Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Speed Lovers

Looks like we've got ourselves another theme week! Unlike the first time, this one is the result of a double feature. For some reason, I have two car racing based B-movies here, and the first one up on the plate is The Speed Lovers.

Once upon a time, writer/director/actor - and I use those terms quite loosely - William F. McGaha stumbled on some stock footage of a stock car race along with a stock car race driver named Frank Lorenzen. So, he decided that he'd use that opportunity to make a name for himself and a film he could star in. The auteur thus strung together a story about himself, as Scott, a car racing hopeful who has never actually raced before. While real car racers generally work at it from childhood, steadily improving their skills and getting into bigger and more powerful vehicles, he somehow believes that he can suddenly be the best racing driver in the world, instantly. He's looped into a highly ridiculous scheme run by Victoria and a fat guy - Peggy O'Hara an David Marcus - to make money and screw over real life racing driver Lorenzen.

The race footage is pretty solid, if disjointed. Lots of action, crashes, all of that fun stuff. Sure, the races aren't really easy to follow, but is pretty interesting. Surprisingly enough, Lorenzen is a better actor than one might expect for a racing driver. No, wait, that's not quite right, he really isn't a very good actor at all, where did I get that idea? Oh right, it's because everyone else is very bad at acting. It's like listening to the conversations of a forest, everything's wooden. The shining star of bad acting is McGaha, who doesn't seem to quite know his lines - which he wrote. The best part is that he gives himself the opportunity to be drunk, and dance, even though the concepts of drunkenness and dancing seem to be completely alien to him, like explaining the idea of swimming to a man in the desert.

His script is similarly well executed. The dialog manages to be both overly expository yet astonishingly vague. We're never given more than the roughest idea of what anyone or anything is, but that rough explanation is repeated constantly. Combined with the poor delivery and awkward phrasing, and it's like being bludgeoned with a particularly dull tree. Plus, the hero is amazingly unsympathetic. He's got an ego, he's annoying, he's a drunk, he screws everyone over, and he's an asshole. Yet, we're supposed to pull for him. Contributing to the joyous crap parade is some hilariously inept sexism. Characters are constantly saying things about how useless women are, dropping the lines with as much verve as everyone else in the film.

Oh, but crappy dialogue isn't the only wonder on display. We have a film about speed that never really leaves hotel rooms. But maybe that would be okay if the hotel rooms were filmed well, right? Well, after bringing together his racing relics McGaha seemingly had no money on such basic implements like a tripod. The camera simultaneously moves constantly and not at all. The framing is static, but the camera never stops shaking. Truth be told, the racing stock footage is good, but one can instantly tell where the stock ends and the footage shot for the film begins.

The theme song is remarkably annoying as well, though I like the band they got to perform it. Why? The same reason I love Cheap Trick, the drummer looks like an insurance salesman.

McGaha was a man with a dream, he wanted to be a star. He wanted to be a triple threat, a writer, director and actor. Unfortunately, his direction is inept, his writing is comically awful and the less said about his acting the better. It's a bad movie, poorly done in every conceivable manner. Let's all just forget about it yet again. Until next time, where we have the other half of this double feature.

Yet I'm intrigued to see that he went on to play Jesus (!) as the leader of a biker gang (!!) doing LSD (!!!). I wonder how bad that is.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Bright Young Things

Merry Christmas to all. Now, were this a project with which I had more than a passing influence in the films discussed, this would be a time to bring out some Christmas film. Alas, that is not the case, and true to the random word in the title, the film today really has nothing at all to do with Christmas. What it does have, however, is a quite interesting chap named Stephen Fry, and his directorial debut Bright Young Things.

This begins as a joyously absurd and lightly dark comedy, focusing on Stephen Campbell Moore as Adam, a young writer who wants nothing more than to be married to Nina (Emily Mortimer). Unfortunately, in the process he loses the book he's writing, and each time he runs into a bit of good fortune it's cruelly snatched away by circumstance. He hangs around high society folk like Agatha (Fenella Woodgar) and Miles (Michael Sheen). In the beginning, it is all gaudy spectacle, which gradually gets stripped away as the film progresses and gets steadily more serious.

It's an interesting twist in tone that the film has. The beginning is all splendid superficiality, going through rather beautifully shot parties and keeping the story grounded in money concerns and increasingly farcical ways of losing that money. The characters are silly, for the most part, but an endearing silly, and if they do excessive amounts of drugs and party too much, that's really quite fine. They're not really deep people, but they are endearing, which is vital for the film to maintain its interest as the tone gradually becomes more serious. As the tone changes the characters steadily shows the layers of their personality it feels like looking in on new friends as they reveal their personality.

It's a sublimely chaotic film, which nicely captures the feel of non-stop partying and copious drug use. It is a little absurd, but a good party always is, and it's fun to follow the characters and events as they drift around and with each other. It can be read as a critique on our current obsession with fame and glory, but in the process it humanizes the famous. It does have some odd tonal shifts - especially since the primary storyline rests on some odd absurdities - but it seems completely natural in context, and is frequently very funny.

Another odd thing is that it manages to have every single British actor in a minor role. Perhaps this is a symptom of everyone in the world liking Stephen Fry, but it is quite bizarre that a nation of performers have showed up for a line or two. Surrounded by the immense talent, Fenella Woodgar and Stephen Campbell Moore manage to hold their own in their first feature. Moore in particular carries the put upon Adam with an air of confidence, even as things go badly for him. One never gets the sense of him giving up, no matter how badly things are going.

It's an interesting case where it one gets absorbed through fun and begins to care more as the film becomes more serious. It's really like friendship overall in the end, people hanging out at first in good times and beginning to care as things get more serious and less lighthearted. Fry manages to make a film that's breezy and compelling, and in the end quite fun to watch for the most part. Yes, things get quite deadly serious, and having the spectacle stripped away leads to a rather interesting moral in the final scene, but as a whole, it's a nice place to spend time, and a decidedly enjoyable thing to watch. I'm not sure why Fry hasn't made more films, but I'd like to see him do it again, he knows what he's doing, and how to make something splitting between comedy and sadness seem completely natural. Perhaps a Christmas gift for next year?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Henry V

One of the strange things about this project is that I seem to introducing important people in their worst moment. I've mentioned previously how Pixar was introduced with their worst moment, but now we've got Henry V, which features two names seen previously, and not in a great light. The film was made by and stars Laurence Olivier, whose first appearance here was in the 49th Parallel, where he was the most annoying character in the world. It's also an adaptation of Shakespeare, who previously showed up in a really ridiculous adaptation of MacBeth. Here's a much better showcase for both men.

