Friday, February 15, 2008

The End of Taste As We Know It?

Once again Jim Emerson has come up with a great post over at his Scanners Blog entitled "The End of Taste." Check it out.

Also, over at Cerebral Mastication, Ali Arkin writes up his thoughts...very good blog, check it out.

As for my thoughts on the topic, I don't quite know yet. I think I need some more time to think about it. But I will ask this: am I any less of a film connoisseur because I may think that RoboCop is on the same level as say...a Truffaut film?

Do you we as moviegoers put too much weight and importance on certain films because critics (or others) classify them as high art? Can I be just as entertained by Lucio Fulci as I could if I were watching a Fellini film? I say yes.

I think that we all evolve as lovers of music, film, art, etc. and in doing so we still carry with us the things we love from our early stages of fandom. I can honestly say I don't know if I would be where I am today as a lover of film without the crappy John Woo action movies that I watched countless times as a 7th grader. Would I have been able to enjoy some of the references and layers of Tarantino's Kill Bill films had not studied the dreck?

I mean Woo has talent, don't get me wrong, but I did watch Hard Target before Hard Boiled, The Killer, and A Better Tomorrow. So before I discovered his good stuff, I thought his most horrible film starring the Muscles from Brussels, was simply awesome. I had never seen action done like that before, and I had never seen slo-mo used so much. Also, I was able to see the origins of the two-people-pointing-guns-at-each-other-at-the-same-time gimmick. When Face/Off came out, I thought I had seen the greatest movie ever, and I went through and watched his film, especially The Killer, about 30 times.

Funny how much our tastes can evolve.

After seeing Face/Off I wanted to know as much about John Woo as I could, so I read interviews he gave. One of the things he mentioned was a great French film that inspired him for The Killer called Le Samourai. I didn't even know who Jean-Pierre Melville was, but I was determined to seek out this film to see what could have possibly inspired my favorite action movie.

I couldn't find the film anywhere, but rather than give up I held out hope, and in the Summer of my 8th grade year, to my complete shock in a tiny little video store in Sunriver, OR I found a copy of Le Samourai.

I rented it and watched it...and waited...and waited...for anything, something to happen...and nothing did. What the crap was this? Where was the action? But I did watch the whole thing, and when it was over I couldn't believe that I had found myself completely hypnotized by the story. This wasn't an action movie, and after watching it a second time I finally saw what John Woo saw: an introspective story about an isolated hitman.

I had an epiphany and realized that with music and dialogue, through subdued acting and muted action, a filmmaker could portray his point without the cheesy slo-mo action scenes and Michael Bay-esque camera spins to make actions seem interesting. A film connoisseur had been born.

At this time, speaking of Michael Bay, I went and saw The Rock in the theater. I hated it. Every moment of it's epic two and a half hours. I remember sitting in theater and just waiting for the movie to wasn't anything like Speed which gave the illusion like it was longer than it actually was with its three different short films in one two hour movie. No, The Rock was just excruciating and painful to sit through. For the first time I had begun to feel the effects of Melville and Le Samourai and I started to see the films I loved so much (I was such a huge action nut) through a different, more critical lens. I started to ask myself, there has to be something more to movies besides this?

The funny thing is, now I can look at a film like The Rock and watch numerous times for how awful it is. I can appreciate the film on a whole different, not so critical, level. I think with age I have been able to appreciate not just the campiness of films like The Rock but also that maybe they shouldn't be taken so seriously, and now I see that it's okay for me to like a really bad action movie by Michael Bay, and a serious French Noir film by one of the great filmmakers of all time, Jean-Pierre Melville.

I can think of some movies where I have done the opposite as well...reversing my original feelings of praise towards the film and turning it into a hatred because so many people go through life still thinking that movies like The Professional, The Fifth Element, The Usual Suspects, and American Beauty are still "great" movies. I remember thinking that Luc Besson was the next big thing and I wacthed The Professional and La Femme Nikita as nauseum. Now I cannot even bring myself to watch any of his films. Looking back on those two movies I can see what I saw as a middel school film buff, but today, they leave me feeling empty.

Interesting, no?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Pointless Oscar predictions!!!

Short post today:

Best Picture: No Country For Old Men
Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood)
Best Actress: Julie Christie (Away From Her)
Best Director: Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood)
Best Screenplay (Original): Diablo Cody (Juno)
Best Screenplay (Adapted): Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy)
Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem (No Country For Old Men)
Best Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchett (I'm Not There)
Best Editing: Roderick Jaynes (No Country For Old Men)
Best Cinematography: Roger Deakins (No Country For Old Men)
Best Animated Feature: Ratatoullie (Brad Bird)
Best Documentary: No End in Sight

All the other technical and music awards I have no idea...I am sure that song from Once will win for best song, and I am sure that No Country For Old Men will some other technical awards...but as far as short films and the like...I have no clue.

