Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Plague Dogs (1982)

Here’s another entry into the Why Hasn’t Everyone Seen This category. From the director (and novelist) of Watership Down, one of my favorite movies and for me one of the greatest achievements in animation, The Plague Dogs is shamefully forgotten.

It’s depressingly easy to figure out why, once you start watching. This is the most disturbing animated film I’ve ever seen. I’m sure there’s Japanese porn that nothing can touch for weirdness, but what is the market for the brutal torture of talking dogs? The film opens with red titles on a black background, with eerie noises and discordant music gradually taking over the rather saccharine early-80’s song presumably commissioned for the film. The sense of unease is simply achieved, and explodes into downright sickness when the credits end and we are thrust into the middle of an “endurance test” involving a Labrador mix in the process of drowning. To which he has subjected repeatedly in the service of scientific curiosity.

This is not a movie for kids. People say that about Watership Down, but I saw it when I was a kid and I’m okay—it’s disturbing but it works out and kids learn something about death along the way. It’s okay. But there is nothing that makes the opening of this film get better. It only gets worse. The dog, and a fox terrier voiced by John Hurt (Hazel the rabbit in the other film) escape, meet a wily fox named the Todd, and spend the entire 85 minutes of the film trying to survive and getting all too realistically emaciated in the attempt.

The problem with this film is that it’s way too good at what it does to be marketable. The narrative follows the dogs, but the voiceovers from news reports, the lab’s scientists trying to keep the incident hush-hush, the military who’s eventually called in, and local farmers let us in on the aspect of the situation the dogs are incapable of understanding—that this is not about them, and never has been. It’s about the sheep they’ve killed, the fear of the townspeople, the experiments that have been kept secret from the public and risk discovery if these dogs are allowed to live.

The other way in which the film succeeds too terribly well is in the design and animation of the animals. Watership Down is a gorgeous movie, and between the two I have never seen animals so non-invasively anthropomorphized. These are rabbits, or dogs, who happen to talk. In all other ways, they move and act like dogs. There’s a love here for the physicality of these animals, a realism so alien to our Disneyfied notions of the animal world that it makes their struggle all the more poignant—I watched this movie with my Labrador mutt and it was all too easy to see him in Rowf.

On a filmmaking level, this movie shows improvement over the previous in its integration of the characters and backgrounds (sometimes jarringly “layered” looking in Watership…) and its innovating camera movement and angles. My only complaint is that the scene transitions always involved an abrupt fade to black which make me expect commercials.

I’m appalled that I’ve never heard of this movie before. It’s a crime that it’s not acclaimed as a masterpiece. But do not see this movie if you cannot take images of animal cruelty. It’s graphic, and the combination of the “distance” lent by animation (which allows our brains to supply as much detail as we like) and the realism of the character designs is horrifically effective. It reduced my partner and I to a sobbing heap on the couch. And we didn’t even cry when Bambi’s mom died. Read more!

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Conversation (1974)

Blow Up is one of my favorite movies—one of those movies that gains prominence in one's mind as somehow more than a movie. It did the same for blossoming young filmmakers in the 1960's, and De Palma's Blow Out is frequently cited as a tribute to Antonioni's film done with sound rather than photography. But Coppola's The Conversation came first, and is both a better film than De Palma's and more true to the spirit of Blow Up.

Made before he'd launched on a career out of playing himself, Gene Hackman plays a soundman who is hired by various parties to confidentially record their conversations. He's the best in the business but his life is a mess—he is intensely paranoid but has nothing to hide and no curiosity about his work. As it turns out, he can't afford any. Just as Antonioni's protagonist sees something he can't confirm in an image he's recorded, Hackman gets trapped by the ambiguity of the spoken word.

Technically, the movie is a marvel of sound engineering. Walter Murch (who did the incredible sound for THX: 1138) is in top form here, and the cinematography is full of empty spaces reflecting the main character's position: my favorite shot is one of his empty loft office, with him shunted off to one side under an industrial-sized lamp.

But the real marvel of the film is the way that Coppola reuses the initial conversation while still finding variety in the camerawork, reaction shots, and angles used. Every iteration brings more information for the viewer, and what could have been a very boring exercise in sound becomes a visual puzzle as well. The melding of the senses is seamless, and Hackman's descent is as well. To the point where many viewers are bored by the film; there are no chase scenes, no dangling out windows, no actual resolution. Because this story isn't about resolution: it's about interpretation and involvement, and Coppola has the sense to step away and let us experience that for ourselves. Read more!

Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

If you've seen this movie, you probably either live with me or hate it. Wet Hot American Summer came out to no fanfare at all and aside from a few positive blurbs in movie mags disappeared even more quietly. But I have never, and I mean never, laughed so hard in my life. And I mean probably 20 viewings and counting.

The thing is, this movie is incredibly stupid in an insanely smart way. All logic has been abandoned; aside from the set-up of a summer camp run by Janeane Garofalo and assorted members of The State (and The Baxter's Michael Showalter, who co-wrote, with notable turns by David Hyde Pierce and Paul Rudd), there is no reason in anything than happens. Indeed, much of the fun comes from the noticing the intentional lack of continuity, as long scenes transpire in mere minutes according to the time stamps and knitted scarves appear and disappear at random. At one point Pierce hands a huge prop off-screen to no one—and every discarded object makes a glass-breaking sound.

This may not sound like much, but there's verbal idiocy too!

"Oh yeah, there's some kids caught in the obstacle course. I meant to tell you about that yesterday."

"Listen, Henry... " "Please, call me Henry. " "Okay, Henry it is."

"Now we need to make 8 gallons of bug juice by snack hour, do you know where the powder packets are?"
"Yeah. "
"In the pantry, above the sink, right next to my bottle of dick cream. Uh, wait, forget that last part. "
"Did you say dick cream?"
"No! I said next to my... stick... team, you know stick team! Stickball! Go away leave me alone!"

Okay, I could go on for days, and you still wouldn't get the point. There's a talking can of corn. There's a vegan goth girl. There's a training montage. A gay wedding. My point is that there's a fine line between stupidity being, well, stupid, and stupidity being intentional and brilliant. Think "Monty Python" or "Kids in the Hall," but if the last group had made a good movie.

I don't think this film lasted in the theater for more than two minutes, but any DVD that has an optional "extra farts" soundtrack has its own charm. Plus, unless you're a humorless loser, you'll appreciate being in your own living room so that you can dissolve into hysterics in comfort. Oh, and don't neglect the deleted scenes, most of which deserve to be in the movie. Read more!

The Odd Couple (1968)

As time passes and societal mores change, comedy is often one of the casualties. The shock of gross-out humor wears off. In the case of satire, what once seemed prescient can come off as either ridiculously off-base or just true. In other cases, such as The Odd Couple, the film can become funny for completely different reasons.

At the time, while the un-filmed Hollywood was well versed in gay culture, it wasn’t something a comedy would have tackled. I have no evidence to back this up, but my sense is that Neil Simon wasn’t intending to tackle homosexuality in any way with this film—the humor is centered on the utter ridiculousness of two men taking on marital roles in each others’ lives (and the ultimate unnaturalness and inevitable failure of such an attempt). Like Some Like It Hot, which in my opinion treats the subject of gender with less inherent misogyny, they couldn’t have gotten away with jokes about “the marriage being off” if gay marriage had been a remote possibility. But rather than dating the movie—or perhaps along with dating it—this sexless gay marriage is funny in a totally different way than seemed to have been intended.

Because you see, at this point, I find it impossible to watch this movie as anything but an unconsummated affair between two opposites, too locked into their hetero-normative worldview to see what’s really going on. I don’t want to paint a lurid picture of Felix and Oscar in a romantic clinch. But it’s hard to read their physicality, the quarrels that (until the last one) end in abrupt shifts back to companionability, as anything other than a primary relationship. At the time this was funny because it was so silly to see men taking on these roles—the sexual implications were unseen by dint of being impossible. Now the ending, with Felix gone and the line about marriages coming and going but the game going on, feels tacked on and apologetic. Felix and Oscar didn’t work out, not because they’re incompatible roommates, but because they were raised in such a way as to make the true nature of their relationship hidden from them. The tension between them, the protestations that Oscar makes about wanting to get out and have fun—specifically with Felix, not alone—read like sexual frustration. Can you read the following lines, spoken before and during their bowling alley outing, any other way?

“Getting a clear picture on Channel 2 is not my idea of whoopee… Bowling is wonderful exercise, felix, but that's not the kind of relaxation I had in mind. I mean, the night was made for other things.”

“Like what?”

“Like unless I get to touch something soft in the next two weeks, I'm in big trouble.”

“Oh, you mean women?”

“If you want to give it a name, all right, women.”

“That's funny. I haven't thought of women in weeks.”

If you want to give it a name? Look, I know the humor here is in the fact we’re supposed to realize they’re talking like a married couple, which is silly because they’re men. But it’s equally silly, these days, to read this film as anything but a tale of would-be lovers whose wires get crossed somewhere, at the mercy of the imposed sexual roles of the day, who are shoe-horned back into the safe, poker-playing masculine space imposed by the filmmakers. And all this is really to say that despite Simon’s typical treatment of women as necessary irritants, the movie is still classic, still funny, and still relevant. Just, you know, gay. Read more!

Dune (1984)

Disasters are often beautiful. Even when we should pull away, even when we feel guilty for enjoying it on some visceral level, we love watching bridges fall, the Hindenburg crash, the CG Titanic sink while Jack and Rose carry on inconsequentially in front of it. Such is the case with Dune; a film with just about the largest divide between visual and narrative skill I’ve ever seen. Artistically, the design and execution are breathtaking. Unfortunately, so is the writing.

Dune suffers from the all-too-common syndrome of Cult Literary Adaptation, causing massive confusion when the filmmakers attempt to navigate the treacherous waters of keeping the fans happy with certain set-pieces while constructed a condensed but cohesive narrative. At the same time, it has too much exposition. These contradictory impulses result in a film in which certain concepts are imparted multiple times during an interminable first half, while the last half jumps along without any apparent pattern or comprehensible plot. Through it all, the characters’ are drawn by someone who apparently has no social intelligence whatsoever and thinks the audience must have every emotion and motive spoken in voiceover. Why even have actors if their acting will be explained to us? I can see that she’s scared and that you wonder why—you don’t need to tell me, “I wonder what she’s afraid of.”