Henry V is about Henry V, if the title wasn't obvious already. He is the king who was in charge in the Battle of Agincourt, wherein the British came from a disadvantage in numbers to kick some serious ass. It's like 300, if it was real and, you know, not shit. Anyway, given that this was war time, and the British could use a morale boost, it seemed like a good idea to remind everyone of a massive victory they once had.

Being Shakespeare, as one might expect, the story is quite good. The strongest moments, however, have little to do with Henry's bravado but instead his quiet contemplation and uncertainty. The best scene overall is one where Henry goes among his men the night before battle. The uncertainty among the men and the mixture of anticipation and dread is deftly handled. As the king confronts what his subject thinks of him, it shows a certain vulnerability and uncertainties in his own character, and keeps him likable and more than just a man with big speeches and a bigger sword. Another great scene is at the end, where Henry tries to woo Princess Katherine (Renee Asherson). Olivier plays on his uncertainty and unfamiliarity with the situation almost as much as Shakespeare does in the play, giving a character played as a hero for two hours some degree of humility, reducing him to a scared teenager in front of a pretty girl. It's a genius moment, and ensures the character never gets too big.

So it should be noted that this is actually a very odd and fairly experimental approach to filmmaking. In the beginning, it seems like a documentary on theatre production, albeit in the 1600s. It begins in the Globe Theatre, complete with audience, characters changing costume behind the scenes, and even a freaking laugh track. It's a bizarre way to begin a film, and completely unexpected. As the film progresses and the drama heightens, the scene gradually gets more realistic and the rest of the theatre fades away steadily. Eventually, we get to the innovative yet imperfect final battle, which is purely on location, before ending in the theatre yet again.

It's a neat trick to use, since it sums up what good theatre can do. As you get into the characters and the story, one begins to feel their imagination take over, and the show achieves a heightened reality. The film is a representation of how good theatre can take hold of an audience. It becomes the most real as the tension gets highest, and comes down as we prepare to leave it behind.

It isn't entirely perfect - the battle scene is quite chaotic, and it becomes clear something like that had never been filmed so they weren't sure what they were doing - but every imperfection brings with it an interesting and influential move - in that same battle scene, there's a cloud of arrows, something seen in every film with archers seen since. Olivier clearly hasn't directed a film before, and uses that inexperience to experiment and try different approaches to making film. He is unencumbered by experience, which leads to many interesting ideas which more established people might feel were a bit too, well, crazy to work. Here, most of the time, they do, and it's quite fascinating to watch.

I've said it before, but Shakespeare needs to be performed for people to really understand it. This adaptation, of the ones I've seen, is one of the better ones, using gimmicks to get past the slower parts and getting to the core of why the play is still interesting. Plus, it was a morale boost when Britain needed it most, there's nothing wrong with that.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Assault on Precinct 13

I have already named the most annoying director (Zack Snyder) and the most interesting director (Werner Herzog). Who is the most badass director? That would have to be John Carpenter. While I've seen a mere three of his films - Escape from New York, the Thing, and now Assault on Precinct 13 - I have come to the conclusion that nobody can make a more consistently badass movie.

The trouble with neatly summarizing the plot of this film is that anything but the most basic description of the story undermines what makes it great. Since the main event is right there in the title - technically it's Precinct 9, Division 13, but it does get very assaulted - the movie plays on you knowing that, at some point in the next 90 minutes, some serious crap is going down. Since you don't know exactly what's going to happen, it slowly builds and introduces characters, without giving any indication of how they will play into the overall film. There's a gang of hard thugs that stab themselves, the black Andy Griffith (Austin Stoker), a father (Martin West) and daughter (Kim Richards), a bus with death row prisoners - one of whom is treated as more dangerous than the others (Darwin Johnson), one who is more energetic (Tony Burton) and the guy who is watching them (Charles Cyphers) - and the people in the police station itself, including the badass Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) and the annoying Julie (Nancy Kyes). Eventually, they all converge on the mostly abandoned Precinct 9, District 13, which is open for one final night.

Until the actual assault happen, the film is happy to just bide its time. It knows that you know something is going to happen, so it updates the time and keeps track of the characters, sometimes underlining moments with a badass synth score which would feel very at home on the Genesis, if the Genesis wasn't from the future. It toys with the audience, as it knows exactly what you expect. When things start to happen, it's a shock just because you don't expect them to happen that way.

The shootout itself keeps that intensity by restricting the perspective to the protagonists. You feel as though you are standing with them in the mostly abandoned police station. While you have a bit more insight onto the reasons for the attack, the methods and exact approach the villains are going to take remains a mystery. The one thing that you can tell for certain is that bad things are going to happen, just like the characters.

Of course, in all this tension we don't really learn much about the characters. Unlike movies where people decide to share their entire backstory in intense shootouts, here we only learn how characters handle pressure. Some are better than others - Julie is not very good, for example - and we see characters who shouldn't be friends bonding over gunplay and a shared threat. We even grow fond of the characters because we feel as though we're in the same situation. After the smoke clears - quite literally - we move on our way.

I can see someone disliking the unresolved ending, and I can see some people wishing for more than crash boom bang against some mostly ill defined - though clearly evil - characters. That's fine, but I like that Precinct 13 ignores all the regular trappings of an action film, and focuses instead on what people really want. Action and tension, everything else pared to the bone. That's how you do it if you're a badass. No wonder it was made by the most badass director.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Last time I spoke of Pixar, I had the misfortune of landing probably their worst feature. It's unfortunate because I really do love Pixar. I like how they don't talk down to their audience, how they make movies that people of all ages can enjoy, and how they take unexpected ideas and make interesting films about them. Yes, I called Cars' premise something akin to Maximum Overdrive, but they've also made the most potentially queasy premise known to man - Rats in a kitchen, cooking your food, getting their little rat paws on all the herbs and spices - and made it into a charming and lovely romp. Yes, today is Ratatouille day.

