficulties (depression and writing, mainly) I failed to get emotionally entangled in it the way I like to. Perhaps this means it’s not manipulative the way Hollywood likes to be. Perhaps it means I’m frigid. Who knows? But the performances and the writing carried me along quite well, even if I wasn’t carried away. Giamatti, sometimes a laughably pathetic figure (witness Duets, if you must), pulls off a realistic portrayal of the pathetic that does not ever touch maudlin. Aside from a few very heavy wine=life metaphors, the script does not take the audience’s stupidity for granted. It leaves things unsaid. It leaves responses to Miles’ eye-rolls when it is suggested he self-publish. For a movie about a writer, Payne leaves a lot of words out. In fact, Miles is incapable of talking about his writing with any degree of coherence. It is only when discussing wine he waxes eloquent.

And that brings me to my final thought about this movie. I don’t drink. I have, at most, two glasses of wine a year. And I don’t particularly enjoy it. But there’s something about watching someone who’s obsessed that’s interesting, provided they know how to talk about it. The passion that a good writer brings to their chosen subject, or the subject that has chosen them, is paradoxically refreshing and cloying and it makes me long for the days I was able to devote my mind and soul to one pursuit. Those pursuits changed, from dogs to Sherlock Holmes to music and beyond, but they were all-consuming. I miss that about my life. Miles doesn’t make that character trait overly attractive, but he does make it human. Maybe that’s why one’s affinity for wine doesn’t make any difference here. Read more!

Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle

There are many things about this film which put it in that bottom-tier of movies frequented by teenage boys with brain damage, chemically-induced or otherwise. There is a raccoon puppet that spits blood. There is puss. There is the obligatory scatological gross-out (although done in a frighteningly new way) and naked girls who serve no other function than to be topless. There is lots of pot and a computer animated cheetah and too many over-the-top yet stupid plot devices to count.

What saves this movie, ironically, is the performance (or perhaps just presence) of John Cho, whose most memorable scene to date was pissing all over Stiffler in American Pie 2. I remember watching that movie, liking “that Asian guy at the party” a lot, and wishing there were more people like him (like him as in Asian or as in likable, I’m not sure) in lead roles. This movie takes that sentiment to the extreme without sacrificing any of the adolescent comedy we’ve come to expect from American comedies. We’ve got Koreans, Indians, Jews, and Latinas all over the place, with several idiotic and villainized white guys. This isn’t to say the movie treads delicately over questions of race; instead, it drives a large car with a broken muffler right through them. What makes this palatable is the fact that the characters, not just the actors, are fully aware of the stereotypes they’re playing to. Harold knows he’s considered a “Twinkie” (yellow on the outside, white on the inside). Kumar knows that despite the fact that he doesn’t want to be seen as yet another Indian doctor, he’s got a gift for it and would probably enjoy it. The fact that the scene where he demonstrates this gift makes no sense whatsoever doesn’t do too much to lessen that.

Making the Asian guys the main characters and both using and disabusing us of those stereotypes is what saves this movie. “Saves,” of course, must be understood in a fairly liberal fashion. It is still, ultimately, a stupid movie about two overgrown boys with the munchies who spend all night trying to get crappy hamburgers (they don’t, by the way, ever address Kumar’s attitudes towards eating beef, although the actor requested vegetarian burgers). But if you want to spend a fun evening in your living room with some teen-movie-oriented friends and some popcorn, it’s sufficient. Read more!

A Very Long Engagement

The movie’s not too short, either. In fact, given my reaction to the innumerable characters, twists, and convenient coincidental plot devices, it was a bit too long. Jeunet’s last film, Amelie, captured audiences with what I termed its “expressionistic” camera. And it had every right to do so. I have never felt better upon leaving a theatre than the night I saw Amelie. While no one is skipping their way back home after Engagement, it seems poised to capture moviegoers around the world.