There is very rarely an excuse for extraneous inner monologue in film. It’s a clumsy device that must make itself essential in some way. In one scene, a character’s speculative inner musing is repeated to us twice by external means. Imagine you’re watching someone about to drink some water. “I wonder if my enemies have poisoned this water,” you hear him think to himself. “They probably have.” He drinks the water.

“Ha ha ha!” the villain cackles as he enters. “You drank the poisoned water I left for you!”

Immediately a voice comes over a loudspeaker. “Do not drink the water,” it intones. “It has been poisoned.”

I’m not exaggerating. Those weren’t the exact words, but it’s that bad.

My objections don’t stop there, however. Underneath the bad writing, there’s an offensive patriarchal consciousness that I don’t think I’m overstating. The women in the film are accessories; even the Reverend Mother we are told is very powerful constantly reiterates that there are places no woman can go, pain no woman can bear, and of course Kyle MacLauchlan is the Boy Wonder who can. Kyle, moreover, was born only because his mother the acolyte and concubine defied her duty to bear only daughters in order to bear a son for the Duke, who won’t even marry her. So far we have a Cult of Women in the service of an Emperor and a Duke, and the production of a son as the highest form of regard a woman can pay her lover. Good. So let’s take them all to a desert planet with huge phallic worms so that this amazing son can walk into a group of natives, tame the giant penis to his will, and act just like every other old white guy in the movie. There doesn’t appear to be any difference between the warring factions, no moral distinction between them. I don’t even know what they’re fighting for, other than for power over this drug-like spice. While we’re at it, let’s throw in a scene of the repulsive Baron Harkonnen ogling an almost-nude Sting, who functions in this film as basically a gorgeous codpiece. This movie is a celebration of the masculine body without regard to any political, moral, or social workings of the characters involved. We side with the pretty ones. With big worms.

What makes this disaster even more tragic is the obvious care that was taken in designing and casting this mess. Some of the actors are amazing, including Brad Dourif, Kenneth McMillan, and an uncredited David Lynch. The transport the Atreides men take to the spice mine might as well be an Elektra-ferry bringing us hot Daddy-figures Patrick Stewart, Jürgen Prochnow, and Max von Sydow. Sting is beautiful, Kyle is pretty, and the women are too (and awesomely scary, in the case of Siân Phillips as the Rev. Mother). And the design of the ships, the palaces, the planet are fantastic. Unfortunately, it makes the pain of watching it all the more acute, because if it was any less beautiful you could walk away. Read more!

Art School Confidential (2006)

Good movies are all alike; every bad movie is bad in its own way. While that doesn’t actually make any sense, what I’m trying to say is that while in my opinion, declaring a movie to be of “good” quality means it’s good to watch, a “bad” movie may be equally entertaining.

You can quibble with my definitions, but such is the case with Art School Confidential, the second collaboration between Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes of Ghost World fame. A muddled mess of genres, motives, and message, the movie follows the rollercoaster career of a first-year Swarthmore drawing and painting student as he navigates a hot drawing model, an unreceptive art world, and John Malkovich. Pretty much everyone’s college experience, right? Along the way, the audience is treated to entertaining stereotypes of art school students and some spot-on in-class discussions about art and theory which are painfully accurate. At the same time, the stereotypes are just the tip of the iceberg of cliché hiding beneath the quirky veneer of the indie-comic names attached to the project. The presence of a certain actor, whose only roles that I’ve ever seen have been psycho-killer or undercover cop or both, does not relieve the situation.

When Ghost World was turned into a movie, the result was different from the comic in the best possible way—it used the comic as a jumping-off point to create something filmic, and the alterations made to the material were all prompted by the new form in which it was being cast. With Art School…, I get the feeling that the comic it was based on was too short to offer Clowes any kind of structure to work around. Although Ghost World the movie was much more streamlined than the book, the movie made sense, as if the medium change forced Clowes to really work at reforming the material. This one feels unconnected, the last act clever but arbitrary. I welcome genre ambiguity, dark comedy, and defied expectations in film. But I also like them to make sense to me in some small way. And this felt wrong.

Nevertheless, I still recommend it. It’s smart, fun, and entertaining. I just didn’t feel like I was watching a movie in the sense of a fully-formed filmic concept—more of a sketch of one with enough great images and arresting shapes to let me forgive the lack of shading. Read more!

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

Having seen Good Night and Good Luck in the theater, and very much enjoyed it despite its flaws, I realized George Clooney was actually a director. This was confirmed when I rented his first film and was treated to a movie which actually used the medium to its advantage. I can be pretty snooty, but anyone who directs by some method other than placing the camera in front of a scene and rolling can be my friend any way. It’s sad, but true: I’m a sucker for actual direction.

George Clooney has been infringing on my perception of him as a not-that-pretty pretty boy for about a year now, both on and off screen, and the sheer style of this film has sold me for good. While obviously credit must go to cinematographer (Newton Thomas Sigel) and editor (Stephen Mirrione), it’s impressive that this was the film he made. The flashbacks are presented in muted, postcard-faded images; time passes in the course of one shot by means of main character (and dangerous mind) Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) passing through the scene three times, supposedly in the same take but chronologically quite distant; use of old tv footage is appropriately used as is interview material with the real people involved. All this is in keeping with the frenetic, loopy Charlie Kaufman written story, based on the supposedly true book by the main character. It doesn’t feel jarring or out of place, just colorful.

Which isn’t to say it’s all true. Apart from the game show host/hitman plot we’re supposed to swallow, the film fudges some of its facts. But then again, it’s not a documentary, and it doesn’t really read like one in spite of the “real” segments. If we had any doubts, the arrival of Julia Roberts dispelled them all. What it does read like is a quirky good time by a group of people who knew what they were doing, even if they didn’t do it perfectly. Mr. Clooney has my permission to make more movies. Read more!

Match Point (2005)

Woody Allen's latest movies have not encouraged me to rush out to each new one. But the combination of having revisited some older classics and the decidedly atypical trailer for Match Point were enough to get me to the theater; whatever he's subjected me to lately, Allen deserves my patronage when he tries something new.

Not that there's anything really new about this movie. It tells the tried-and-true tale of adultery, class difference and desperate action. And why not? It's a good story. Even when he's funny, Allen is always dark, so this grim but never heavy film isn't really a deviation for him. Unlike Allen, however, he is nowhere to be found in the characters; there is no Woody-clone to gum up the works with a futile attempt to mimic his trademark nervous patter.

Instead we have an attractive young cast, headed by Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Scarlett Johannson, both of whom seem to be popping up everywhere. The rest of the cast is lovely as well, though my egalitarian American soul was a little miffed that my sympathies lay with the moneyed Hewetts rather than the Irish and American upstarts. I thought Meyers acquitted himself well, even as he made himself creepy and pouty (in a way that makes me think he's been rifling through Jude Law's playbook), though Johannson struck me as seeking to remember her lines before uttering each one. She struck me false, and I couldn't buy into her reading of the character. Interestingly enough, fellow viewers had the exact same complaint--but about Meyers. This discrepancy in spectator opinion is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting aspects of the film's effectiveness.

This film may not garner the kind of following Allen's dark comedies encouraged in earlier days. But it's a welcome addition to his oeuvre, decadent and fun and dismal, and the central theme of luck vs. skill is followed through to the end, though perhaps without teaching us much of anything. This is entertainment in the loveliest sense--ambiguous, enjoyable, and without pandering to Hollywood's obsession with closure. Read more!

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)

“What would be the scientific purpose of killing it?”
… “Revenge.”

I’m sure you can hear Bill Murray as the second member of this exchange, even if you haven’t seen the movie. In fact, Murray is the film’s chief asset. He’s at his best when allowed to do something—which is why Broken Flowers disappointed me while I loved Lost in Translation--and here he is given free rein in a world of Wes Anderson’s making.

Anderson has a reputation for dark comedy and sometimes difficult movies. Unfortunately for me, they’re not always difficult in the way I’d want them to be. His films seem shallow despite being populated with people who seem like they ought to have layers—and don’t. It took several years and a repeat viewing for me to like Rushmore, perhaps because I’d altered my expectations. Bright conceits and witty exchanges do not indicate a plot arc which displays similar qualities.

Knowing this, I was able to enter The Life Aquatic with expectations of a splash through a few hours, and I was not disappointed. Except for Bud Cort. I have nothing against Bud Cort. On the contrary, Harold and Maude is one of my favorite movies and he’s adorable in it. Which makes him one of the saddest people to look at today. My brain still refuses to believe it’s him.

Some of the touches Anderson adds are inexplicable to me, such as the brightly colored, obviously fake wildlife the team encounters. But he makes up for it in scenes like the single-take tour of the ship, spanning multiple floors and introducing the ship and her inhabitants as characters. The movie’s funny, but not uproarious, and it’s smart, but rather self-consciously. But that’s okay. By the way, the screenplay was co-written by Noah Baumbach, writer/director of The Squid and the Whale, which is a topic for another review. Read more!

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking (2004)

It may be unfair of me to review Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking. Not only did I fall under the spell of Mr. Jeremy Brett in PBS’s previous Holmesian offerings, but I’ve actually read the stories they’re based on.

I’m going to anyway.

You see, the fact that my having read some Sherlock Holmes makes my review biased is a disturbing one. This Holmes, ostensibly set in 1902 Edwardian England, is actually shot forward into modern America. Specifically, Silence of the Lambs-era. In a bid to spark viewer interest in what they must consider a dying property (despite having bothered to do it at all), the production has assumed a PBS viewership made up of paperback-literate couch potatoes who think they’re sophisticated. At least, that’s the explanation I’ve come up with.