There are my predictions, I'll watch just to see how many I got long as the ceremony doesn't take 5 hours. And no Whoopi please...who's hosting this thing anyway?

Who I think will win and who I want to win are two different stories. I would like to see Ellen Page win for Best Actress, and I would like to see (even though Day-Lewis was amazing) George Clooney win for Michael Clayton, one of my very favorite movies of the year.

This really feels like one of those years where they spread the love with the awards. I remember when Steven Soderbergh won Best Director for Traffic, and I was so stoked because I thought maybe it could win Best Picture, too. But it lost out to the giant turd known as Gladiator.

Lucky for us, this year doesn't have a giant turd of a movie like that nominated. It looks like the Academy did a wise thing and nominated some dark and unconventional films. So I think that they reward Paul Thomas Anderson for There Will Be Blood, much like they rewarded Soderbergh for Traffic. I would have thought that Atonement was a sure thing for the Oscar, but it has little to no buzz going in, and the very opposite and very American, No Country For Old Man has stolen all of its early season thunder. Which is good. It would be too easy for the Academy to give the award to a ready-made picture like Atonement (which I liked quite a bit), which is like The English Patient, circa 2007. When you watch the movie it just screams Best Picture Oscar...but I am glad that the more ambiguous and darker No Country For Old Men seems to be the current front runner.

I want No Country to win all of the technical awards, and I wouldn't be surprised if it does. Although, Atonement or There Will Be Blood could steal some away.

The biggest losers of the night are the Documentary and Animated Feature categories. The people that nominate titles for this category (I have a feeling) don't even watch the movies, but look at box office numbers to decide for them. No End in Sight was a great documentary, and Sicko was average, but to not nominate Into Great Silence! That is a crime. (Although, one doc I haven't seen, Taxi to the Dark Side, is supposed to be amazing...)

And then to the geniuses who nominate the animated features: do you even know what good animation is? I mean, I guess it doesn't matter because whenever Brad Bird has an animated feature up for an award, he'll win every time, but nominate Surf's Up over The Simpson's movie may be one of the biggest blunders I have ever seen from the nomination committee. Surf's Up was an average movie at best with average animation, whereas The Simspon's Movie, looked like a big screen animated feature, not something you could get for free on cable tv.


Oh well...there are my pointless Oscar predictions for 2007!!!

Tuesday, February 5, 2008


I have nothing really to say about this film that Matt over at The House Next Door hasn't already said. So I will just link you to his article.

I will only add that the movie is a full blown catastrophe. Not until the final 15-20 minutes can you really be "exhilarated" by the action going on. The film is so bloody, so gruesome and gory that it's hard to be entertained by it.

I laughed out loud at a lot of the violence at the end. Once Rambo gets a hold of a giant gun he begins to mow people down and shred their bodies with bullets. The scene is so lazy (Rambo doesn't do anything, he just sits there and shoots action, yet this is an action movie) and it's also hilarious because it goes on for so long.

Now the bad...I mean really bad, is that Stallone wanted to have it both ways with this film. Much like I mentioned in my other Rambo reviews, Stallone was trying to make a serious film about how post Vietnam vets deal with life after the war. However in this installment of Rambo, Stallone wishes to make into Schindler's List, showing gruesome stock footage and recreated scenes of Burmese women and children being stabbed, shot, raped, and forced to run through mine infested rice patties. Ugh. It's so ugly it made me feel uncomfortable watching it, because I know that the film didn't have a serious bone in its body. All of this stock footage and gory footage just serves as fodder so that Stallone can establish that these people are bad, and Rambo is good, and the only thing to do in order to change anything is to kill them all and show it in an even more gruesome way.

Also, it seems that Mr. Woo's flesh eating hogs from Deadwood also make an appearance.

Also, I love how at the end Rambo just looks at the missionaries (after some of the missionaries had been killed, and one even turned into a killer) with a "I told you so" glare that sends a clear and obvious message to the viewer.

The parallels between Iraq II and the tyrannical Burmanese General and how he is dealt with are apparent. But read Matt's blog about it over at The House Next Door, because he does a great job (much better than I could ever hope) of explaining why the film is so atrocious and ugly in its politics.

Monday, February 4, 2008

How does film make you feel?

