Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) & The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

A double feature at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, and yet another reminder of how, even though there's traffic and pollution in Los Angeles, that it's worth it to live here, because where else (besides New York or Paris) can you get a chance to see two amazing musicals from Jacques Demy on the big screen, the way they were meant to be experienced?

I haven't seen Demy's other films, but what these two have in common is that they're musicals set in commonplace, everyday settings; Cherbourg is about a pair of young (very young) lovers in the late '50s separated by France's war in Algeria and economic insecurity, while Rochefort is about a pair of sisters in a smallish town in western France yearning for love and more out of life. Demy shot his films on location, in apartments and shops instead of the traditional Hollywood practice of filming on lushly designed soundstages, and it gives the films a typically French New Wave feeling of existing in the real world instead of in the Hollywood dream factory - to a point.

The Young Girls of Rochefort is a reinvention of the frothy Hollywood musical, taking place in a world that's still recognizable down-to-earth, yet nonetheless a fantasy construct nonetheless with a plot that's straight out of a Shakespearean comedy, or an Astaire/Rogers movie: twin sisters played by Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac are searching for their true loves, not knowing that their fantasy men are lurking just around the corner in the town, or arriving on the same day they're planning to leave, and so on. It's the kind of movie where one character will exit a scene and their unknowing romantic-partner-to-be will enter, seconds later, from the other side of the frame, not knowing what they narrowly missed. The music, by Michel Legrand, is jazzy and hummable, the widescreen, pastel-colored visuals are bright and attractive, people will drop into dance for no reason at any moment, and the whole movie is pretty irresistable, like a fine fizzy champagne.

After seeing a concoction like Rochefort, Demy's earlier film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg feels a little dingy and narrow, but that feeling disappears once Catherine Deneuve (incredibly young and beautiful) and Nino Castelnuovo sing their first duet, a puppy-love ditty that succeeds because of the movie's charm and conviction. Where Rochefort is a more typical people-break-into-song-and-dance musical, Cherbourg is a mini-opera, no dancing, all singing. And what really elevates Cherbourg, for me, is that it's not just a fizzy musical designed to give the audience a fun time (although it is that) but it also takes its characters seriously as real people with real, relatable problems instead of turning everybody into an archetype, and there's real depth and tragedy in this story of the teenage blonde who gets pregnant when her boyfriend gets shipped off to war.

The reviews I've seen of both films say that the primary theme linking Demy's films was that of fate, or destiny, which comes through pretty clear in Rochefort, where every character has a clearly delineated romantic partner that they end up with by the end of the film, in spite of all the ups and downs along the way. Cherbourg, on the other hand, has a more sensible perspective: even though the young loves proclaim their undying love to each other in the film's first act (as everyone does in a musical), the long separation and changes in their lives make them very different people by the end of the movie. When they meet again after years apart, there's a wistful quality in their interaction, but also an awkwardness, and the sense that, whatever used to be, is no longer; the two of them each look satisfied with their new family and lifestyle, and predestination seems not to be a factor.

What links the two films, though, is how totally pleasureable and invigorating they each are. I haven't been a fan of most of the new wave of Hollywood musicals in the last few years - they've mostly struck me as clumsy (Dreamgirls) or trying too hard (Moulin Rouge) or just kind of flat (Phantom of the Opera, Hairspray) so it's nice to see a pair of absolute must-see musicals in the middle of the Summer.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg: 9/10
The Young Girls of Rochefort: 8/10

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Wisdom from David Lynch

I love this man. First, on the subject of the iPhone:

The amazing thing is, in the comments section there are people who think he's wrong - 'today's consumer wants choices' blah blah blah. They're all idiots.

Next, a tidbit on product placement:

What I like here is the "What? I said it all" look at the end.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Hulk (2003) & The Incredible Hulk (2008)

I wanted to see the new one, so I revisited the Ang Lee one.