Rupert Everett is this outing’s Holmes, whom we first encounter in an opium den. “Oh,” I thought. “They’re ripping off ‘The Man With the Twisted Lip,’” which is one of my favorites and involves Holmes going undercover in an opium den and Watson getting all pissy about it. But no! Holmes is actually an effete, dissolute vampire, subsisting on drugs and coffee and given Everett’s rather pouty reception of the soon-to-be-wed Watson, perhaps missing some other essential protein to his diet he hasn’t gotten daily dose of since Dr. W moved out of Baker Street.

Everett’s not bad. I’m not suffering from Brett withdrawal—he’s dead, and if there’s to be a new Holmes it obviously won’t be him, and I’m not exclusive in my Holmes watching. But he’s a bit too much Rupert, and the plot of this scurvy little tale doesn’t help any. It’s a case of sexual dysfunction, of fetishistic murders of delicate pre-Raphaelite debutantes, of that new “science” called psychology. The solution of this case seems based mostly upon the dubious information Holmes gleans from an abnormal psych textbook Watson’s fiancé, a completely un-Canonical American psychoanalyst with the inexplicable prefix of Mrs.. Holmes, were he to see this, would be appalled on nearly every count.

These touches of the modern third-rate sexual thriller are somewhat understandable, if not excusable. It does beg the question, however, of why making this a Holmes case at all? Is name recognition enough? Because this script was not written for the Holmes fan, or even dabbler. It is so full of copped dialogue from actual stories (or clichéd misquotes) that anyone with a passing familiarity with them would be mightily confused as to why Holmes is suddenly quoting this or that tale, completely out of context. One would expect that these touches of Doyle would be nods to the readers, but if that was the case, why adulterate the source so violently? The whole thing closes with Holmes finding common ground with the obsessed murderer, on the grounds that “it’s an addiction.” Bravo, Holmes, finding your enlightened stoner side so easily. He probably had to in order to avoid dying of boredom, as there certainly isn’t anything here worthy of Holmes’ abilities. Which, come to think of it, we must rely on prior knowledge of the character to accept. Watson fares rather better in the investigative vein here, which was nice to see despite Ian Hart’s suspicious moustache.

I’m not a purist. I accept—nay, encourage—intelligent wranglings of canon. I write fanfic, after all. But to squander an intriguing character on such material is a waste and an insult. Not only to Holmes or Doyle or whoever, but to me, the viewer. As Holmes would say, this is all just “ineffable twaddle,” and he would be dismayed at having his named linked to it. Read more!

Casualties of War (1989)

When I read The Devil’s Candy, about the making of Bonfire of the Vanities, I was struck with a strange sympathy for Brian De Palma. Coming off the failure of his last film, he was dejected, determined, and confused. Casualties of War, he’d said, was one of his most personal films, and he was personally offended it hadn’t found an audience.

I felt for the guy. I mean, it couldn’t be that bad—I’d just watched Bonfire. But watching Casualities of War is about the only method I can think of of making Bonfire look good.

The plot is based on real events and has potential. Michael J Fox, fairly new at this whole Vietnam thing, is assigned to a small group of soldiers headed by Sean Penn. To liven up their scouting mission, Penn suggests they pick up a local girl to bring along. He delivers this plan in a completely non-joking way that nevertheless leaves Fox in shock when he actually nabs a girl from her bed in the middle of the night and makes her accompany them, gagged and barefoot, through miles of jungle.

Now Fox has a dilemma—does he remain loyal to his fellow men? Or does he speak up about what happened?

De Palma tries very hard to make this quite fraught with moral tension. And fails. From the beginning we are treated to a view of the jungle that might as well be my backyard. Filmed on location though it was, the nighttime scenes look lit by stadium lights. De Palma appears to think he’s still directing urban thrillers. Everything’s too smooth, too clean. There is not a hint of the jungle out here; not a whiff of napalm in the morning. He does manage to crib from Browning’s Freaks, however, which is kind of impressive if you like that sort of thing.

But the worst thing about this film is that it doesn’t build up to the abduction, rape, and fallout at all. Suddenly we are intended to feel great tension surrounding this situation, when we have not been led to know these men. What, exactly, is Fox’s problem? He does not know these men, does not owe them his loyalty in the way soldiers with some sort of established bond do. There would appear to be no two ways about it. And the massive hurt and betrayal and angst we are supposed to feel when the girl is taken is so artificially induced as to make a true story seem contrived. That’s how badly this is handled; I was forced to doubt the reality of something that actually happened. Penn’s character is not drawn with any degree of complexity—certainly nothing to help us figure out why he has any caché with anyone when for all we can see he’s just a random asshole. I sense that the audience is supposed to be awed by the realization that “war makes men into animals,” but not only has that been done, it’s been done in Apocalypse Now, which I would much rather have been watching. At least that makes me feel the jungle, the death, the privation and primitivism that alters men’s minds. This movie did not need to be made unless someone had something brilliant and new to say. And no one involved seemed to.

The scenery, most of which I suspect was shot by second-unit director Eric Schwab, is gorgeous, but it does not adequately throw the dirty deeds of the Americans into relief. It’s not enough to let me look past the fact that Michael J Fox is apparently the lone voice of reason in the U.S. Army. Shabbily handled and unsuccessfully manipulative, Casualties of War left me craving Bonfire of the Vanities. Which really takes some doing. Read more!

Deliverance (1972)

My dad used to tell me the story of Deliverance on camping or canoeing trips when I was a kid. It was a stock favorite, along with Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the latter heavily influenced by the 1978 version). He’d always change the characters’ names to things like “Al Waysright” and “Nera Corner.”

Apart from his unassailable wit, you’re probably wondering what kind of dad fills his kids’ bedtimes stories with fodder such as this? Well, truth be told, he cut some stuff out. In his story, there were these guys in the woods with green teeth and backwards baseball caps who were somehow vaguely threatening. Even when I finally saw the movie, with his supervision, they fast-forwarded some of it. I think you know what I’m talking about.

So having been inspired by hearing “Dueling Banjos” to rent this film again, I have finally seen all of it. And my feelings are decidedly mixed. And didn’t anyone else realize that there was a guitar in that banjo thing? Not, as the name implies, two banjos?

Actually, this is the best scene in the film, for me. I don’t know where they found these people, but they’re awesome, and the dichotomy between them and the urbanites is well laid out, though not yet sinister. So I can deal with it.

But as the film progresses, its social message becomes extremely murky. What is the lesson? That we should save wild places like these because they’re beautiful? But untamable and therefore don’t try? Or is it that these rural landscapes hold as many terrors as the city? Or is it that city-folk don’t belong here, unless they’re willing to be picked off in a demonstration of manly survival skills? The macho guy gets hurt. The pudgy one gets sodomized. The musician can’t cope at all. And the Midnight Cowboy dude finds hidden machoness within himself.

The movie sets up these venturesome personalities fairly well without much exposition. We can fill in the details, and we probably know each of these guys. But what are we to make of the rural inhabitants? Even the ones who don’t randomly scour the countryside for ugly dudes to molest look inbred and retarded, not to mention really dirty. Even if they can play the banjo. I have a feeling the dinner scene towards the end is meant to redeem the rural folk somewhat, but honestly I couldn’t tell who these people were supposed to represent—though I thought the scene contained some of the best acting in the movie. But the fact remains that I can’t figure out whether to be offended. I don’t know what Dickey or Boorman’s intentions are, and Dickey himself in interviews gives conflicting viewpoints that to me reflect a lack of intent.

This doesn’t take away from the film’s effectiveness; it really is a grueling ordeal to sit through, without too much Hollywoodization of tension of feat of skill from the players. The fact that the actors did their own stunts, paddled their canoes, shot their own bows and all that is respectable and adds immeasurably to the film’s quality and value. But from the opening shots of wilderness being overtaken by civilization, I feel like I’m supposed to be watching something more layered than a survival thriller, and I don’t think I am.

But if you can overlook rampant generalization of an entire region’s people and culture, it’s a harrowing ride. Read more!

Rashomon (1950)

This is one of those films that suffers for its ingenuity, at least as far as later viewers are concerned. That is not to say that the film is any less important/well done/interesting than it was fifty years ago. What it is to say is that at this point, I’ve seen so many reviewers call other things "the Rashomon of _________" that it’s like raising a kid on The Lion King and then letting him find out about this guy named Shakespeare when he gets to high school.

Rashomon is reportedly when we learned that what we saw on screen, with our eyes, could not be trusted. I actually had to think about this really hard before I realized that that is a pretty harsh lesson. I’m a thoroughly post-modern kid; it seems to me I’ve known forever that I can’t trust anything I see, especially if the media’s involved. I never got disillusioned about that, because I was never illusioned. The way politicians’ fallibility doesn’t ever surprise me; I was born way post-Nixon. But think about this: you’ve been watching movies your whole life, movies which do not ask you to interpret what you see on screen. It’s a play. It’s a story played out in compressed time but pretty straightforward. Then you’re asked to watch the same story four times with four different outcomes, and Clue won’t be out for another several decades so you don’t even have that preparation.

That’s pretty disconcerting.

So, much in the way Citizen Kane looks to me now like an amalgamation of stuff other people have done, Rashomon is one of those classics I felt guilty about not having seen but wasn’t astonished by for the reasons I was supposed to be. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the film, and I learned a lot of other things. For instance, Toshiro Mifune is one badass mother. This guy is crazy. And utterly brilliant everywhere I see him; he’s like an animal, a force of nature, one of those prints from Japanese theater come to larger-than-life. I often wonder, watching him, if he would be as entertaining in English. Would it all seem over the top if I could actually understand?

Does it matter?

Visually, the film has a lot to offer as well, as Kurosawa and cinematographer Miyagawa create not only a fantastic rainstorm framing device but a richly shadowed forest (watch the patterns of leaves on Mifune as he rests by a tree), a tracking shot that curves around a woodcutter as he ventures into the woods, a direct shot of the sun, and the beautifully poetic costume-choreography of the medium. I also very much liked the fact that though the film was structured as an interrogation, one never hears the questions—only receives the answers from the participants as they stare out at you from the screen. Despite the familiarity of the narrative, they, and the movie, still have a lot to tell us. Read more!