And there are very real reasons why it should. Jeunet’s visuals are breathtaking; beautiful and sad and playful all at once. His recreation of trench warfare in WWI is, like any reasonably faithful depiction of armed conflict, such a disturbing argument against war that it really isn’t an argument anymore. Mathilde’s (Audrey Tautou) search for her supposedly dead fiance is a romance full of despair and hope and all that stuff an audience wants when it’s in the mood for romance.

But two things stopped me from enjoying the movie, and they’re related. They have to do with pulling me from the world of the film into the less enjoyable world of critic. The main problem is that Jeunet has constructed a fable, the way Amelie and City of Lost Children were fables, only it doesn’t work here. City of Lost Children took place in a world we did not recognize. Amelie took place in a world we recognized but one which had been filtered by the wide-eyed fantastic vision of the title character. Jeunet is so good at creating that alternate reality that when he does it in service of actual historical background he makes the fantastic seem overly-coincidental. This creates a distance in the viewer who wants to be sucked in by the wonderful details but is continuously struck with things they can’t believe. Along the same lines, the relationship between Mathilde and Manech is romanticized and fairy-tale-esque, and I for one could not follow her quest on an emotional level because all I knew of Manech was a shell-shocked crazy.

I’m not sure what the cure for this is. I like the mixture of the fantastic and the familiar, but the mixture is tricky, and can too easily become something that works neither as fantasy nor as reality. Do I want Jeunet to be less talented at creating WWI? No. Do I want him to abandon his childlike sense of wonder at everyday things? No. But neither can I fully appreciate a film where these two talents are at war to the point where I am drawn out of the experience of watching every time they come into contact. Read more!

Spider-man 2

I used to miss the old Sam Raimi. The one who would brave winter shoots in the wilds of Virginia in his Caprice Classic, whose favorite leading man was Bruce Campbell, who made cutting off your own hand with a chainsaw funny. After I saw what happened when someone finally threw him some money, my opinion was that Raimi’s strength as a director had lain in making something out of nothing, a skill he no longer had need of and that would fall off like some unnecessary Lamarkian tail. No, I did not like Spider-man. I didn’t even enjoy it very much. But with the sequel, Sam Raimi has done what I thought was impossible: integrate his definite skill as a filmmaker with his new toys and make me enjoy it.

In short, this film is pretty much everything I want in a superhero movie. And I’ve never been one to tailor my demands to the perceived limitations of the genre. Yes, this movie takes extreme liberties with science and logic. Yes, it must be watched with a liberal application of salt. But what we get here isn’t your typical do-gooder strives to keep his identity a secret for reasons we don’t understand. Nor is it your revenge-fantasy anti-hero fare. What I’ve always wanted to know was the inner workings of the hero. Why does he do these things? Why is his identity a secret? If I were a superhero, would I want to fake the guy who has to go to work every day, socialize with co-workers, and go through the really hard stuff I can’t just punch my way through or would the silly costume be my disguise instead of the glasses and mild-mannered reporter schtick? Peter Parker’s life is a study in those questions that plagued me as a kid watching this stuff. The film is an exploration of Peter’s life and the complications which arise from that phrase that makes anyone who’s ever known anyone who read comics either wince or hold their breath in anticipation whenever Uncle Ben comes on screen. This film is exactly what Marvel says they were trying to do in making comics accessible and relevant to the reader, only thankfully without the Stan Lee dialogue, true believer. Read more!

Garden State

First films are tricky. A good director is likely to either blow everything he’s got on this one big chance or to make a film that is decent but only hints at the greatness in store. Watching Zach Braff’s Garden State, one is left without a clear idea of which one has happened here.

Braff’s writing/directorial debut is full of the touches one might expect from an actor with a good eye and several years worth of “images” saved up. The actor appears in a paisley shirt against an identical background. A bathroom mirror splits his face in two. A line of people in their underwear jump simultaneously into a pool. A doctor’s diplomas and citations outgrow his office and encroach upon the ceiling. A knight in armor quests for milk for his cereal. All of these images are good images. All of them served the film well during one of the few trailers of the past several years to do what a trailer ought; which is reveal nothing about the plot and yet spark an instant desire to see the film. And all of these images were called for by the plot. Well, almost. Some of them. If you squint.