The story goes that once there was a rat, named Remy. He, being more selective than other rats, wanted to be a chef, which was problematic because he's a rat. On one end, there are his rat brethren, who insist he be like them and eat garbage and do normal rat things. On the other end, there are humans, who are understandably uncomfortable around rats. Eventually, he finds an intermediary in the form of a man named Linguini, who can't cook but is easy to manipulate through his hair. He eventually takes over the restaurant of a disgraced chef who is also the Great Gazoo. This all leads to a climactic review by the renowned and a bit obnoxiously overplayed as evil Anton Ego, who inexplicably has a coffin shaped office and dresses in an angry black.

Actually, the Ego character was an odd one, because it's not what I would expect from either Pixar or Brad Bird. Pixar has been a critical darling since the beginning, mostly because they make movies for families that are always quite good. Bird also has been mostly charmed when it comes to critical standing, at least in recent years. He was on the Simpsons when it was everyone's favorite show, before making the Iron Giant, which everyone loved, and the Incredibles, which everyone loved even more. While there is certainly a bit of redemption late film, it's still somewhat anti-critic, and that seems a bit odd, considering that critics love Bird, want to marry him, and give birth to his children.

Of course, it's understandable everyone loves his films. It's got a positive message - no matter where you come from, it's possible to be great - and it doesn't talk down to his audience. His characters are charming and thoroughly drawn, the visuals are exciting and thrilling, and the attention to detail is amazing. Even better, here's someone who can make an action sequence, and the various chases that Remy is involved with are thrilling, exciting, and should be watched by all directors who are planning on filming a chase sequence in this day and age. He uses animation in ways that live action could never possibly manage.

Another great thing is the divide between rat world and human world is filmed in such a way that it is always clear whose perspective it should be viewed from. When watching from the rat's perspective, the world is larger than life, exciting and full of immense danger. From the perspective of man, it seems familiar, but it actually makes one almost envy the rats, just because they're living from a different world. It's a subtle thing that is vitally important in making the film as interesting as it is.

Like all Pixar films, and like all Bird films, the most important thing is that it trusts kids. The story is a little complicated, but it makes sense, is easy to follow, and it believes that kids can make sense of it. It is a world with danger, and it trusts kids to be okay with that. It tries all sorts of entertaining cinematic tricks and flourishes, and trusts that kids will keep entertained.

That's the success of the entire Pixar empire, and of this film in particular. By trusting kids, it makes the overall film enjoyable to everyone in the family. It, like the titular dish at the end of the film, manages to recall the joy of childhood for people of all ages, and brings back memories of things that might have been forgotten as people grow and change. This is what a family film should be, something that everyone can enjoy and get something out of, no matter how old they might be.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Zed and Two Noughts

A Zed and Two Noughts is a rare case where a film is clearly the product of personal obsessions but still somehow not unique. A picture that seems to be connected, both in style and content, to David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers (and, in fact, Peter Greenaway does claim that Dead Ringers was primarily based on his film), Z00 is strange, briefly unique (for a few years, at least) and oddly compelling.

The story is about Oswald and Oliver Bruce, played by Brian and Eric Deacon. The two brothers share much in common, both being biologists working for the same zoo. They also both lose their wives in a car accident involving a swan. In the process of grieving, they become obsessed with death and decay (we get to see several time lapsed sequences of decaying animals to underscore this), and fall in love with the amputee who survived the accident, played by Andrea Ferreol. As the events transpire, they get closer together, both literally and figuratively.

It's a fascinating picture, and unrelentingly weird. The contrast between evolution and decay, and people coming together and falling apart is well done, and certainly fascinating. The contrasts and relationships between characters and their physical bodies, along with everyone's continued dissatisfaction with the world and the pieces of it is a fascination.

Another interesting piece of the picture is the way Peter Greenaway commands the framing of scenes. There's an uncomfortable symmetry in scenes - which also mirrors the themes within the film - and his framing is not only beautiful and striking but also reflect on the themes of the film itself. Michael Nyman's score is another essential piece of the puzzle, since it creates a certain feeling of unease to an already singularly creepy film. Never before has the Teddy Bear's Picnic been so ominous.

I'm not sure what it was in the 80s that created a need for stories about the madness and interdependency of twins, but the brief existence of the sub-genre created the two most uncomfortable and odd films I have ever seen, both wildly original and decidedly nontraditional in both content and form. It's a film that makes one think, both about how films are made and the various themes the director is swinging towards. It's unapologetically odd, but I like it that way.

Also, a film from the 80s with decent film stock. Wow!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

After Hours

Going by the poster for After Hours you might expect it to be the 80s-est movie in the world. I'm not going to completely dissuade that notion, since it does suffer from typical 80s problems, that being standard awful 80s film stock.

The movie itself is quite odd. Paul, played by Griffin Dunne, is a data processor who meets a sexy young lady named Marcy, as played by Rosanna Arquette. Things go quite badly in numerous ways which get progressively stranger as the film goes on. As saying basically anything will ruin the surreal surprise.

The thing with After Hours is I can't quite make heads or tails of it. It's good, I can tell it's good, and I enjoyed watching it. I'm simply not sure why I liked it, or what it is about it that makes me so interested in the events as they happen. It's amusing and absurd, a feverish adventure through an insane world, and yet I have no idea why exactly I like it.

I suppose being a Martin Scorsese picture helps. Even in the 80s, Scorsese was a great director. Few people can manage to get such memorable images from awful 80s film stock, and he keeps the film moving at a quick, fun pace. It feels fresh, interesting and unique. The most important thing about a film like this is to keep the energy up, and it never really flags.

I'll also say that even if it uses my pet peeve film stock, it's often a striking looking film. Some of the shots are downright beautiful, giving a real environment a subtly surreal quality. This was managed on the horrible film stock that was in vogue in the 80s! I mean, that's a near impossibility, but here it is, an interesting looking and genuinely cool movie filmed in the 80s, with an awful neon logo.

I liked that it made fun of pretentious artists too, as we go around Soho visiting performing art shows and sculptors making paper mache men in agonizing poses. There's something wrong with the characters in the movie, and it's all possible because they're artists. Artists are generally weird and full of crap - I talk to artists on a regular basis, I know this - it's one of the most realistic aspects of the experience.