The Apple (1980)

Popular culture trains us in hyperbole. Everything is the (insert adjective) thing we’ve ever seen! Well I’m here to tell you that I have overcome that particular fault, at least when the blank is filled by the word “worst.” For The Apple is the worst movie ever made. Exclamation point.

I know many people make claims of this kind. But folks, Batman and Robin, Ishtar (actually, I rather liked the first half), and Plan 9 have nothing on this one. This is not a case of a movie “so bad it’s good,” which is a cliché with a lot of truth to it, just not here. This is a movie so bad I almost couldn’t sit still through all 90 minutes of it.

Here’s the gist: it’s 1994, the far future, where people wear costumes I think were recycled for Quantum Leap and listen to disco. A folk-duo from Canada with strangely mutating accents threatens Bim’s supremacy on the charts. Yes, the global music market is dominated by a band/corporation named Bim. This “Bim” is run by a Mr. Boogalow, a demonically ridiculous figure whose absurdity is thrown into sharp realism by the absolutely blinding weirdness of the people he surrounds himself with. He signs the young singers to keep them under his thumb—or tries to. Bibi, the female half, is seduced quicker than a curious rabbit but young Alphie starts hallucinating about an apple someone wants him to take a bite of.

Not only are we subjected to this subtle bit of sledgehammer symbolism, but we get a whole production number involving hellish figures writhing around unattractively with, yes, a huge apple and our heroes in some Adam and Eve costumes. Because this is, you guessed it, a musical. The music all the way through is based around one chord per song and lots of repetition of meaningless phrases. It’s as if someone set out to make a sequel to Rocky Horror Picture Show without all the advantages shown off so ineffectively in Shock Treatment. And a less coherent narrative, if that’s possible.

I’m not even going to bother to tell you what happens next, aside from this: boy mopes around a lot while girl becomes superstar for no real good reason. Girl despairs of seeing him again, although she hasn’t actually attempted to do so. Bim turns out to be in league with the government somehow, but I’m not sure why. Hippies come to the rescue despite their apparent lack of a food source or any kind of spirit of resistance. Then the leader of the hippie guy becomes god, or something, and leads the hippies, including our folk duo, into the sky.

This movie brings to mind a lot of movies that are commonly cited as being not too good but actually are. Josie and the Pussycats is actually a slick, entertaining, and hypocritically honest portrayal of a very similar story. Phantom of the Paradise is a passionate, entertaining, and serio-comic treatment of similar themes. Shock Treatment is actually pretty bad, but had Richard O’Brien’s songs and Jessica Harper’s dancing to prop it up. This has nothing. Do not see this movie. Do not buy it like I did just because it was $2. For $2 you can buy a screwdriver to keep on hand in case someone makes you watch this movie and you need to gouge out your own eyes. Read more!

Tristram Shandy: a Cock and Bull Story (2005)

This is my review of the film Tristram Shandy: a Cock and Bull Story. As reviewer, it is my job to tell just enough about this film to influence your decision to see it, without ruining your enjoyment of the movie should you, the reader, decide to do so, either in affirmation or rejection of my aforementioned recommendation. This is a difficult task, as might be imagined. For instance, if I tell you how much I enjoyed the scene with the giant prop womb, you will be waiting the entire film for this prop to show up. What if this is the turning point of the whole thing? What if it’s only effective in its shock value? What if the womb is never actually used in the film?

But if, instead, I tell you only that it’s a grand movie and you should see it, how will you know that’s in fact the case? After all, I’ve probably told you to go watch Wet Hot American Summer as well. Or Picnic at Hanging Rock. For that matter, what use is a critic? Am I a lobbyist of sorts, begging for you to recognize the films I deem worthy of your dollar (or 10)? I’m certainly a snob. Who else would deign themselves arbiters of others’ entertainment? I could have any number of agendas here. In the end, what does it matter to me whether you actually like the film I’ve recommended, once I’ve exercised enough power over you to get you to the theater?

It’s a dilemma, for sure, and calls into question this entire practice. Tristram could be a boring costume drama. It could be a domestic farce. It could be a complex meta-movie about the nature of filmmaking, authorship, audience reaction, and narrative in which Steve Coogan plays Tristram, Tristram’s father Walter, and himself. Sometimes simultaneously. The point is, nothing I say here alters any of that. I didn’t make the movie. I’ve nothing invested in it at all, aside from yesterday afternoon and $6 (matinee). Well, and a curiosity about Gillian Anderson. But is she even in the movie? I still don’t know. And I can’t talk about who made it, because I’m confused about that, as well. I certainly don’t know who the star is. Without this knowledge, it would be foolish to write a review.

I refuse. Read more!

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

It’s not giving anything away to tell you that Picnic at Hanging Rock concerns the story of three girls who go missing while on a picnic in Victoria, Australia in 1900. This is revealed before the film starts, and in this case the disclosure works. The film is not about what happened to them, or why; nor does it resemble a mystery in the conventional sense. It is, rather, a mystery of mood. It is Wicker Man mixed with Walkabout and left unresolved. And it’s gorgeous.

Peter Weir has a varied resumé, but in this film he has created a timeless portrait of a fictional incident. The residents, one wants to say inmates, of Mme. Appleyard’s school for girls awake on Valentine’s Day to set into motion a series of mannered, fantasy-like events in which they wash their faces in basins full of flowers, create a train of corset-tightening, and one declares to another, “You must learn to love someone other than me.” Girls say things like, “everything begins and ends at the exactly right time and place” and “a surprising number of human beings are without purpose, though it is probable that they are performing some function unknown to themselves,” to one another, seemingly unprovoked and rather unrealistically.

But the whole thing, for us, is unrealistic. It made me realize just how different “being a girl” would be if I lived in this film; it is a world I know nothing about, and one which most likely never existed. There are few answers here, not least because this is not a world we know. It looks like something that could be the real world, but it is removed from ours in time, in gauzy slow-motion, in the angelic, magnetic personality that is Miranda but is no one we recognize. Most of the significant relationships are between members of the same gender; aside from the hired help, meaning is found in other girls, other men. Texture is found in the natural phenomena of the ground around the Rock; clouds, ants, parrots, and lizards seem to comment on the futile nature of human activity to transcend mere animal survival.

At the same time, the beauty of the images, of the people and things in them (especially, for me, John Jarrett as the hired man Albert), does transcend survival. There is worth to these images, these simple evocations of a life that may not have existed. The film, while mysterious and sad and hopeless, nevertheless offers hope in the fact of its very existence. Some questions don’t need to be answered, because the search for them is the important thing. Not all viewers will feel this way; especially in this time, answers are a requirement even if they make no sense. But beauty requires no explanation, and neither should this movie. Read more!

Jarhead (2005)

I had not intended to see Jarhead. There was no particular reason not to, but there was no motivating force to make me get there either. Having now seen it, I must say that I feel much the same. At the same time, I think it was important that I see it.

The movie is a welcome addition to the war movie genre. Its over-arcing message is one of ambiguity; for the war, for the effects of war on marines, for the enemy. Unlike most war movies, we may be on a particular side but we're not entirely sure why. We hardly see the enemy, are only told he is evil and must be destroyed. I think, though I haven't the experience to back this up, that it is the most accurate war movie I've ever seen in this regard.

What the movie seems to play with is the memory of other war films. The most passionate moment may be before deployment, when the marines are watching Apocalypse Now, apparently unaware of the fact they aren't supposed to be rooting for the helicopers. And once the war begins and we are shipped with the men to the desert, the movie recalls another desert war epic, Lawrence of Arabia.

"But Kris," you'll say, "*cheesecake* reminds you of Lawrence." Hear me out.

The desert in Lawrence is multi-colored, dynamic, alive with Bedouin, camels, horses, and Omar Sharif. Lawrence falls in love with the desert. He is helping the Arabs fight the Turks, but he is also fighting himself. The movie is his love of the desert and the internal conflict prompted by that love writ large. There is suffering, but there is beauty and romance. There is blood, but there is lemonade, too. There is love and hate and the last thing one sees in Lean's desert is barren apathy.

Jarhead's desert, on the other hand, is dead. It is a lifeless, nearly contourless waste where the sky is the same color as the land and nothing can be differentiated. The only oases are caravans of slaughtered men. The only color, in fact, is provided by the oil fields burning night and day.

And this brings us to the heart of the comparison. Lawrence (in the film) is fighting for the color of the desert, for his passion. The US in Iraq was fighting for oil; the only living thing there. That flame is the only thing worth anything in that land, and Jarhead makes this overt.

But a movie which communicates such apathy to me, as a viewer, inspires nothing like the passion of the Ride of the Valkyries or Lawrence's cries of "no survivors." I especially liked Peter Sarsgaard and Jamie Foxx, but overall Gyllenhaal's Swoff was made to go through too many iterations of the marine experience for them to feel fully motivated. It was as if he was intended to stand in for every marine, and his voice over (especially at the end) did nothing to increase my understanding of him as a person. The movie felt long, and tiring, politically guarded, and in other words much like the war must have been. I would venture that this is a good representation of the Marine experience.

A good movie? Perhaps not. But still worth it. Read more!

Wallace and Gromit: the Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)

I'm a long time fan of Wallace and Gromit (Wallace's penchant for cheese is right up my alley, and Gromit's facial expressions warm my sardonic little heart) and was pretty thrilled about a feature-length film. All in all, the film does not disappoint W&G fans but does retread a fair bit of ground covered in the short films.

Fans and newbies alike are treated to Wallace's inventions-gone-wrong, his eating habits, Gromit's long-suffering yet loyal companionship, unresolved sexual tension between clay figures, and a cute sidekick; all of which elements are present in the previous W&G canon. One unfortunate outcome of this was my frequent feeling that I'd seen this before when it was called A Close Shave, only the sheep were a lot cuter than the rabbits (who looked a bit like pigs). To reinforce this perception of deja vu, the film is liberally sprinkled with references and in-jokes to the previous films.

However, it is unfair to ignore the triumphs of a feature-length film done entirely with stop-motion animation in favor of the shorter, non-theatrical films which came before. Along with Chicken Run, this movie is one of the last remaining animated films (in the western world) not done with computers, a lack I am sorely feeling. I appreciate any attention this art form is given, and art it certainly is. The skill and patience involved are mind-boggling, and the subtleties of rendering these characters and settings amazingly done.