To me, these two movies are best analogized by food. The Incredible Hulk is proud to be nothing other than a Carl's Jr. Six Dollar Burger, it's totally a piece of product, of prepackaged responses, a collection of action sequences justified by a gummy connecting tissue of drama. Meanwhile Ang Lee's film from five years ago intends to be a juicy steak dinner with a little something for everybody, an expensive effects driven movie with a core of human drama. The problem is, Lee's film ended up being crispy on the outside and cold in the middle, overcooked and underdeveloped. For all of Ang Lee's ambition, it's the junky Louis Leterrier movie that more fully succeeds; and when it comes to a comic book movie about a man who turns into a giant green monster when he gets angry and smashes stuff, maybe the more simplistic Leterrier concept was the right approach all along?

Ang Lee's Hulk, his project in-between Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain, is the kind of movie that separates the cineastes from the boys. It's Lee's The Terminal, or his Kundun, or his Mission to Mars; a movie that fails with a mainstream audience but is of interest to the dedicated auteurists in the audience, to pick apart the themes and how they fit in alongside The Ice Storm or Lust, Caution. It's a thematically and visually interesting movie with strong performances from a good cast that nonetheless is kind of a drag to watch, thanks to a subpar screenplay. There are too many flashbacks, too much leaden family-based backstory for Eric Bana's Bruce Krenzler, who winds up with virtually nothing to do but react and mope between effects sequences. I see and respect that Ang Lee had a vision of the Hulk that was different from the traditional one, a Bruce Banner consumed by repressed Oedipal rage and inherited sins, but the film simply does a poor job of dramatizing and visualizing these ideas - I mean, maybe it would have been a good idea to actually show Bana get angry at some point in the movie, instead of merely having Jennifer Connelly tell us "I'm attracted to men with emotional problems" early on, right? Ambition is great but it's not enough to make for a good movie.

So after the clumsy exposition of Hulk, it's incredibly refreshing to watch the opening sequence of The Incredible Hulk, which consists of a simple, clean montage of the new, rebooted origin story, heavy with references to the television series of thirty years ago starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. The opening five minutes of this movie are as clean and efficient a piece of moviemaking as you're likely to see all year. From that point on, the movie devolves into something pretty simplistic, a trio of decent action sequences connected by Edward Norton and Liv Tyler demonstrating virtually no chemistry and Tim Roth waiting to turn into a less well-designed CGI monster. The final action scene did give me a visceral thrill: after some 220 minutes of Hulk movies, finally, Hulk Smash! But cars getting thrown through apartment buildings and rubbery CGI will only get you so far under the guise of a director with as limited of an imagination as Louis Leterrier - fortunately he's smart enough to keep it short and simple, with the occasional joke ("You wouldn't like me when I'm hungry") so it goes down smoothly enough and doesn't trigger the gag reflex - at least after one viewing, which is probably all I'll ever give it. But you know you're probably not a good director when the star of another movie wanders in at the last minute and gives a more interesting performance than anything else that you've been laboring on for months and months.

Hulk: 5/10
The Incredible Hulk: 6/10

Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin, 1937-2008

In a year in which celebrities have been dropping dead left and right, this is one that really hits home for me. George Carlin wasn't just a comic, he was a pioneer, a leader second only to Lenny Bruce in a singular realm: that of the supreme cut-through-the-bullshit artist. Carlin was 71 when he died, but he always seemed much younger than he really was to me because he retained an air of still being with it, of riding the tides of society, of not getting bogged down by his own encroaching age. And he was just about to get a Kennedy Center honor.

And did I mention, he was hilarious? As in, really terrifically funny about pretty much every possible subject under the sun, and a few where the sun don't shine. He was a brave soul, a guy who saw the human race for more or less what it is, and a terrific entertainer.