Beyond that? I just know I enjoyed watching it, I cared what happened - even after the main character was something of a jerk - and as it got more absurd I got more intrigued. That's great, if I'm just watching it for myself, but since I've got this little project going it seems somewhat inadequate.

It's a big struggle to do an entry on this film because I'm just ever so slightly confused by it. It's good, I know it's good, and I enjoyed it immensely, but I really can't figure out why. Maybe that's for the best, and maybe there's nothing wrong with that little hint of uncertainty. I know I like it, what else do I need to know?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

With the release of 2012 a couple weeks ago, comparisons between Roland Emmerich and Irwin Allen came running fast and furious. Appropriately enough, today we feature a film directed by Irwin Allen, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. There are plenty of similarities between the two. A gigantic threat to the world, an ensemble cast, science charitably described as shaky, and a certain obsession with the latest in special effects. Allen might not have had CGI, but he does have the best scale models 1960s dollars could buy.

Here, we've got an exciting new submarine, helpfully completely explained with an elaborate tour immediately at the beginning of the picture. Walter Pidgeon is Admeral Nelson, the man behind the submarine, which is big and exciting. Peter Lorre is his science partner guy. Robert Sterling is Captain Lee Crane, one of the many ruggedly handsome men on the crew. There's also Frankie Avalon, pop singer, doing stuff. Also doing stuff is Barbara Eden as a woman, Crane's girlfriend, who is there with Joan Fontaine to break up the sausage party. Miguel Alvarez is a survivor found on the ice played by Michael Ansara, who is a preacher who believes the end is nigh. Together, they live on the exciting submarine, when they discover that the sky is on fire because the Van Allen Radiation Belts weren't fully understood by the man writing the script. There's also Jimmy Smith, played by Mark Slade, whose fate can be determined immediately after he is introduced.

Voyage leans heavily on spectacle and novelty. The hope is clearly that people will be so amazed by things underwater that they can gloss over the things that aren't very interesting. It's clear that the sheer novelty of a heavily underwater movie was hoped to enthrall everyone, even if it wasn't an entirely great movie. There are lots of look at that moments, including a giant squid which gets on the cover of the DVD.

However, there's a problem, and that's pacing. In short, the pacing is no good. The first 20 minutes are entirely exposition. The next 20 minutes are also exposition, with a couple things happening. The vast majority of the picture entails explaining what is going on, what was going on, and what will be going on. Since the science involved doesn't actually have anything to do with real science, one gets tired of constant sequences of people sitting around talking in submarine sets.

That sitting in sets has the unfortunate effect of getting rid of the tension. While there's a world crisis going on. Cities are burning, humanity is on the brink of destruction, and there's a highly risky plan to save it. However, we are safely seated in a stable, sterile submarine with all of the fire and destruction being kept safely at an arms distance. No matter what's going on in the rest of the world, we aren't ever in danger, because the submarine of hopes and dreams never feels like it's in genuine trouble. Plus, the world loses contact quite early on, making it easy to forget the stakes. While the tension eventually spills over into the submarine - and the film gets much better as a result - it takes so long to happen one is forgiven if they bail before that happens.

It is a pretty interesting premise, and the idea of a small group of people in close quarters forced to execute a plan they don't completely trust under extreme duress is a smart one. The recent Battlestar Galactica series mined a lot of genuine tension and excitement out of this same situation. The moments very late in the film that mine this conflict show plenty of promise. It just takes too long to get there. While the last forty minutes might be exciting, and finally achieve the tension the film had, until that point, failed to, it's still after an hour of awkward exposition and flawed explanations.

There's also something really odd that doesn't help - there's too much space, both in the sets and between the actors on them. This ties in to my earlier complaint about the tension taking far too long to build, but I can't help that the tension would be increased if it was filmed in a way that was a bit more claustrophobic. Huge sets and huge distances between characters - combined with a camera that wants to take in the entire set and isn't especially dynamic - ruins the illusion of close quarters. If you set a movie in a sub and mine tension out of it, you want the characters to be getting in each others' way, or at least feel that they are. They don't really do that here, and it's a subtle but unfortunate issue.

Curiously, while I didn't particularly like the film, there's a lot of promise in the general idea. It takes a long time to get there, but that same last hour has a lot of interesting ideas I'd like to see someone explore more. In spite of the poor science, staid direction and the dreadful pacing, there's a good movie hidden in here.

I've never been able to say that about Roland Emmerich.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Watchmen

I hereby officially nominate Zack Snyder for the coveted position of most annoying film director. There have been challengers to the throne, certainly. Michael Bay and his frantic continuity-be-damned style, J.J. Abrams and his inability to frame shots and obsession with lens flare, both were certainly contenders for the throne, but I think with The Watchmen Snyder has officially proven that as directors go, nobody can top him for sheer, distracting and inept direction.

The Watchmen was a highly respectable comic book made by the highly insane Alan Moore. While it's a bit too complicated to be summarized neatly into one paragraph, it's essentially about a group of mask vigilantes in a 1980s teetering on the edge of nuclear war. Opening with the death of the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the situation is investigated by Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) who is somewhat sociopathic, and he believes that these vigilantes are being targeted. Then, a bunch of stuff happens, it's quite good. Snyder, naturally, misses the point completely.

Much has been made of the film's visual fidelity to the source novel. Indeed, Snyder does frame his shots almost exactly as the graphic novel does. However, there's one very important difference, and that is that there's a sense of grittiness in the novel. The world is run down, dust seeps into the old superhero materials, and it's weathered, broken, and decayed.

But Zack Snyder doesn't do decay. He is confused by grime, or proper film speed (more on that in a minute), so in spite of the precise framing, it doesn't actually look like the comic. It's all given a CGI sheen, with the faults polished away until everything gives off an unnatural shine. These are real people who suddenly look fake, living somewhere in the uncanny valley.

Speaking of the uncanny valley, the acting is...not good. Much has been made of Jackie Earle Haley's Rorschach, but I'm not sure. It seems like a voice, rather than a performance, and while he's not bad, it is a bit distracting. At least he's acting though, unlike the rest of the cast. Casting seems to be dictated by who looks most like the book's characters, not who can actually turn in a decent performance. Special note needs to go to Malin Akerman as the Silk Spectre part 2. It's shocking, in fact. A group of people speaking in their second language in Sukiyaki Western Django had a more convincing grasp of the English language than she does, and she moves like someone who is unfamiliar with what we humans call muscles. The problem is, none of the other actors are exactly convincing as human beings. One wonders if Snyder is even interested anything other than CG and slow motion.