I won't discuss the plot here, which is rather predictable, but I will say that the fingerprints of comic genius lay everywhere. A personal favorite is when Gromit turns on the car stereo to hear the strains of "Bright Eyes" sung by Art Garfunkel, the theme song to Watership Down. Hardly anyone knows this, I think, which made me laugh all the harder. In short, this film is everything one would expect from the W&G folks, but not more than that; if you liked the short films, you'll definitely enjoy it, and if you haven't, you'll enjoy it as well, unless you have some kind of stop-motion phobia. It's a brilliant technical feat, but it's not earth-shattering in the way my experience of watching The Wrong Trousers for the first time was. Read more!

Pretty Persuasion (2005)

f my husband and I have a "must-see" genre, it's the one where teenage girls do inappropriate things. Naturally, Pretty Persuasion was a must, with Evan Rachel Wood (from Thirteen) and a cover which boasts that "the devil wears a gray skirt."

So I have to admit that most of the films which fall into this "genre" are pretty bad. A guilty pleasure most of the time, right? This one's no exception, except most of the pleasure comes in the first half and most of the guilt should rest on the filmmakers for not bothering to follow through a naughty, though (remotely) plausible story with characterization that makes any sense whatsoever.

The set-up is great: there's a racist father; a neglected, very intelligent daughter; a blond best friend in love with first girl's ex; a new Muslim friend; and a teacher whose personal taste make him a prime target for three young students with revenge on their minds. This is all very interesting, as it addresses, for once, that there's something in between teachers being completely unaware of the sexual maturation of their students and teachers taking rampant advantage of them. Mr. Anderson is easy because he's already lusting after his female students; it's up to us to decide how villainous that really is.

The problems with the film start with the tone; I'm at home with black comedy, but there is a little too much swinging between extremes for me to get a handle on where exactly I'm supposed to be in my suspension of disbelief. Everyone does a good job; I especially liked Jane Krakowski as the lesbian reporter, though like everyone else she's lost some weight. Evan Rachel Wood has grown to much resemble Jenna Malone, the previously ubiquitous bad-girl. James Woods is appropriate disgusting, but Ron Livingston (as the teacher) is a little hammy, despite how much I admire him in Office Space. Again, it's the tone that's in question.

The real problem, without which the rest might be overlooked, is that Wood's character's opportunistic naughtiness, which reaches some pretty high levels, is never adequately explained. By the end of the film I felt that the only way a believable motive could possibly be supplied was if they suddenly revealed the girl was an alien. They give her vast reserves of resourcefulness to plot her revenge, but they don't sufficiently give her reason, and we the audience is left a little flat at the end, having to buy into her basic evil instead of a complex set of motivations. Even the school shooting, an obvious parallel running through the movie, is more interesting in its inexplicability. Surely a character with such superior talent should be granted a more interesting motive than schoolgirl jealousy. Read more!

The Constant Gardener (2005)

“From the novel by John le Carré.” Not words calculated to make me go to a movie. That could be due to my snobbishness, or early exposure to Tom Clancy-based films. But then there’s this: “From the director of City of God.” Oh. Okay.

The Constant Gardener is hands-down the smartest espionage thriller I’ve ever seen. I’m rarely patient with suspense films with patently retarded, retreaded premises. I’m tired of the blatant manipulation required to make these things work. When I left the theater after this movie and felt that wave of paranoia coming on, my husband and I said, wait. We should feel this way. If not for ourselves, then for our world.

Fernando Meirelles has taken his personal stake in the way people live when they’re not us, added Ralph Fiennes and some other people, and made an international horror film I can both understand and enjoy. I have no doubt that the kinds of things that happen in this movie happen somewhere all the time; maybe not in such dramatic fashion, but is anyone going to argue that huge drug companies are completely benign, helpful entities? The director spends a lot of time with the people in Africa affected by the actions of these companies and the governments who shield them, and a story which could have been a pointless exercise in “man thinks wife is hiding something. Wife disappears. Husband finds out she was hiding something, but it wasn’t an affair, it was a global conspiracy and he must be a hero!” becomes an actual film.

In too many of these things, the hero(ine) gets involved over his head and suddenly discovers untold survival skills and/or moral indignation. Here, Fiennes is set up from the beginning to grow into the character he becomes: as a proxy lecturer mouthing the self-praise of a higher-ranking diplomat, he encounters a feisty woman who challenges him yet excites his interest and protective instincts. She responds to this, they fall in love, and get married. This is a man who works for The Man, yet is receptive to the Truth when exposed to it. Unfortunately for all involved, some Truths end in marriage and some in death. We are never asked to believe anything of these people that hasn’t been accounted for. And for that, I am thankful. I got a smart, relevant, entertaining film that I don’t have to be a film buff to like. And I can finally say I like one of these thriller things. Read more!

OldBoy (2003)

There was an image in the trailer for Korean import Old Boy that determined I would one day see it: an unkempt, craggy-faced man walks away from a building while, in the background, a man holding a tiny white dog falls from above to land on the top of a car. As he walks towards us and the car alarm goes off, the first man favors us with a small, evil grin.

It took me awhile, but see it I did, and I must say that while as a whole the plot is entirely too convoluted to hold up to any kind of believability, the film is impressive enough for me to ignore that. The set up is this: Oh Dae-Su is a drunk. One night he is snatched from under his friend’s wandering gaze and is subjected to 15 years of imprisonment in a hotel room. After this time, he is set free on the roof, and given 5 days to determine who did this, why, and what he’s going to do about it. What ensues is a revenge tragedy whose solution cannot possibly be as good as its premise, but the premise is so bizarre, and the ways in which the unseen antagonist directs the action so unflinchingly repulsive, that I can’t help but respect the film. The main character, as well, fulfills the promise I detected in that little smile; he is as committed an actor as I’ve ever seen. And this movie took that commitment very seriously.

I can’t talk much about it without giving too much away; the film relies on you being as in the dark as Dae-Su. I will say that the plot took the characters places an American film would have run screaming from, and did it with style. There is violence, and it is graphic, but it’s also completely appropriate for the story. My interest waned as more was revealed, but as I said earlier I’m not sure how any film could live up to that opening. Once all shred of credibility vanished (note to self: if seeking revenge, just kill the dude—20 years is way too long to wait), however, I was kept involved by the sheer ballsiness of the movie. Might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for daring cinema you can do a lot worse. Read more!

Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972)

After directing two low budget, critically accepted movies (Greetings and Hi, Mom!), Brian De Palma heeded the siren call of Hollywood and took on the Tommy Smothers vehicle Get to Know Your Rabbit. The only reason to see this film, as far as I can tell, is to gain a better understanding of why he went on to make all the other stuff; which, even if you don’t like it, at least looks like it had a director.

Someone must have thought there was an audience for this film when they greenlit it. It’s more or less disappeared except in the kind of video stores where they group films by director and is therefore “important” in studying the young director’s development. But who decided that a “traditional,” Rock Hunter-like star vehicle about a tap-dancing magician would draw a crowd that would accept the bare breasts and lewd, not particularly funny humor it supplies as a bonus.

Plus, I have no idea who Tommy Smothers is. And I think I’m supposed to, because he sure doesn’t do anything remotely interesting in this movie. He goes from overworked executive to the afore-mentioned tap-dancing magician without really learning anything or telling us anything about him-or-our-selves. Along the way, he meets a cast of unfunny eccentrics, all of whom are variously repulsive except for Katherine Ross, who is dismissed in the credits as “the Terrific Looking Girl” and is way too sexually focused on paperboys to be that entertaining. Who is this hottie who groupies magicians in sequined top hats in dive bars? None of these eccentrics (aside from an over-involved, incompetent boss) actually affects the plot, either.

The “point” of the film, inasmuch as there is one, is predictable and poorly handled. Smothers’ efforts to escape are far too successful, leading to a return to the old pattern. Unfortunately, Smothers’ reaction to that pattern is exactly the same as his first reaction. So he’s learned nothing either. There’s no growth, no point, no satisfaction (good or disturbing) for the audience.

Luckily, De Palma learned something (he had the film taken away from him and the ending re-shot) and went on to do things his own way, which is admirable if not always something I want to see. Better that, though, than this studio tripe dressed up to look “hip.” Read more!

Walkabout (1971)

I am a latecomer to the work of Nicholas Roeg. As a scifi fan, "The Man Who Fell To Earth" was a library discovery a year or so ago and was very much enjoyed. In my quest to "understand" 70's film (an era I was only alive for 8 months of), I saw "Performance" a few months ago. And finally, I saw what I consider his best of the three: "Walkabout".

"Walkabout," as its title suggests, is the story of a trip through the outback. The term generally refers to the journey a young aborigine boy makes which leads to manhood; that holds in this case but with the addition of, and emphasis on, a journey taken by an English brother and sister left in the desert to die.

Eschewing names in favor of presences, the film simultaneously reduces and magnifies everything it touches: a lizard on a rock=the sunrise=the glistening buttocks of the native boy as the girl walks behind him. It is all one, all ordinary, and all grand. And all is beautiful, from the aforementioned scenic considerations to Jenny Aguter in her first naked-in-water role. Though far from her last such, this reviewer must nervously conclude that the 16 year old Aguter has never looked so lovely.

The film, being a Roeg work, does not lack confusion for the viewer. Roeg is clearly attempting to juxtapose civilization with nature, modernity with the aboriginal way of life. He does this in wonderfully unsubtle yet somehow not annoying cuts between our protagonists climbing a tree and local aborigines exploring an abandoned car. To name just one example. Other additions are less informative: I am not sure what to make of the weather balloon party or the static noises which sometimes overwhelm the soundtrack.

This confusion recedes in my memory, however, as soon as it's removed. What is left are a handful of breathtaking images, good writing, and a beautiful girl and boy. There is also an emotional puzzle; the girl remains strangely unmoved by the multiple tragedies which confront her. Like me, her later (married) self remembers only the moments of purity spent with her little brother and the strange, though not-so-strange, boy who saves their lives at great cost to himself. Read more!