He'll be missed.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Happening (2008)

(Revision Thursday 12:30 a.m.)
I love that M. Night Shyalaman, who likes to think of himself as a genius and the cinematic heir to Steven Spielberg, is in reality now making the world's most expensive student films. All the hallmarks are in The Happening: the overuse of close-ups, the bizarre gaps where characters should have dialogue but don't and have to fill in the dead air with odd facial expressions, the miscast actors who flail around not quite sure of what they should be doing, the jokes that fall flat and the scares that are hilarious. It's quite a bad movie, and only composer James Newton Howard makes it out with his dignity.

The thing about M. Night Shyamalan is that he isn't just content to be a storyteller. With the exception of the movie that put him on the map, The Sixth Sense, all of his films want to be mass-entertainment-with-a-message, and he does have consistent themes and ideas in his films. I would like to think that making personal, visually interesting films with thoughtful ideas that can also appeal to a mass audience is pretty much the height of success in film - I give Shyamalan a lot of credit for sticking to his personal vision when he could just make a slick, impersonal thriller every few years and rake in the dough.

The problem is, Shyamalan's ideas are pretentious and his themes are shallow, and he takes them wayyyy too seriously. Unbreakable, which I mostly like, is totally crackpot. Signs was released at just the perfect time to exploit the nation's post-9/11 paranoia and helplessness, pandering to those feelings while pushing an infuriating 'everything happens for a reason' message of blind faith. The Village suggests that modern civilization itself is corrupt and should be abandoned in favor of medievalism; and Lady in the Water promoted infantile egotism in the guise of whimsy.

In a lot of ways, The Happening wants to be as obnoxious as those others (SPOILERS): plants, infuriated by modern life and pollution, conspire to release toxins that drive humans to stop in their tracks and stab themselves, shoot themselves, jump off buildings, and take naps under riding mowers. It's an interesting concept that could have been a fun updating of Day of the Triffids, weighed down by Shyamalan's earnestness and humorlessness. It's a ridiculous premise, and a better director would have acknowledged the ridiculousness instead of making the whole movie a solemn cautionary tale, and the whole thing ends up riding off the rails.

But for all that, I can't find myself hating The Happening nearly as much as Signs or The Village or Lady in the Water. It's too stupid to be hated, and many scenes cross over into so-bad-it's-good territory. My personal favorite (SPOILERS again) is a short bit in a cafe where a woman is watching an online video on her iPhone of a man killing himself by walking into a lions' cage in a zoo and calmly sticking out his hands for the lions to tear off and eat. Ignoring the blatant product placement, the idea that somebody somewhere had the time to go home and upload this video, and the terrible special effects, we're still left with the bizarre idea that nervous lions would just start chewing away instead of pouncing or going for the throat. I mean, has M. Night ever seen a nature program? And this is a before we meet the hot-dog loving plant expert or get to the farmhouse owned by the crazy lady. I could go on, but you get the point: sometimes, there's no point in being angry at a movie, you just go for the ride. I just wish Shyamalan wasn't working so hard to give crazy auteurs a bad name.

(Revision) I want to add that there are scenes and moments in this movie that are totally effective and creepy. The whole opening sequence, starting in Central Park with unseen horrors just out of sight and the cavalcade of jumping construction workers, is terrific, unnerving and bizarre. Later scenes such as what happens to the cop's gun after he shoots himself are brilliantly conceived and executed as well. The problem is that Shyamalan doesn't connect these moments into a more discordant, disturbing larger framework, and the movie as a whole is only sporadically unnerving, and never truly 'scary' to me.


Friday, June 13, 2008

Spartacus (1960)

So after watching Ben-Hur again I had a hankering for another epic or two.

Godard once said the best way to criticize a film was to make another film, which is pretty much what happened with Spartacus. Kirk Douglas coveted the starring role in Ben-Hur that won Charlton Heston an Oscar, so he bought the rights to Howard Fast's novel and produced it at Universal for himself to star in. After a few days of shooting he fired director Anthony Mann and hired Stanley Kubrick, on the basis of their prior collaboration on Paths of Glory. Kubrick later virtually disowned the film since he was a director-for-hire, but it was an essential step in his path towards artistic freedom and autonomy. Certain scenes, like the training sequence in the gladiator school, or the climactic battle scene, are reminiscent of later Kubrick imagery in Full Metal Jacket or Barry Lyndon.