That said, Braff should definitely not scale back his ambitions to here-and-there acting career he was enjoying previously. While Garden State has touches of the kind of semi-autobiography which sometimes warn that a writer has nothing else up his sleeve, the characters he creates are effortlessly endearing and as a director he shows an undeniable eye for the place were the absurd and mundane intersect.

Thoughtful people will enjoy this film. Then they will go home and realize that the emotions and the images don’t quite hold up to careful scrutiny. But that’s okay, because thoughtful people need their eye candy too. Hopefully, now that Braff has been able to work off some of his extraneous imagery, he can apply himself to finding a better balance between glib and honest, emotion and visualization, and keep the same keen eye and appealing characters he’s given us here. Read more!

Y tu mama, tambien

There really aren't that many Mexican movies that make it to the US. It makes me wonder what, exactly, a movie has to do to become a foreign export. Probably it has to do what Y tu mama tambien does, which is offer up good cinematography, an original script, and lots of sex. And there is lots of sex, which progresses in fairly predictable ways with enough interpersonal tension and development to make it interesting.

The director seems to take a cue from Amelie in terms of pausing the action to have a narrator report on situations and outcomes that are tangential to the plot but integral to the emotional thrust of the film. This is an interesting device and works well, but there is a curious (thought obviously intentional) two second pause before each narration, during which the visual progresses without sound. The viewer can get used to it but the first several times it feels like bad editing.

As a movie, the plotline of road trip/friendship/threesome story is entertaining and interesting. Secrets about the characters are revealed at appropriate times and I never felt manipulated by the film. The beginning, filled with attention-altering narrative exposition, makes the film slow to get into but once Julio, Tenoch and Tenoch's older cousin Luisa are on the road, you are right there with them. And while the relationships in the film reach a point you may not have encountered in your own life, there is enough ambivalence to everything to make the film feel real enough to relate to. Read more!

Swimming Pool

I'm not sure if it's more disappointing to watch a film that has a good idea but lacks something in the execution or one that's just bad. Swimming Pool left me with a great sense of character and a certain feeling of triumph, but it also left a lot of questions and those of us watching it with rather puzzled expressions.

The movie's depiction of mystery writer Sarah Morton's transformation from uptight and dissatisfied to radiant and creatively fulfilled is an interesting and inspiring thing to watch. Ludovine Sagnier's performance as Julie, the daughter of Morton's publisher who is sharing the same house in France, is also inspiring for different reasons. The film is shot beautifully, with plenty of natural light and isolated spaces for Morton to lose herself in. It's the pacing that needs work, with an ambiguously real plot which only really gets resolved in the last two minutes of the film. Is Julie really there? Is she Morton's alter ego? Her alter-daughter? Even the ending doesn't clear these questions up, and while in retrospect there are interpretations which satisfy, the director could have made the revelations which explain Morton's transformation more explicit.

I don't enjoy being beaten over the head with something. I prefer a film's message to be shown, not told. But if the film gives me nothing at all and expects me to learn something just the same, it seems empty and careless. In watching the deleted scenes it quickly becomes apparent why they were deleted and what they would have done to the film if kept. The pacing would have been slowed even further but the mystery of Julie's presence would have been eliminated; something that may sound like a bad thing until you remember that in the finished film it was never cleared up.

There were things I liked about this movie. I liked the lighting and the feel of everything; it captured the mood and the location perfectly. The performances were great, especially given the bilingual requirements and Sagnier's transformation from tomboyish little sister in the director's previous film, 8 Femmes, to seductive mermaid. I just wish the plot had lived up to the interesting interpersonal relationships and character development. Read more!