There is a great discussion going on right now at Jim Emerson's Scanners blog (the best film blog out there) about how we react to film. Do we react because of how it makes us feel? Or do we react because of how good the film looks? These questions and others are raised by Jim and others in the comments. It's a good discussion for any film buff to read. One of the main points Jim is making is that if he goes to see a movie with someone they may react the same to what is on the screen, but the real reaction, the important one perhaps, is how we react to the film going on in our heads.

When we see a film it registers with some part of brain; either the emotional or analytical. Of course both can be affected. When I watch Bergman or Fellini, I understand that what I am seeing is a master at work. There are images and film techniques that I will not see from other filmmakers, yet I am also moved by the story. My film professor from Western Oregon always says that, for him, in order for a film to fully succeed it must not just be aesthetically appealing, but it also is in need of a narrative; characters involved in a story where it is worth our time investing in those two hours.

There are a lot of movies I can appreciate for their aesthetics. There is a big movement right now with independent film that is proving this. The likes of Michel Gondry, Julie Taymor, Wes Anderson, David Fincher, etc. are all making movies that are visually alive, stimulating, even original. However I rarely find myself caring for any of the characters in a Wes Anderson film. Gondry's The Science of Sleep is like Fincher's The Game, Fight Club, and Alien 3; a good looking movie that sucks. Taymor made the visually appealing Titus and Across the Universe (which I haven't seen, but what I can gather from critics is that it is visually appealing and nothing more), but where those films fail for is that they lack a narrative that involves me, something that makes me say, it was worth my time investing in these characters and their journey. So I grow weary of the quirky set pieces and odd behavior (another reason why I don't like Terry Gilliam) of recent avant garde cinema because when I am finshied watching one of those films, I find that all I can discuss are the aesthetics of the film. There is no emotion when I talk about or write about the film. However, when I see something like a Bergman film or Fellini's 8 1/2 or Jim Jarmusche's Stranger Than Paradise (a truly independent film, both in style and narrative) I am moved by both aspects of the film: the aesthetic and the narrative. Both remain in my memory for much longer than Fight Club or The Science of Sleep, because there is an emotional reaction to what I have just seen. There is nothing moving about Fight Club, but I will never forget about the images from Stranger Than Paradise, Winter Light, 8 1/2, or Cries and Whispers.

I am not ragging on the directors above; in fact it might be quite unfair of me to place them alongside such giants as Bergman and Fellini (in fact David Fincher claimed the top spot on my top 10 list this year with his Zodiac). I think what I am trying to get at is that there is a certain criteria for film to register both emotionally and aesthetically. Films like Crash and Million Dollar Baby or something like House of Sand and Fog are good films, but they exist solely for the purpose of affecting our emotions; there is hardly anything aesthetically memorable about those films, we remember them because they either touch us deeply, or temporarily are able to prey on our emotions and evoke sadness from how the film unfolds.

Often I react to a film immediately, even though I may be thinking about the film for days afterwards, I will have a pretty confident opinion if what I saw was something that is worth thinking about or not. I sometimes fall into the all-too-easy trap of hyperbole; claiming certain films are the "best" or "worst" of something I have seen in (insert arbitrary number of years here). When I think about a film like Million Dollar Baby or Crash (two films I did like) compared to some of my favorite films that came out this year: No Country For Old Men, Zodiac, Eastern Promises, Into Great Silence, Breach, etc., there is no comparison; the latter films win hands down. They resonate with me still, not just because they freshest in my mind, but because they contain elements that affect both crucial parts of my film-going sub-consciousness. Even though DVD's of Million Dollar Baby and Crash sit on my bookshelf at home, I haven't revisted them in almost two years.

One film I was thinking of that applies here is There Will Be Blood. Having just seen the film I have been asking myself ever since I left the theater: Did I really care about what happened in that film? I don't know if I have an answer yet, although in my review of the film much of it was expository, relaying much of the basic plot points, perhaps in an attempt to try and figure out through writing whether or not I was emotionally involved in that picture.

But every time I wanted to care about There Will Be Blood I felt like Paul Thomas Anderson was slapping me (like Eli slaps Daniel) in the face and saying: No! Look at my movie, don't care about the characters. The ending still has no affect on me whatsoever; the only thing I can say about it is that it strikes the right note in how abrupt and sardonic it is.

I think it is possible for films visuals to speak for themselves and create emotion. Once again I return to Stranger Than Paradise and a scene where they are staring out onto a frozen lake. The visual itself speaks volumes towards their journey, their feelings, and the minimalism of the film. It is a brilliant shot that explains through visual exposition what the characters are feeling, and just like Bergman, it creates genuine emotion through imagery.