Compared to Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments, the direction in Spartacus is substantially more modern, with a greater emphasis on fluid camerawork, long takes, and location shooting. There's also a refreshing dash of violence, with a shot in a battle scene of Douglas chopping a guy's arm off with a single slice of his mighty sword. The script, by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, is better too - more complex and literate, with more interesting dialogue. And it's hard to go wrong with a cast that includes Charles Laughton, Laurence Olivier, and Peter Ustinov.

Where the movie doesn't hold up as well, ironically, is in Spartacus's personal relationships. The scenes between Kirk Douglas and Jean Simmons as his love interest are as turgid and forced as any other Biblical epic. And can someone tell me why Tony Curtis is in this movie? For someone who was a big star at the time, he's given virtually nothing to do except participate in Olivier's "Snails and Oysters" speech and battle Spartacus to death at the end of the movie. What should be a heartbreaking scene between two comrades pitted against each other is robbed of its power - give this scene to the character played by John Ireland, who fought alongside Spartacus from the very beginning, and you'd have something - but for Spartacus to battle the singer of songs? And while Kubrick does bring a dash of fresh air to his direction, you can also tell that he's bored in big chunks of the movie. I can just see him rolling his eyes in any scene involving Universal contract hunk John Gavin as the least charismatic Julius Caesar in cinema history.

All of the major epics of this period focus on the same basic conflict - the individual vs. the power of the state, be it the Roman Empire or Egypt of the Pharoahs. Spartacus takes this conflict and provides a protagonist who doesn't just give in to the whims of fate or a deity, but takes revolutionary action into his own hands; and yet, even then his fate isn't truly under his own control, as Spartacus and his army remain pawns in the rivalries of the Roman power elite. As a result the film has a specifically mid-20th-century leftist feel to it, but one that still resonates today.


Monday, June 09, 2008

Ben-Hur (1959)

When Charlton Heston passed away, I really wanted to watch this movie on the big screen, having only seen it on TV, and thankfully, the American Cinematheque obliged this last Friday.

On the big screen, Ben-Hur is certainly an impressive film, with those thousands of extras, lavish costumes, spectacular set pieces, and cameos from the Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, and Jesus himself. In addition, Charlton Heston gives a performance that's truly worthy of his Best Actor Academy Award, fierce yet sensitive at the same time. Stephen Boyd, as Messala, and Jack Hawkins, as the Roman patrician who befriends Ben-Hur, both give terrific performances as well.

All that said, one of the most famous reviews of this movie (from Dwight MacDonald) compared it to 'watching a freight train go by' which has more than a little truth. It lumbers along carefully, methodically, unsurprisingly. Even though Boyd and Hawkins deliver strong work, the film's other Academy Award for acting went to Hugh Griffith as the comic-relief Arab character, who today feels dated and silly. Haya Harareet, as Ben -Hur's love interest, is pretty but her scenes with Heston are stiff and by-the-numbers.

The real spark in the movie is that between Ben-Hur and Messala, especially in the movie's early scenes when the two men greet each other warmly, like long-lost friends. Gore Vidal, who worked on the film as an uncredited script doctor, tells a story of suggesting a homoerotic subtext to director William Wyler; that the two characters had been lovers years before and that their scenes should be played accordingly, with a certain passion turning to jealousy and envy, to more strongly motivate the film's narrative of betrayal. According to Vidal, Wyler suggested this to Stephen Boyd but not to Heston. Heston denied Vidal's influence on the finished film and knowledge of any such subtext, but when you're watching it there's definitely an energy between the two actors that goes beyond the mere reacquaintance of two men who used to be friends.