That neatly brings me to the next big issue here, and that's how much of the film is in love with changing film speed. In 300, which I also hated, Snyder seemed to be obsessed with slow motion, so much so that it seemed like the film was being played at the wrong speed. Now, Snyder has discovered the fast forward button, so he has discovered how to make things go fast too. The opening fight scene is a prime example of this, which makes it feel as though a small child is playing with a remote control behind you. Even worse, since regular dialog does not suffer from Snyder's usual slow motion flourishes, it creates a break between the dialog and the silly action scenes. It doesn't matter that going normal speed and without gratuitous CGI blood and injury it would have been a better action scene, Snyder is so obsessed with his tricks and silly speed altering that he ignores what would make a good film. There's no rhyme or reason to it, it just emphasizes how artificial everything is, an how Snyder is committed to ruin otherwise decent sequences with visual tomfoolery.

In fact, it's quite interesting how, for a film marketed as the product of a "visionary director" how his vision makes everything worse. The story here is good, the images are well framed, and some of the juxtapositions of image and dialog are quite brilliant. All of those good things? Lifted directly from the book. It's a good book, and much of the goodness of it does get translated on screen. I will say that the music is mostly good - and, unexpectedly, mostly what I was listening to while reading the book - though I'm not completely sure Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah was particularly well used here - it's behind a sex scene and just seems wrong somehow, perhaps it just doesn't match the rhythm of the scene.

Truth be told, when I was reading it, I thought it was a fantastic book, but would be difficult to effectively translate to film. It's actually not a very action packed book, more focused on the after effects and people uncertain of what to do with themselves, packing in much highly necessary back story and different visual tricks. Excellent, but not exactly effective for a concise picture. Here, it's 3 hours long, and it's hard to imagine it being shorter.

Honestly, script wise, it's mostly faithful - the ending is altered, though only one change was really annoying - and with a different director and different actors, it might actually be a pretty good movie. Three hours or not, someone here actually gets the jist of the book, and the point. The main problem is that the director does not understand what the point is in the least, and every decision he makes hurts the film on some level. That's why I nominate him for the most annoying director. He's obsessed with visuals and making things "cool", but his supposed vision just takes away from all his projects.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Sukiyaki Western Django

I think the first film by Takashi Miike - director of today's entry, Sukiyaki Western Django I saw was one Dead or Alive, which ended with an absolutely insane final battle, where the two characters grabbed increasingly gigantic weapons, culminating in a bazooka. It was bizarre, and I got the sense that Miike ended the film that way because he could. That impression translates to the entire movie with Django. Miike is doing things because he can, though we do get some indication of why.

While I once said that Yojimbo was what would have been a western had Japan colonized the Americas, Django takes that idea and runs with it. Yojimbo, along with other westerns, and about a billion different pictures, are all referenced and played with here. We've got the story of two warring factions, one in red, one in white. Into town rides a lone gunman, Hideaki Ito. He enters the elaborate conflict between the two sides with both barrels, in sequences that feel quite heavily inspired by Yojimbo. On the way, we get references to the Tales of the Heike - a Japanese story I don't know much about - and Shakespeare's Henry VI.

Really though, this film references 100 years of film history, connecting it all together with one simple truth - in film, you can do anything you want. This seems to be the guiding principal behind Miike's entire cinematic oeuvre, and here we see him dabbling in pretty much everything he can think of. There's slapstick, silly jokes, romance, inventive, allusive, allegorical, and sometimes just plain beautiful imagery, tragedy and pure action. Anything that has been, and can be done with film is done here, and one can't help but get taken away with it.

Not that it's perfect, in fact there's one glaring fault. See, we have a movie that was made in Japan, with a Japanese cast (and Quentin Tarantino, being less annoying than usual, but still pretty annoying). So, what's the language used? English. It's the ESL happy hour, and the actors are clearly very uncomfortable actually acting in the language. It's a bit awkward, and isn't really fair to the cast.

It says a lot then that the rest of the film continues to be quite entertaining in spite of the obvious language hurdles. The best thing about the whole experience is that we're taken for a ride by a director that knows, deep within his heart, that cinema can mean anything you want it to. In each frame, you can see how decades of watching and learning about film has informed his style and taught him the power of a good movie. Cinema can make you laugh, make you cry, shock, stun and awe. As any fan of film knows, cinema can be anything. Here, it is absolutely everything.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Public Enemy

Just when you think I'm talking about a recent Michael Mann picture, nope, that's a plural. This is Public Enemy, singular. As one might also expect from my obsession with Korea, which started long before this adventure, it's a Korean movie. It's also utterly, completely, amazing.

Truth be told, I was a bit worried when I popped in the DVD. First trailer? An ad for an Anime channel, seemingly bragging about how derivative all Anime is (several thousand gigantic robots! Hundreds of spunky magical girls! A billion kids with bad hair!). Second ad? An anime magazine, drowning in pastels and an unhealthy obsession with Japan. This is what they think people watching Public Enemy want? Derivative crap for people obsessed with Japan? Besides, this movie is Korean! Korea is not Japan! In fact, if one would to go by the quality of local cinema - and being somewhat obsessed with Korean cinema, I would do that - Korea is better than Japan. Though if one were to do that, Brazil would be the best country in the world, and that's not... accurate.

Another concern arose when I pressed play, and the default was an anime-quality dub. First off, dubs in live action? A definite no-no. I'm not one of those snobs when it comes to dubs in animation, but with live action dubs, the seams always show. Since we, as humans, can correlate the sounds coming out of someone's mouth to the motions, you can instantly tell something's gone awry. Not helping matters is that they got typical anime voices, which for some reason tend to be bottom of the barrel voice talent. Combined, you have a movie watcher scrambling to find the menu button.

But I forgive you, ADV, since once I got the settings in order and the movie proper started, I could see I was in for something interesting. When an hour was over, I was already wondering just how high in my all time lists of favorites it would be. In the last twenty minutes, I was literally on the edge of my seat. That never, ever happens. I can't remember the last time I was so excited to see what happened next I was nearly falling off the couch in anticipation.