I often have conversations with many friends, most of whom claim they just want to be "entertained" by movies. There all different types of moviegoers, and that's what so great about the medium. How the images and words get from the screen into our subconscious and how we unscramble those images and words and but them in place to form an opinion in one of the great things about watching a film and having an opinion on it. Some of my friends just want me to tell them whether or not they would like the movie. That's impossible to do. I may have somewhat of an understanding based on previous movies they have liked, or certain genres they feel akin to, but it is impossible to truly say that you will or will not like a certain movie. It's all about how you decipher the code when it's in your brain, and what you choose to remember about it. And how does it make you feel?

That is a question that only the filmgoer can answer. When my friend Mark went and saw The Descent with some of my other friends Kyle, Stacey, and Josh; I could have probably guessed based on the genre that maybe they wouldn't have liked the movie. But a couple days before they went and saw it, Mark heard me raving about it. That was my reaction to it. I personally found the film to be many things; a great horror film that penetrated my fears of entrapment and being enclosed in tight spaces. I also found it to be a touching film about the loss of a child, and how for this woman, the only way she was ever going to get back to her child was to plunge the deep and the dark. Just like the cave, she had to dive down within her own memories and personal demons, but what she finds is that life without her daughter is a life not worth living, so for the entire film she is just finding ways to get back to her daughter. The film ends (you can only see this ending on the DVD, for some reason they cut the real ending out of the American release) with a heartbreaking shot of her facing her daughter with a cake (an image that appears numerous times in the film), they are "looking" at each other (Sarah has now taken on the characteristics of a "crawler") but never in the same frame. As the camera slowly zooms out you see her facing nothing but the darkness. The camera continues to pull out slowly, Sarah is there surrounded by darkness, and the sounds of the creatures lurking above. It's an ambiguous shot as the camera fades to black with noises of the creatures above, is what we just witnessed all a dream? Did it happen the way we think it did? Have those final moments after Sarah fell down even happened yet? Remembering the set up, one of the girls tells Sarah that you begin to see things in the caves, your mind plays tricks on you, and that final shot moved me and frightened me. It was a perfect ending, both aesthetically and emotionally.

But I can understand why Kyle, Josh, Mark, and Stacey didn't like it. Maybe they aren't horror fans, maybe they didn't like the pacing of a British horror film, maybe the ending with all of the creatures was a little too crazy. I don't know, the great thing is only they can understand their reasoning for not liking the film, and all they can do (like me) is react honestly. The way I feel about a film doesn't mean others will react with the same positivity, negativity, or neutrality, that I do. The Descent is a perfect example of this.

Anyways, head over to Emerson's blog and read the discussion. I went a little off topic with what they are discussing over there, but it's a fun discussion, so check it out.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Random blurbage on random films...

The Namesake

Mira Nair's film based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri is beautiful to look at, but I am afraid it is nothing more than that. I wasn't particularly moved by the film, although I was certain I was seeing something worth investing my emotions in. However, a lot of it just seemed very formulaic and sitcomy. I liked the performances and I liked the early relationship of Gogol (Kal Penn) and his father, and the story about how is parents came from Calcutta to New York City. To me that was the most interesting part of the story, the first hour or so really works, but it falls apart in the third act when Gogol (going by Nick, since he doesn't want to be called by , what he thinks, is a weird first name anymore) seperates from his likeable and understanding girlfriend, and marries an Indian woman in order to make his mother happy. This dynamic is interesting at first as we get some profound commentary on the roles of women in Indian culture, and how Gogol just thinks that his mother would want him to marry "one of their own" as his aunt puts it.

I wish they would have abandoned the relationships problems between Gogol and his new Indian wife and would have explored the deeper emotions and problems that Gogol's mother has with him so easily falling into tradition, when he was so hell-bent on breaking free from it (something she wishes she could have done). To me, the mother is the most interesting character in the film, she is marginalized by her husband (who is compassionate, but upon leaving India for New York City, repeats the mantra to friends and family that "she'll get used to the city") and expected to be nothing more than an Indian woman. Sadly, the story marginalizes her by the end of the film, and where there really could have been an epiphany between mother and son; they opt to have that moment for the not so shocking scene in the car between Gogol and his father, which reveals the origins of Gogol's name.

It's too hit and miss in the third act, and a lot of the emotional oomph is predictable. However, it is still worth seeing for that first hour and the cinematography is beautiful as the great Frederick Elms (he shot one of my favorite films of the 90's The Ice Storm) shoots the film in a washed out almost black and white look and distracts you long enough in the third act to where you are too busy noticing the beautiful filmmaking, to realize you are watching an ending (to an otherwise good movie) with about as much emotional power as a Lifetime movie.