Above it all, this is a film about a wronged Jew being tempted by revenge who just happens to be hanging around at the time of Jesus's crucifixion, who winds up converting to the infant religion of Christianity after witnessing the passion on the cross. It doesn't hurt that the whole deal is accompanied by a miracle in which Ben-Hur's mother and sister are cured of their leprosy - indeed, Ben-Hur ends up getting pretty much everything he wants by the end of the film, his family reunited, wealth, fame, and a beautiful wife. If everybody received a deal like that, the work of the early Christian missionaries would be a lot easier.

All in all, it's something of a mixed bag for me, a stiff, slightly dated, thoroughly self-important film that nonetheless succeeds as a piece of monumental Hollywood entertainment, more worthwhile for its thrill-ride aspects (the naval battle, the chariot race, the valley of the lepers - things that we now consider Spielbergian) than for any special wisdom or enlightenment.


Saturday, June 07, 2008

Golf Gear

This is pretty much the funniest thing I've seen all week, from the McCain website as of Thursday afternoon, featuring the top four items on his policy agenda:. He's a living Letterman parody.

(Thanks to Josh Marshall of

Friday, June 06, 2008

The Strangers (2008)

Horror is cyclical, and clearly now we're moving out of the gory Texas Chainsaw Massacre '03/Saw/Hostel phase and into a bunch of movies in which a young couple gets terrorized somewhere remote, like a motel (Vacancy), or a country house (Ils/Them), or a bullshit art realm (Funny Games), or another country house (this movie). They're basically slasher movies with less slashing and more suspense, and smaller casts = cheaper budgets. This time it's Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, home from a wedding reception and uncertain about their future together, menaced by three anonymous, masked baddies with unknown motivations.

I would describe The Strangers as an entertaining, well-crafted movie that I never need to see again. First-time director Bryan Bertino does a reasonably good job of establishing mood (it's a cliche, but I love the disjointed country music playing during an early scare scene), building suspense, and delivering shocks. The problem is that his screenplay doesn't offer anything of substance - the movie isn't about anything except scares and the idea that being terrorized will help a couple with their relationship problems.

I mean, come on, young filmmakers, give us a little subtext, or a theme, or something to show that you have a little personality to put into your chosen art. In its pared-down way, this movie is vaguely reminiscent of the original Halloween, in which the reasons for Michael Myers' killing spree were disturbingly absent, turning him into an inscrutable killing machine. But John Carpenter was smart enough to know that that very absence, articulated as a theme through dialogue and the performances of Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence, could itself be the subject of dread. In this movie, the fact that the killers are the same faceless, emotionless killing machines feels like a lack of imagination, or a reliance on an outdated formula. And it leads to this movie's unsatisfying ending, where Bertino seems to paint himself into a corner and give up. The movie works well enough as a ride, or an exercise, and Bertino seems to have the chops as far as camerawork and sound design go, he's just going to need to be a little more imaginative storywise for his next movie.


Thursday, June 05, 2008

Random tidbit

It probably goes without saying, but Beethoven's Fifth Symphony really is one of the greatest things anybody has ever created. Few pieces of art deserve the term 'perfect' but this is one of them.

Anybody else?

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Fall (2008)

In a hospital in 1920s Los Angeles, a little girl with a broken arm (Catinca Untaru) meets a stuntman (Lee Pace) confined to bed with a broken back after a movie stunt gone wrong. The stuntman starts to spin fantastic yarns to the little girl in order to trick her into friendship, while musing over his own future. That's the jumping-off point for Tarsem Singh's The Fall, the first feature from the commercial and music video director since 2000's The Cell, who largely funded this film himself when he couldn't find other buyers.

The drama that follows is like a more weighty version of The Princess Bride or The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - the stuntman is ostensibly telling a story to entertain the little girl, but really he's just trying to win her over (SPOILERS!) in order to get her to bring him pills so he can off himself. Meanwhile, we see the stories he's telling visualized in Singh's own extravagant manner, as if we're inside the little girl's head. Good setup, right? Well, sort of.