So what is the story behind this 2 hours and 18 minutes of pure excellence? Well, in one corner, we have highly corrupt and extremely violent police officer Inspector Gang, brilliantly realized by Kyung-gu Sol. We meet him when his partner has killed himself, and he's being investigated for corruption. This is because he is corrupt, and has just stolen a proper crapload of cocaine from a group of criminals. In the other corner, we are introduced to Jo Kyu-Hwan - actually it's spelled differently in the film but I'm going by the IMDB - who is introduced as a likable family man who also happens to enjoy pleasuring himself in the shower. He's also played even more brilliantly by Sung-jae Lee, demonstrating unflappable calm and barely restrained anger. The scenes where he's trying to convincingly cry are absolutely amazing. Who do you think we're supposed to root for here?

From those introductions we start moving into the film proper, which can only be considered a black comedy/action picture. But, unlike many black comedies, this one is genuinely funny. Sometimes, it's absolutely hilarious, especially in every single scene where Gang has to do math. Gang's investigation of Kyu-Hwan is frequently fraught with difficulties, many of his own creation. While he might have a redemptive arc, he's objectively an ass. However, he's a likable ass, and you begin to feel for him as he gets steadily more obsessed with hunting down a man who he believes cut his face and made him get poo on his hands.

Helping his case is the fact that the audience knows from the outset that his suspicions are right. Our family man is quickly revealed to be not exactly a nice person, and our corrupt cop actually cares about the community as much as he enjoys beating up thugs. They're also presented roughly as equals in fighting style, which helps bring genuine tension to the action scenes. Almost as much tension as is brought to the table by the absolutely fantastic direction, staging, and everything to do with the action scenes. Director Woo-Suk Kang knows deep within his bones how to film a fight sequence, and he does some absolutely fantastic ones. The final battle is one of the all time great fistfights, I'm sure of it.

Seriously, I'm having great difficulty figuring out anything I wasn't absolutely enthralled by. Alright, if you have a crippling fear of naked men, you might want to be advised that, at the beginning of the film, we see a lot of men's butts. Of course, this could be a selling point for some people - Sung-jae Lee is very physically fit, and even gets a workout montage for all the ladies in the audience. It also doesn't start especially quickly, and the opening about what it's like to be police could be considered superfluous. But I'm just nitpicking because I don't want to say this is seriously the best movie I've seen in ages.

In fact, I'm stunned that there haven't been waves to remake this for American audiences. Americans love anti-heroes, they love it when wealthy psychopaths are beat down, and they love good old fashioned blackly comic action thrillers. Maybe American directors have secretly admitted they won't be able to top this, and there is absolutely nothing they could improve on. Seriously, while this isn't the best movie I've seen since starting this project - Z probably takes that - this is absolutely fantastic and everyone who enjoys a good dark comedy action thriller needs to see it now. Just ignore all that anime crap on the DVD, and be sure to switch to Korean w/subtitles.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Top Secret!

One of the great mysteries of our time is "Why does David Zucker suck so much now?" I mean, the guy recently made a movie making fun of Michael Moore. That's like shooting a morbidly obese, unshaven fish with questionable taste in hats* in a particularly small barrel. He also produced the Onion Movie. And a bunch of other crap.

See, this is a mystery, because when he started making movies, David Zucker didn't suck. In fact, with Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker, he made fantastic, clever parodies that probably broke rules and more importantly were quite funny. One of those movies is Top Secret!

The strength of Top Secret! is that it's a loving parody of old timey spy films - which explains some gratuitous Nazis, no matter how little they make sense in East Germany - with a real story to build gags around. Val Kilmer is a wacky rock and roll star in the vein of Elvis named Nick Rivers - and creator of the highly dangerous sport skeet surfing - who is going to be performing a concert in East Germany as part of some elaborate plot he's unaware of. He runs into one Hillary Flammond, as played by Lucy Gutteridge, who is a sexy member of the resistance, trying to save her father. Together, they have to save the world, one inexplicable dance routine at a time.

The humor of the film is often based on a quite simple formula, take a regular spy/Elvis/surfing/etc. convention and do something unexpected with it. It's an easy formula, but it often works. The gags aren't universally funny - there's a real stinker based around the Blue Lagoon that plays a bit larger role than is probably advisable - but they're often clever enough and well implemented. When they're not, they're easily ignored and the story can move on.

Since bad genre parodies have become a cottage industry for people who haven't got a clue, this is one of those lessons in why they're a good idea. It's a good spy film borrowing heavily from old spy movies, with a story that's often tense and characters you actually can give a crap about. Even better, the characters aren't in on the joke, and mostly just roll with whatever they're given. It makes the absurd humor stand out in contrast, because nobody realizes it.

Val Kilmer is, surprisingly, something of a stand out. The reason isn't because of his superior acting ability, or his ability to lip sync** - something which would serve him well as Jim Morrison - but his natural charisma. He's believable as a heart throb because he's just so likable and attractive, and he plays it up well. He works as a cocky sense of sanity in a world of ridiculousness.

More than anything though, it's 90 minutes of filmmakers just trying to entertain you. Yeah, sometimes it doesn't work, but that's fine, because you can tell that no matter what's on screen, they're going to brush that off and try to be funny again in the next few minutes. They try everything, from butt sex jokes to more cerebral humour to good old fashioned slapstick. That's why it's good, they put in a lot of effort to be funny.

So why is it that David Zucker isn't as funny now? Perhaps the three directors pushed each other to be funnier. Maybe he's not putting in that effort which is clearly necessary to be hilarious. Whatever it is, he should find his magic again, and kick the people making awful parodies right in the ass.

*I say this as a universal healthcare enthusiast.

**Reportedly he sang all his own songs. They're just really obviously studio recordings and not done on set.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Address Unknown

I know what you're thinking, Movies at Random has sold out. Films people have heard of? In English? From major studios? Where's all the obscure Korean movies? Well, here's Address Unknown, just in case you were going through Korea withdrawal.