The Bourne Ultimatum

Well, this is my least favorite of the three. It has its moments (like the extended car chase where not a word of dialogue is spoken, that was awesome) and some good performances (once again Matt Damon does a lot with so little and adding David Strathairn to the mix only helped) but overall I was glad the series was coming to a close. I got my fill of Jason Bourne at about the half way mark of the second film, also directed by Paul Greengrass (and scripted by Michael Clayton director Tony Gilroy), which frustrated me beyond belief because not only could I not keep up with the action, I couldn't understand why they were fighting. The camera work in this film is much like the second, so shaky and so feverish that I just wanted to slow it down and watch a frame at a time. Fight scenes in movies that pose as intelligent spy thrillers are only relevant if the audience understands why the protagonist needs to fight. It's hardest to get a grasp on that knowledge (apart from the very basic "they are after me" storyline of the Bourne films) in the third entry.

It's been a good run and I like that the trilogy offered something a little fresher and cleverer than what the genre usually churns out. But I was glad when this film was over that it was the last time I would have to sit through the shaky cam action stylings of Jason Bourne.


Billy Ray's film is a clinic in how to make a smart political thriller. Much like Michael Clayton (my pick for the fourth best film this year, had I seen this at the time I made my list, I would have made them both #4, as they share so many elements), Breach is in the tradition of such great thrillers as The Falcon and the Snowman and 3 Days of the Condor. It excels in the basic understanding that the audience is smart enough to enjoy a thriller that is thrilling based on character development, crisis of conscience, deception, and guilt that just build and builds until a conclusion that is not only a satisfying payoff, but also ambiguous and frustrating in the same way that the tete-a-tete at the end of Zodiac is.

The film is about the accounts of Eric O'Neil, an ambitious FBIer looking to make agent. He is assigned the seemingly boring duty of being watch dog over a perverted, religious, soon-to-be retired Agent, Robert Philip Hanssen. O'Neil (played by the surprisingly good Ryan Phillippe) thinks it's a junk job, a waste of his talents. Watching for perverted mannerisms is not his cup of tea. Hanssen (the criminally underappreciated Chris Cooper) is pushed into a small office while the FBI higher-ups investigate him (O'Neil thinks they are just investigating Hanssen for his unpopular personal online hobby), but in fact he is being marginalized so that he may not have access to the files he once did, you know, seeing how he was selling them to the Soviets and all.

The film tells us that this was the greatest breach in the history of American security. There is a moment when they strip down Hanssen's car and the things they find are pretty incredible. But the film succeeds because they don't look to villainize Hanssen (he did a good job of that himself) rather, Ray and Cooper make a smart decision to portray the troubled traitor as a complex character; deeply religious and devout not to just his God, but his family as well. He is like a grand inquisitor, always sizing people up and never quite sure of a situation, but he isn't paranoid. He looks normal, like any other suit in the organization, a drone if you will, driving his Ford Taurus, he is hardly recognizable. It is in this portrayal of Hanssen, that the film is most intriguing.

As O'Neil slowly begins to realize the "why" he must learn how to concentrate on the "who", as in who is Hanssen? Earlier in the film there is a crisis of conscience as O'Neil feels like the FBI is ragging on this guy for his immoral vices.

What I liked about the film was that Ray decides not to try and explain Hanssen, rather he paints a portrait of a man that felt disrespected and did something to show his superiors just how good of a spy he was.

Religion also plays a large role in the film. It is used not to cleanse, but rather to deceive, and one has to wonder if the last line of the film isn't a joke. Is there any sincerity in the prayers of Hanssen and O'Neil? It seems to me that they use the device as a means for deception, rather than any form of spiritual revelation.

This blurb has already gone on way too long, but there is so much to explicate with the religious themes in the film. Billy Ray is a talented director, his previous film, Shattered Glass, shares many similarities with this one. That film was also about deception (and it also got a surprisingly good performance from a bad actor, Hayden Christiansen), but it had a much more pathetic, yet likeable liar. It was at least understandable why Stephen Glass fabricated his stories. With Hanssen, there is no starting point in trying to understand why he did what he did. Much like the frustration felt in Zodiac, Breach also builds upon the audiences frustration that Hanssen keeps things so close to his chest, he never blows up and reveals his intentions, he never lets on why he gave so much information to what calls "that godless country."

However, the miracle of it all is that Cooper's brilliant performance and Ray's understanding of the material, having treaded similar ground already, is that (much like Stephen Glass) they turn Hanssen into a likeable enough person. By the end of the film, when he utters that last line to O'Neil, you can't help but be moved by this request from a man we have no business feeling sympathy for. It's one of the best films of 2007.