The thing is, even though the movie has lavishly designed costumes and extravagant locations and spectacular vistas, my favorite thing in the whole movie was the semi-improvised performance from young Ms. Untaru. She's the movie's only real sign of life - for a movie that was a self-financed labor of love, the whole enterprise is curiously passionless and manufactured.

This is my way of saying that I don't find Singh's vision to be visionary as much as it is just sort of expensive and indulgent, an arbitrary mishmash of storybook whimsy and oppressively impressive designer exotica. For me, the thing about being a 'visionary' director is that a cinematic vision should be about more than picking spectacular landscapes and architecture, or costumes, and sticking them in front of the camera within a conventional story. It should be about showing us things we haven't seen before, feel things we haven't felt before, and for me this movie was a dressed-up retread. I'll give Singh credit for the aspects of the movie that do work, like the performances from Untaru and Pace and certain aspects of the reality/fantasy balance - he pulls off certain aspects and scenes that any old hack wouldn't be able to, even though the overall package is ultimately a failure.

PS: This movie, along with John Boorman's Zardoz and Gaspar Noe's Irreversible, has forever marked Beethoven's 7th Symphony, 2nd movement as the theme song for artistic pretentiousness. Thanks guys!


The Democratic Nomination Battle finally over, emphasis on finally, although I have to say that it's ultimately a good thing that it went on as long as it did - the Democrats got several hundred thousand more registered voters to the polls, plus fighting with Hillary Clinton has definitely made Barack Obama a better, tougher candidate, and it's pretty likely that she threw everything she possibly could at him short of the really offensive stuff (which I'm sure the Republicans have waiting in the wings).

But aside from all that, let's just take a second and realize how terrific it is that, for the first time in our nation's history, we will have a black man at the head of a major political party's ticket in November. It really is amazing, and inspiring.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Inside (2007)

Picked up and then dumped direct-to-video as a "Dimension EXTREME" title by the Weinstein Company, this French horror movie has gotten a lot of acclaim from reviewers as a modern classic along the lines of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Halloween; well, folks, I think it's good but I don't think it's quite that good.

Set on Christmas Eve, Inside gives us the very pregnant Sarah (Allyson Paradis), widowed after a recent car accident, sitting around, glum, waiting to give birth. Her lonely little world is broken up by an anonymous Woman (Beatrice Dalle) who, after a little stalking, moves into home invasion and assault with a pair of scissors to Sarah's navel. From that point it's like Die Hard in the womb, as The Woman announces her intention to steal the baby right from Sarah's still-warm body. A variety of characters who drop by to check on the pregnant Sarah wind up (of course) as statistics until it's only the two women left, destroying each other for survival and motherhood.

Like the other recent French horror movies Haute Tension and Ils (Them), Inside has plenty of suspense, action, and gore, but not a huge amount of substance underlying the carnage. There's some psychologizing, as we learn (SPOILERS!) that The Woman was the driver of the other car that killed Sarah's husband, and lost her own baby in the process, and thus has been waiting patiently until Sarah could come to full term for her revenge. But neither character is really developed beyond their archetypes. I like Inside, but in a lot of ways it feels like an exercise to me - made by filmmakers primarily interested in pushing the envelope of gore and intimate brutality (knife to the face, check; exploding head, check; on-camera Caesarian, check). Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's a little inherently limiting.

Basically, what separates this movie, for me, from the classics mentioned above or similar movies like Basket Case or Audition, is the poetry of horror, the ability to really dig deep into these terrible situations with empathy and emotion and pull resonant imagery out of them. Inside gets partway there but feels too impersonal to me, with a dud of an ending that I saw coming, to be considered a modern classic. Still, for its suspense and the high ugh-factor, it's recommended.