I've made no secret of my special distaste for the pity movie. The films with a huge ensemble cast where all the characters are needlessly miserable, and then punished time and time again for being characters in the movie. Address Unknown is very much a pity movie, revolving around dog butchers - no dogs were ACTUALLY butchered, something the film makes special effort to remind people of - disgruntled widows, one eyed girls and horny teenagers. One even works in a hilariously named store called Homeboy Shop which sells, among other things, a painting of a white tiger in velvet. Oh, and it's implied that everything is the fault of America, sometimes subtly, sometimes less so.

The problem with these things is that there's no happiness and no levity, it's just all depression all the time. There is no happiness because happiness is forbidden in this universe. If someone finds it, they are punished. If someone exists who isn't there to, on some level, make someone else miserable, they are punished doubly. Ink is spilled calling this stuff bracing, and "real", but it's not real, is it?

There's also the matter of human kindness and empathy always being immediately punished. The only reason ever seems to be that the overall downtrodden crap needs to be maintained from beginning to end. This is not helped by my other big issue with pity pictures is that they are always filmed in a very dull manner. Kim Ki-Duk is normally a pretty good director, with a great eye, but here it's just workmanlike and deliberately uninteresting. The events on screen are so serious and dour that they can't be filmed with a modicum of panache. It's telling when a world is so bereft of anything good that even the strippers just shuffle around uncomfortably, like 7th graders at a school dance.

In an interview with the director, he said he wanted to both raise awareness about the relationship between Korea and America - symbolized by beating a dog, of all things - yet show some sympathy for American soldiers who aren't in a particularly good situation. That has the effect of making the worst character of the lot, one American soldier whose name and actor are not on the internet - the actor's Mitch something. It's a thankless role, because he's got to alternate wildly between genuinely sympathetic, kind person and a monster rapist girlfriend abuser, sometimes within a line. The actor does an interesting job with it - he's better at the sympathetic than the villainous - but why not just have a sympathetic character and a villain? There's an entire army base, if you need both a monster and a kind person in a situation they don't want to be in to illustrate your point, make two characters. Of course, he winds up shot in the balls after attempting to tattoo his name on his girlfriend, because that's the kind of thing that happens in a pity picture. So long, sympathy.

I have enjoyed plenty of depressing movies, and my best movie of all time is about people who are screwed from birth due to the situation they find themselves in. But there, and anywhere else that gets being downtrodden right, they balance the good and the bad. Characters aren't pushed down every time they try to better themselves, they aren't punished simply for caring, and they aren't there solely to be kicked around. They're people, and like all people, their lives have joy mixed in with the sadness. Take Kids Return, recently featured here. It had characters whose lives collapsed around them, but it also gave them time to have success. We feel more for a character when we can see them in their best light, not simply having life abusing them at every turn. The fall of the characters in Kids Return hurt all the more because they had potential, and because we saw a glimpse of the success that was possible. When it's all sad, all the time, it stops being real, and just becomes an unfortunate, unwatchable dirge.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Onion Movie

I love the Onion

I love the cutting satire, I love the clever headlines, I love the deconstruction of newspaper cliches (and now, radio and TV cliches). The Onion has fooled foreign countries, and taught the world to laugh again.

So, naturally, I'm extra disappointed that The Onion Movie is no good.

The concept is 80-ish minutes of sketch comedy loosely structured around a fake TV network. This is also the rough concept of The Onion News Network, and it's clearly something that can work. The plot, such as it is, revolves around news anchor Len Cariou, upset that his newscast is being hijacked to advertise the upcoming Steven Seagal movie Cockpuncher - one of very few gags that actually works, culminating in a speech which echoes the end of On Deadly Ground. In the process, a whole bunch of gags happen, some ripped from real Onion headlines, others not.

There are several problems here, and I'm not sure what it is that kills it the most. First, it's very clear that every expense was spared. Production values are at a bare minimum, with clearly inexperienced actors, low rent sets (how many featureless rooms does one film need?) and special effects clearly designed by the filmmaker's cousin on his new Macbook. When one watches the real Onion's videos, one never gets the impression that it was made for no money. Here, one can't see a dime that has made it to the screen.

But, low budget wouldn't matter if the material was funny. Given that it's a sketch comedy film, one would expect it to be inconsistent. Even the mighty Monty Python let a few duds into the Meaning of Life, after all. It's more unfortunate that it's weighted so heavily on the miss side. Cockpuncher is funny, as is a bizarre gag about Peruvians having laser eyes - if only because it's unexpected - but for the most part it's all predictable. Even if there is good material, the film rushes through it like a nervous kid giving a presentation to the class. Gags flash by, never given a chance to develop, and if they are, the comedic timing and pure lack of acting skill kills it where it stands. When STEVEN SEAGAL is the best actor in your movie, you've got some serious problems.

That's it really, it's cheap and it isn't funny. In fact, it seems to share more with the ____ Movie series than it does with the Onion itself. Can there be a statement more damning than that?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


I've never been a huge comic book person - the only comic I've ever read is the Watchmen - but I'm generally a fan of comic book movies. While there might be something inherently ridiculous as people in tight clothing with super powers battling it out, they can be quite well written - as Solid Snake has proven quite ably with X-Men today - and can be a subtle take on a real world issue or moral conundrum.

Watching X-Men, it's no wonder that the generally reliable Bryan Singer has made a good film of it. For one, the character of Magneto (Ian McKellen) is a holocaust survivor, and Singer seems to be strangely fascinated by the holocaust. Witness Valkyrie, and Apt Pupil, which are both intimately involved with the third reich. Also, Bryan Singer is openly gay, and the X-Men share a lot with being gay.

It's subtle, but also somewhat obvious in the content. There's a senator (Bruce Davison) who wants to force all mutants - people who have superpowers, basically - to register themselves. He argues that you wouldn't want a mutant in your schools, and replace the word "mutant" with "gay" or "black" or "Muslim" or whatever else someone has been persecuted for being in the past history, and you've got a subtle critique on general persecution. After all, they're simply born different. It's not explicit, but you can tell that Singer is drawing from his own experiences, and those of his friends. As a critique on racism and persecution, it's well done, never drilling the message into your head but always having it there.