Rent (2005)

Where to start? There is so much swirling around my head, and all for a film which I actually don't think is worthy of so much thought. I can see I'll have to get personal.

My confession is this: that as a teenager, which I was when "Rent" debuted on Broadway, I really felt it was a gift to us theater kids; something in which "real" people sang songs the rest of us could hit all the notes of. I related especially to Mark, the only one to fail at hooking up, the one who fears he'll be left alone to observe. I know this opens up a whole other can of worms for those of you who are ignorant of my theater geek past; but for the sake of journalistic integrity it must be known.

"Rent", for those of you who don't know, is a Broadway show that costs as much as a Broadway show usually does about poor people in lower Manhattan who complain about having to pay rent on the huge loft their former roommate owns, do drugs, get aids, and die singing. It is filled with appeals to the bohemian life; in fact, one of the choicest numbers is a list of things which exemplify this spirit (my favorite juxtaposition being "huevos rancheros and Maya Angelou!").

I hadn't thought about "Rent" in a long time until the film came out, almost under my nose. Actually, it went to the second run theaters before I could even decide whether it was worth seeing. $3 meant it was.

The movie prompted two reactions in me, somewhat contradictory ones. First, I was angered that so much of what I loved was left out. I tend to like the "connective tissue" of sung-through musicals; it's not necessarily the songs that get me, but the recitative, the sung-spoken bits which actually reveal plot and character. Rent, on stage, is filled with polyphonic plot-driving. Polyphony always makes me tingle. Most of the songs were still there, but they were simplified, excised of the little touches of character which made me like them. Some of these lines were preserved in dialogue, which is always a little disconcerting for a viewer familiar with the source material.

The other reaction was the solidification of my feeling that all was not right in the land of bohemia. If my advancing age (and wisdom, of course) weren't enough to tell me that "Rent" is a hollow shell of counter-cultural jargon with mass-market appeal, the film would have driven it home for sure. None of the characters seem sincere in their efforts to remain outside the "mainstream." Textually, everyone sells out when there's the least bit of temptation. Are we supposed to be happy that Angel's outfits would be mass-produced by the Gap? Does Mark even struggle with Sarah Silverman's sleazy tabloid offer? The only character who seems to practice what she preaches is Joanne, the lawyer; she's going for what she wants, tells it like it is, and doesn't apologize for it. Everyone else is living a lie. This is only aided by the fact that the song Roger takes a year to write is one of the worst in the show. Mimi should have turned right around and walked back toward that heavenly light.

On top of this, of course, is the fact that this is a counter-culture vehicle driven by Chris Columbus. Need I say more?

The original performers have held up to varying degrees. I've always loved Anthony Rapp as Mark; his voice is pleasantly nasal (to my prejudiced ears) and he's in pretty good shape. Roger looks (and sounds) like someone they hired ten years ago for his looks and not his voice. Angel is still beautiful, whether as man or woman, which is lucky. Jesse L. Martin (Collins) and Taye Diggs (Benny) look and sound great. Maureen, unfortunately, is not someone whom I believe when she says, "every single day/I walk down the street/I hear people say/'Baby's so sweet'". The new additions, Joanne and Mimi (Rosario Dawson, great in "Josie and the Pussycats") are good, but Dawson's gotten really thin.

Overall, the vocal tweaking was annoying, the cuts hampered the flow, and the hypocrisy was both repulsive and apparently unintentional. I had to see it as a follower in a former life; but that book is officially closed now, thanks to Columbus & Co. Read more!

Adaptation (2002)

I have to admit, I felt a little cheated by Adaptation. It wasn't so much that the reality Charlie Kaufman showed us, i.e. the writing of the script, was completely made up. It was that the initial premise, which was wonderfully self-involved and contained so much promise, gives way to inane hi-jinks which pull the film away from what it seems to be about.

What is seems to be about is the identity of the writer. It's a very good meditation on the writer's task, both as regards Susan Orlean (the true-life author of The Orchid Thief whose fictional counterpart is played by Meryl Streep) and Charlie Kaufman (portrayed by Nicolas Cage). It, and here's where the self-indulgence comes is, delves into the process of writing faced with trepidation by Kaufman, confused tenacity by Orlean, and aplomb by Kaufman's (fictional) twin brother (also Cage). Kaufman splits his own identity between these writers and what results is a meta-text on, you guessed it, adaptation.

So far, so good. Cage is funny, though he ought to have been played by Paul Giamatti as that who Cage seems to be modeling. Streep is good as usual, and Chris Cooper is great as the orchid thief himself, John Laroche, who keeps insisting that "I should play me" in the movie. The play between the real and the fictional is great, as Kaufman makes up much of the plot and many characters but bases others on real life with real names. And in the end, his struggle is real and recognizable to writers or others who struggle creatively.

But it falls apart in the final act. When Charlie, who seems to be on a voyage of self-discovery as a writer, finally gets up the courage to meet the woman he's writing about, all probability breaks loose and Kaufman's unable to stuff any of it back into his script. Why a movie about writing requires a chase scene and a drug operation, I have no idea. And that confusion, rather different from the inherent confusion of the premise which is necessary and to the point, makes the film weaker. I wanted to love this film, and for the first hour and a half or so I did. The memory of that final betrayal of my commitment, however, will keep me from seeing it again. Read more!

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

I've avoided this movie for some time because of its title. Maybe it was linked in my mind with Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London," a song I've long had antipathy for. Plus, there was the ill-starred Paris version of a few years ago, which not even Julie Delpy could save.

I'm happy to report that this movie is everything it should be and everything the comments which got me to watch it in the first place promised. It's hilarious, but in a natural, realistic way. "Shawn of the Dead" was a parody of zombie films, but held an element of truth in the oblivion in which the main characters live. "Werewolf" isn't a parody, but it has that same sense of ordinary, goofy people trapped in circumstances they are not prepared for. Much of the plot concerns not the werewolf itself but the consequences of the encounter and the doubt and suspense of its aftermath. Will he become a werewolf too? What will that mean? What should he do if it happens? And why are women suddenly all over him?

The two male leads, David Naughton and Griffin Dunne, share both an unfamiliarity with acting and a very natural friendly chemistry; their ribbing of each other during various otherwise gruesome situations feels real and natural and was a great pleasure to watch. Griffin Dunne, in particular, was very likeable and funny. David Naughton, as more the "straight man" of the pair, was charismatic. Jenny Aguter, as the nurse who takes Naughton home, is attractive and interesting.

I don't want to give too much away for anyone who hasn't seen it, but surely you know one character becomes a werewolf. This transformation is ambitious and well done, much of it on screen instead of between cutaways. Along the way, the plot takes such outragous turns that the audience is kept interested. The humor, far from making this a comedy, makes the horror of the characters' plight all the more realistic and poignant. Nothing is pushed beyond credibility, except for the werewolf stuff which is something of a necessity. Some of the humor is unintentional, however, and may have resulted from the director's fervor in showing too much of the beast.

There are some things which could have been improved. The ending is a little weak. The wolf, as I've implied, becomes rather comical when running. But the joys of this film, from the reticent pub-goers at the "Slaughtered Lamb" to a nightmare-like turn of nudity in the zoo, far outweigh the bad points. I was delighted with this movie, all the more so because I fully expected rampant silliness from the guy who brought us "Animal House"; this movie is justifiably a classic. Read more!

King Kong (2005)

First off, let me say that I did enjoy this movie. It was long, but it was fun. There were some clever references to the original which amused me. But in the end, King Kong is a meta-film riff on the 1933 version similar to the pastiche novels Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts have been devouring ever since Doyle retired the detective for good.

In a sense, this rescued the film for me: the references to Fay doing "a movie for RKO" (King Kong), the dialogue from the first film serving as the dialogue for the film Denham is actually shooting, the writer named Jack Driscoll after the first mate in the original. For the first half of the movie, these touches kept me interested, but Jackson soon gets over-involved in his subject. Oddly, the first half was much the most enjoyable for me.

I believe it's clear from the first film that we are to pity Kong. It's a sympathetic story. Clearly, Peter Jackson felt that way. But his film goes out of its way to make absolutely certain the audience walks away on the gorilla's side. Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow quickly comes to respect what Kong has done for her, although she does absolutely nothing to save him until people actually start shooting. I got the sense that her sympathy was motivated by Jackson's identification rather than anything she was actually feeling herself. I did enjoy seeing her in drag at the beginning, though. Kong has pretty good taste. For the other actors, I don't understand Adrian Brody's appeal but Jack Black, usually the bane of movies he's in, has done a good job lately of reigning himself in or appearing in films (School of Rock) where he's appropriate.

As for the much-touted effects which drench this movie to the point of drowning, I found them uneven. Kong was well done (though is Andy Sirkis the only guy who can act with electrodes attached to his body?), but many of the ocean scenes were obvious blue-screen jobs which I thought could have been better, especially since they had an actual boat. The colors of the film, especially in New York, were simultaneously muted and distinct, and I think this was in order to aid the integration of the computer generated material. Fight scenes went on too long, and the giant bugs included overtly phallic creatures with teeth which I thought were a tad unnecessary. And what did all these enormous carnivores eat when there weren't any people? It's a pretty poorly designed island, diversity-wise.

I liked that many of the racist elements were kept, but in the context of 1933 show-business. However, what are we to make of the islanders as envisioned here, or indeed the ape brought over the sea in chains? These questions remain, despite the "enlightened" attitudes towards "natives." Does it strengthen the film's tragedy (and stave off accusations of slave-analogies) to tell us that Kong is merely the victim of circumstance rather than let us find the pity in our own hearts? Is it really the best move on Ann Darrow's part to avoid all contact with Kong and Denham instead of actively trying to help him? And was it just me, or did Colin Hanks' character have something for Denham?

As a side note, the theater here in Seattle has a large marquee on which is written:

Ripley's Game (2002)

Ripley's Game was, in summary, a disappointment. It started out quite well, with John Malkovich snarking his way through a lovely art-forgery heist. And then, just about when Ripley becomes a homicidal fiend (a strange look on Malkovich, to be sure), things sort of go to hell.

Perhaps it is unfair to compare this film to the earlier and bigger-budgeted "The Talented Mr. Ripley", but such a comparison is not only natural but reasonable. I came into the film trusting Malkovich to pull out a performance every bit as good as Matt Damon, an actor I had only really enjoyed in his Ripley incarnation. This trust was justified (though no actor with Ripley's skill at mimicry and reinvention has yet played the role). What was not was that I'd get a film of equal complexity and style. I understand that resources were more scarce here, and that is not the problem. The problem is of plot and character identification. There were too many contrived conveniences without any of the depth or character-driven tension of the former film. The characters, other than Ripley, are flat and poorly acted, and even Ripley does little but react to the rather mundane (for the genre) situation he finds himself in. If Ripley is still alive at Malkovich's age, it is because he doesn't let things like this happen to him. The plot does not hinge on a clever scheme, or a mistake born of hubris, or anything connected to Ripley's interesting and complex psychological makeup. It involves hit men.

There were some wonderful touches here, and as an action romp its adequate. I haven't read the book this is presumably based on, and perhaps the problem is in the source material. But "The Talented Mr. Ripley" gave us a portrait of a conflicted, confused con man whose pathology stemmed from his own identify issues and self-esteem. "Ripley's Game" could have been an equally complex portrait of the same man after that conflict has been eroded by time and hard living, and I have a feeling this was attempted in Ripley's relationship with the hapless innocent he spins into his web. But it falls short, as does the film, from the layered film it could have been to mere suspense-drama. It is telling that my favorite scene was one in which Ripley overhears his neighbor dismiss him as having too much money and too little taste and merely blinks a few times before entering into the fray. The film would have been better served by exploring both this accusation and Ripley's cold reaction.

But then we might not have gotten to watch Malkovich kill pretty much everyone on a train. Read more!

Logan's Run (1976)

This movie has one of the best, most memorable titles ever titled. I say this because I feel as though I've known this movie all my life, although I had no idea what it was about and had not seen it until a few days ago. It's a kinetic, inspiring combination of words. Unfortunately, although "bub" appears nowhere in the script, it does not live up to its name.

The film concerns a future Earth society, culled haphazardly not from Huxley and Orwell but from ripped-off descendants of theirs, where man's primary objective is the pursuit of pleasure until the age of 30, at which time they are killed off spectacularly with the promise of being "reborn". Naturally, questioning the status quo leads to death as well but by butane lighters instead of anti-gravity and fireworks. Michael York, my favorite John the Baptist, plays the title character who, after a (rather short) lifetime of bringing down "runners" as a Sandman, goes on the run himself (cue title). He meets lovely Jessica (Jenny Agutter) by fortunate chance and they get wet together a lot. In water. They eventually meet up with the best character in the movie in the best special effects of the movie and are subjected to some completely irrelevant T.S. Eliot and practice some really bad decision making.

In general, despite some nice matte paintings late in the film, the effects are poor. The Sandmen's (Sandmans'?) weapons are ridiculous, the nightly death-orgy much more costly than it had to be, and the city itself an obvious model. I have nothing at all against models and much prefer them to computer-generated effects, but these come off very badly.

At the same time, there's something very charming about the two leads. I've always liked Michael York and he lends a very respectable air to this bastian of 1970's scifi. I can understand why it's still around and maybe even why I found it on the "staff picks" shelf at my local video store. But I was disappointed; I expected more from something with such a good title and such a "good" reputation. Worth seeing for some of the scenes (including Agutter's outfit), but don't go in with high expectations. Read more!

Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)

I almost thought I'd give this movie a bad review. As I sat in the theater, I enumerated the points against it. Self-indulgent. Cinematographically lacking. Precious. Eccentric lovables drawn together inexhorably through a tangled and fortuitous chain of events.

But I can't.

The fact is, Miranda July's first feature (which she wrote, directed, and starred in) is as charming and silly and pretty as her name. Without shying away from pain, it emphasizes those little tragedies that make up our lives and points out its little victories as well. The moments in this movie are small, personal, strange in the way that things in real life are strange. The eccentricities, though concnetrated, are ones I've never seen before and therefore believe in. For anyone who hasn't seen the film, there is one scene that is worth it for its audacity, the kid involved, and the underlying sweetness. For those of you who have seen it, I'm talking about this: ))<=>((

Accusations of preciousness are not unfounded, I think. But that's a tricky word, and anyway I forgive her, because there's something true in this movie. Something that made me laugh out loud and walk away quietly sad. The performances, except for Richard, are wonderful. The children, especially, acquit themselves brilliantly. The film's made up of tiny moments of life and it's not and Important Film. But it's lovely and worth seeing and it's worth watching July for what happens next. Hopefully she'll get herself a cinematographer and some real film (yes, I'm a snob).

I did have a slight problem with the fact that the main character was a struggling artist whose art I did not like, which always makes for an uncomfortable character/audience relationship. But since July was playing the artist, and she made this film as well, I'll let her off the hook and assume it was intentional. Read more!

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Before it ever came out, Brokeback Mountain was either denigrated or celebrated, depending on the speaker/audience, as "that gay cowboy movie". Now I, for one, have nothing against gay cowboys. I love them. It's a nifty expectation-crossing identity. But honestly, is it all that surprising?

The people I went to see this film with all cried. They cried because it was tragically romantic. Maybe they cried because they were gay. But I didn't. Do you want to know why? It wasn't because I'm not gay. Or because I don't like gay people. It's because I might be immune to sticky romance for its own sake. It's a fine movie, full of beautiful scenery and all that stuff, but honestly a movie with romance at its core won't do it. Now you might well ask why I'm all over Pride and Prejudice or Romeo and Juliet and in response I'll tell you what they have that this movie didn't: words.

Now the screenwriters here did a fine job as well. But in the aforementioned examples, words and their witty usage play a large role in my enjoyment of the piece (which is why Mercutio should have gotten the girl, right?). I will never know half of what these guys wrote, because I could not understand a damn word Heath Ledger said. Maybe he was disguising his Australian accent by being incomprehensible, but it's too bad Marlon Brando's dead because he could have given this kid elocution lessons.

I'm glad there's a "gay" movie out there being sold as a "love story" instead of a "gay movie." There shouldn't be distinctions like that anyway; as if I can't identify with a man or a woman or a lesbian or a dog, for that matter, and need to have a character just like me to relate to. I'm glad someone like Ang Lee took this on, and stars like Gyllenhaal and Ledger put themselves out there. But on the other hand, it feels cautious at the same time. How far "out there" are they really putting themselves? Is there going to be any backlash? And if there isn't, is it because people are accepting homosexuality, or because they're able to reconcile gay, manly cowboys away as being "not the same" as those flashy homos down the street? Read more!

The Hours (2002)

The Hours is one of those movies which everyone tells you is good. They know this because:
1) It’s based on a book
2) Meryl Streep’s in it, with some other people
3) Everyone else says so

Now I’m not intending to trash “The Hours”. It’s a fine piece of work, but the above-mentioned reasons made me reluctant to see it, which is why I only got around to it last night. Having now seen it, I can’t muster up any regret that it took me so long; just a neutral sort of “Hmm. I’m glad I saw that.” What’s odd about this lukewarm response is that the movie itself deals with the overwrought emotions of three different women who are all, to some degree, mentally unstable. There is a current of woe running so strong through this movie that I never felt as if I really knew any of the characters; just the low points of their lives. This is exhausting to watch, and furthermore the mannered, oh-so-pertinent ramblings of depressed people is a bit too much like what I’ve got at home. But when it’s going on around you, at least you have the memory, the knowledge, of the person’s real character. Giving screen time to three connected but separate stories is necessarily going to limit your experience of each to the pinnacle of their emotion, and for me, that lessened my identification with them. When everything everyone says is Significant, it’s hard to feel in the moment rather than in a series of Moments that have been deliberately, and a bit obviously, picked out for you.

That said, I did like the structure of the film. The concept of it, anyway. As I understand it, this is due to the structure of the book, but the filmmakers did achieve a different “look” and color palette for each segment. The performances were fine, but the high key emotion is difficult to buy when it’s in constant supply. With three famous actresses in the lead roles, my cynical movie-person says that it’s mostly a showpiece for their emotive talents. That isn’t to say it’s not worth it; just that it’s a movie which seems to be aching for depth with the broadest possible scope. Read more!

Pride and Prejudice (2005)

It is a shame when one’s experience of something is colored completely by that which has gone before. While this is true for much of life, as we are all shaped by experience, it was especially the case last night as I finally watched “Pride & Prejudice”, not to be confused with “Pride and Prejudice” of 1995 miniseries fame.

I put off seeing it for some time. While hardly a self-described Janite, I’ve made a yearly habit of seeing the A&E Firth-Ehle concoction and even recently converted my husband to the same practice. It is unfair to the new film to compare them. For one thing, nearly five hours is much longer than just over two. Concerns that too much is compressed can hardly be the fault of the filmmakers (although one can fault someone for making it in the first place, that’s a fruitless argument). So I will attempt to confine myself to factors which can reasonably be compared. At the same time, I must avow a deep regard for the previous incarnation, which must color my pronouncements, however I seek to disentangle my review from my love.

I was worried about the casting of Keira Knightly. A renowned beauty, I feared she might be “too pretty” to be Lizzy. She is not, I am happy to say. However, she rarely reaches the twinkling wit I look for in an Elizabeth Bennett, although she acquits herself quite well given how much screen time is actually given to her relationship with Mr. Darcy. The constraints of timing made the entire film seem rather rushed, as if it was necessary to get to the next quirky line or plot point before the last could really sink in. The rest of the cast played their characters for a bit more realism than the mini, Mr. Collins being a bit more pathetic than silly, Mr. Bennett a little more comfortable with his lot in life as the husband of a silly, but not shrilly unbelievable, woman. Even Mary, the unfortunate “spinster in the making” seemed like a reasonable person.

Where I think the film really fails is in its romantic yearnings. Technically and stylistically, this movie is head and waist above the miniseries. For instance, there is lighting and camerawork; something the makers of the mini seem to have forgotten might be a good idea. The movie employs these skills in a desperate attempt to make Darcy and Lizzie fall in love; there are thunderstorms, mists, sunrises, mirrors, all contriving a relationship which, honestly, I couldn’t see between the characters. Part of the problem is the lack of time spent with them, and the film’s decision not to reveal Darcy’s regard until he proposes. Part of it may be blamed on a lack of chemistry between the actors. Part of it, I must admit, might be a hormonal demand for Colin Firth’s piercing, smoldering eyes and Jennifer Ehle’s saucy twinklings back.

But there is a scene which, I feel, exemplifies the contrast between these two films. Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle visit Pemberley while Darcy is supposedly away. In the mini, they encounter a portrait of the young master and marvel at the man captured within it. In the movie, Lizzie walks transfixed through a sculpture garden filled with erotically charged buttocks until she reaches a cold, marble bust of Mr. Darcy, who is declared to be quite handsome. While sex might be introduced more forcefully into this picture, wealth is as well. The marble Mr. Darcy represents sensuality but of a material sort; the sensuality of sculpture as opposed to warm oils and shirts soaked through from impromptu pond-divings. The film’s Mr. Darcy remains cold and aloof when not desperate and pleading, without any of the fire of Firth’s version. This Darcy will not bend, but break; oil paint takes years to dry. And this is just the point; the miniseries has more time to build these relationships and mold these characters. In the movie, they flit by us as mere types whose characters we must determine by what others say of them; and isn’t that just what the book teaches us we shouldn’t do? Read more!

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)

Narnia: The Franchise™, by any account, is going to suffer the burden of expectation. Already a childhood classic that brings with it the stigma of visualizing what millions of people have already got in their heads, Lord of the Rings fever has infected the undertaking in the womb, producing a first child which makes me undesirous of the union continuing.

The major problem I see in the film is twofold: First, my attempt to retrieve from the movie some semblance of the wonder I felt as a child; and second, the filmmakers’ attempt to imbue the film with enough wonder that it can’t help but outshine our expectations both as readers and as moviegoers. In conjunction, these two factors cannot help but result in disappointment.

I realize that this film, like the books, is directed towards children. Although comparisons must be made to Tolkien’s work, both because of his relationship to Lewis and the filmmaking techniques they share, the books work on a much smaller scale (despite the allegorical elements). And this is why I feel that a smaller scale would have been appropriate for the film. In an attempt to match LOTR for epic scope, a movie in which sound stages alternate with real life with grating obviousness falls flat. At one point, when emerging onto a most impressive ridge, I expected the children to wonder how to get back to Narnia from Middle Earth. An effort to bring home just what danger the Pevensies are running from by depicting a German bomber cockpit and extremely poorly animated bombs made me think I was in the wrong theater. Is this background necessary? Is it an effort to Harry Potterize the children’s plight by emphasizing the starkness of real life? Do we need huge clashing armies, the origins and motives of which are never quite clear?

It is the small things that work in this movie and which should have been emphasized. Everyone’s talking about Georgie Henley’s performance and cuteness and I can’t help but add my voice to the clamor. She, as Lucy or as an actress, is everything I wanted to be when I was eight. There was a little clumsiness in her crying, but on the whole I felt that her reactions were perfectly childlike and real. The animals, while well developed from an anatomical perspective, still suffer, especially in direct sunlight. I was grateful that they looked like animals and not crudely anthropomorphized cartoons. Liam Neeson, however, ought to take some acting lessons from Aslan. And Tilda Swinton as the White Witch was spot on devilish. Her cold, pale face could well be believed to be the cause of eternal winter without Christmas, and I myself might be tempted into taking Turkish Delight from her Method-ridden hands.

Narnia should not suffer comparisons to Middle Earth. These two series are quite different animals, each lovely in its own way with brilliance enough to shine on their own. This film, however, makes the comparison inevitable, and it comes out the lesser. Concentrate on the children, spend less time on sweeping over alien landscapes and make these odd creatures people. Make Tumnus’ ears move and centaurs comprehensible to us. Don’t give us bloodless battles which can’t teach us anything and resurrections which are only there to preach. Read more!

Alien (1979)

Alien is a story of loyalty and survival. It is the story of overcoming adversity without losing one’s humanity. It’s the story of a woman and her cat.

Now, I’ve heard people wax pretentious about the mythological underpinnings of the “Alien Cycle” as they call it. In fact, I heard this tonight at a screening of the film at the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle. You can say what you want about Josephs Campbell and Conrad, but in my opinion a film “cycle” with no consistency of creatorhood aside from the commendable instinct to include Sigourney Weaver does not merit an over-arcing theory that includes all four films. Granted, myths and fairy tales also have multiple, untraceable creators, but they weren’t created by corporations for financial gain, a consideration I feel has to be taken into account.

But whatever. Alien is a horror movie in space. It’s a very good horror movie in space. Like many horror films, it involves human contact, and conflict with, that which is Other. The alien is “unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” While Ripley and the others struggle with the implications of their options—to quarantine, to fight, to preserve the few or attempt to save the many—the alien has no such qualms. In the end, the only person Ripley can save is herself. She is reduced to the amoral status of a creature fighting for its survival, just like the alien. Almost. For Ripley’s fellow-feeling, her humanity, is rescued by her rescue of Jonesy the cat.

And yet the very thing that assures us of Ripley’s humanity, Jones, is another example of the Other. He represents the Other we have taken to our bosom, and yet the unreadable reaction shots as he watches the destruction of Harry Dean Stanton reveal an alien presence among us. The cat is not human; he is not governed by human emotions or capable of expressing them. Watching my own housemate stare at me with unblinking, expressionless green eyes consistently fills me with wonder that this thing, this non-human, this incomprehensible being is sharing my space. We co-exist, and yet we are not like, despite the fact that I have let this alien presence into my home and my heart.

But it is not only that which looks foreign which must be watched. There is an alien on the crew, undetected and working against them; an alien inside assisting the alien outside. So even the visible signs of humanity are not enough.

Subsequent to rescuing Jones and herself, Ripley reveals another side of her humanity—her femaleness. Up to this point, Ripley has no physical womanhood. She is depicted, like much of the crew, as genderless. This is not to imply that real androgyny is being explored, but that any of these characters could switch genders without any alteration to the story. Sigourney Weaver, in particular, is tall and lacks the curves which instantly cry “woman.” When she supposes herself safe, she sheds another layer of protection and becomes, for the first time, a woman in the vulnerable state of partial nudity. When it become clear that this safety is an illusion, she retreats to a heavy, gender-neutral space suit in order to do final battle with the alien. A certain amount of shielding from the vulnerable side of what makes us human is necessary for survival, just as Ripley’s regard for that which is not human makes her even more so. Read more!

Inserts (1974)

At first glance, it's hard to tell why anyone, let alone rising stars Richard Dreyfuss, Veronica Cartwright, and Jessica Harper, wanted to make this film. After all, it's an NC-17, low budget, one-room piece about the porn industry in the 1920's. It requires its actors to be unclothed for much of the proceedings and to recite naughty terms for various body parts to the point of desensitization. The title comes from the practice of filming the close-up bits that go in between the action to suitably titillate the audience. So by common sense, this seems like it should be a prurient, dirty little film of little redeeming value. In actuality, it is a concise treatment of the film industry; a snapshot from one dusty corner that captures the whole.

At the center of the films success is Richard Dreyfuss, a post-American Graffiti pre-Jaws imp with rheumy eyes, stubble, and a nasally cackle I've always found weirdly endearing. As the Boy Wonder, we are given to understand that a brilliant career has been squandered, "realized at an early age," as he says, and he now spends his days in the living room of his mansion: drinking, making porn, and not having sex. He is a casualty of the get-rich-quick days of early film, a "ghost story" to newcomers like Clark Gable (a ghost himself, as he only appears off-screen to offer a nebulous and rejected hope to the Boy Wonder). Although he has turned his back on both art and Hollywood, the Boy is hopelessly entangled in the process of film-making. He cannot escape; and indeed, most of his life (as we perceive it) is accompanied by the sound of a camera running even when he is nowhere near one. And despite this artistic torpor, he can't help but innovate within his chosen field. His financial backer is appalled to see him remove the camera from the tripod to obtain visceral shots of his actors engaged in coitus; the people who watch these movies are looking for one thing, and it's not art. The decline of both his fortunes and his libido are, through the course of the film, revealed to be rooted not in his own lack of ability (mentally or physically) but in something else. We are never privy to what happened to the Boy Wonder, but Dreyfuss' performance is laden with an inertia which precludes any chance of leaving the sordid yet comfortingly miserable existence he's made for himself.

The other characters are not silent about Hollywood, old or new, either. Veronica Cartwright plays the once-legit actress now reduced to heroin addiction and porn; the more pro-actively destructive twin to the Boy Wonder, who is in a process of fading rather than burning out. Bob Hoskins is the financially-minded producer who is conscious only of what he can package and sell to an undiscerning, undifferentiated public, whether it's smut or hamburgers. And Jessica Harper is the lean and hungry would-be star, who manipulates the Boy in her ambition to "make it" at whatever the cost. Her every thought is on show business--who's hot, and how she can be one of them. In fact, the only person in this little group who sees beyond his shallow ambitions is the Boy Wonder; and that's because he doesn't have any.

The movie drags a bit in the last half, where Harper and Dreyfuss trade manipulations, reluctance, and biting retorts without much sense of what their motivations are. But it's a lovely, theatrical script with one-liners galore that make the smutty content seem more than justified. Richard Dreyfuss, on screen all the time, gives a nuanced performance not without his characteristic flare-ups, and the two ladies give brave turns as rather uncharacteristically built objects of lust. Bob Hoskins' American accent is impeccable as always, and Rex the Wonder Dog (the hired meat) is as shallow and stiff as he needs to be. This slice-of-porn world is a perfect microcosm of the collaborative, hustling world of movie-making, and it has nudity. This movie should not have been overlooked all these years. Read more!