Of course, there's a violent uprising lead by Magneto, and a more peaceful sect lead by Professor X (Patrick Stewart). They fight about the proper way to handle their persecution, with Magneto advocating violently converting people to being mutants and sharing his way of thinking. Also, a plethora of X-Men are introduced, though the main characters are clearly Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Rogue (Anna Paquin), the former being a super healing mystery, and the latter draining whatever she touches. Their relationship is a backbone on which a wide variety of different ideas are built.

Possibly the big problem with this is that a lot of ideas have to be built on that backbone. The X-Men is an expansive series, with a ton of unique characters and a wide variety of different concepts to deal with. Worse, many of these characters and concepts are vital to having a clue to what's going on. So, as a result, there's often a lot of exposition in Patrick Stewart's soothing voice. It doesn't kill the movie, not by a long stretch, but it does bog it down.

The only other problem is that the forces of evil will always triumph, because good is stupid. The X-Men are comically awful in the climactic fight, having to overcome their own overwhelmingly poor fighting style more than the villains. Another detriment is the overall superhero movie pattern: Good, Great, Worse, Ugh, but that doesn't kick in until Bret "The Rat" Ratner takes over in X-Men 3, and doesn't hurt this movie.

Of course, I'm nitpicking because that's what I do. Those are minor faults in a film that is otherwise downright excellent. It's quickly paced, superbly well shot, and the action scenes are excellent no matter how stupid the heroes are. The characters established quickly develop their personalities and relationships, and even the more minor characters clearly have potential for future installments. Er...installment. One day I might get there.

So did I like X-Men? Naturally, and I dare say it's one of the best comic movies I've seen. More importantly, it's a perfect fit for Bryan Singer, and a lot of him can be seen in every frame. It manages to be very personal for a big budget action film adaptation, and that's a difficult feat to manage. It sure is a shame Singer didn't keep doing films in the series past the second one, it's one he was born to direct.

I just realized I'll have nothing to say when I hit the next one. Oh, I've written myself into a corner (though maybe it'll be a long way off, and everyone will forget and I can just do the same thing all over again).

Friday, November 6, 2009


It's simplistic to say that budget doesn't matter, but a good director working with no money can make a film that's fantastic, while a bad director with hundreds of millions will never make a good movie. In an illustration of the former rule, here's Pi. For only $60,000, here's a film that launched two careers - writer/director Darren Aronofsky and composer Clint Mansell - and made millions of dollars.

Pi can be described as a mathematical thriller, which sounds much more bizarre than it winds up being. It's about mathematician, Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), who is looking for patterns in everything in the world, but mostly the stock market. He also stared into the sun once, and suffers from headaches and trippy blackouts. He might also have some heavy OCD, though this is merely implied. In looking for a pattern he finds a mysterious number, of interest to both some Jewish numerologists thinking that the number is god, and some Wall Street types looking to use it for personal gain.

The film spits out reams of mathematical exposition in rapid fire, which might not completely make sense but work in the film world. The way it's filmed leads to the preposterous notion that math is out to get Max - it's really people, but you know - and it gets genuine tension out of abstract concepts. It makes math sort of scary and fascinating, and one becomes both genuinely curious about the conclusions Max is on a train track towards, and almost frightened of them.

This could not have worked without a talented director at the helm, because it relies a lot on the direction to get the overall point across. Clever camera work and editing does a lot to keep the rhythm going and build the tension. Even better, it's a rare film that knows how to use handheld shots. Lots of low budget (and, who am I kidding, even high budget) crap uses handheld to make itself look edgy and cool, but this actually uses it for dramatic effect. It also uses smooth camera moves when necessary, and the camera is always where it needs to be, doing what it has to.

Special attention has to be payed to the score, which gave us Clint Mansell, and tracks which have been in every film trailer since he burst onto the scene. He gets the intensity exactly right, making math exciting, interesting and dangerous. It's also the perfect music to type to, curiously enough. Sound and image keeps the film going at a breakneck speed, and even makes exposition exciting. Exposition is so rarely exciting that this is an achievement.

I'm sure lots can be written about whether or not the math and theories are correct, but that's less important than what they mean to the characters in the film. Aronofsky creates a world where math is danger, and he's so good at creating this world that for 80-some minutes, you completely accept it. It's exciting, intense, and $60,000. That takes talent and skill, and it's why Aronofsky is an acclaimed filmmaker today, and even why Clint Mansell is a sought after composer.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Now and Forever

"There is no way I'm going to do some cheesy movie of the week, okay?" - Oh girl, you have no idea.

The opening credits for Now and Forever contain a familiar name, Bob Clark. It's not familiar because it's a common name, instead because I knew I had seen it before. Somewhere bad, where only the bravest souls dare tread. A quick glance at his IMDB page reveals the horrible truth, this is the man who directed both Baby Geniuses movies! As a result, he is a contender for history's greatest monster.

I'm not being fair, he's actually directed a strange and elaborate mix of different films, from Black Christmas, to A Christmas Story, to Porky's, to this one, which was filmed in sunny Saskatoon. As he died not long ago - car accident involving a drunk driver, no less - I even feel a tinge of regret calling him history's greatest monster. Plus, he filmed a movie in Saskatoon! I lived in Saskatoon for three years, and it remains one of my favorite cities. That tang of recognition in most of the exterior shots elicits a small streak of joy every time.

Shame the movie isn't very good then, huh?

It's actually kind of amazing simply in the way it's bad. Clark had been making movies for many years by the time he did this one, yet it's pure amateur hour. The story is about Angela Wilson (Alexandra Purvis, then Mia Kirshner), troubled actress. After her father kills himself, she stumbles across some magical aboriginal people - including John Myron (Simon Baker, the Turok himself, Adam Beach) and Ghost Fox, played by surprisingly good considering the rest of the film Gordon Tootoosis. She goes to their suspiciously idyllic reserve (which is...inaccurate) and learns all about how wonderful being native is. Best of all Ghost Fox is literally magic, as he prevents a rape with the power of his mind. This is something that actually happens. I did not make that up. It's not even the most insane "magical aboriginal" moment in the film.

Eventually, she wants to leave the small town she lives in (a motive reinforced by the character saying some variation on "I want to leave this town!" every five seconds), hooks up with a crappy boyfriend, and a bunch of increasingly cheesy and sad things happen, leading to a twist ending that is unexpected, yet both ridiculous and ripped off of another, quite famous movie.

The script is, at best, clumsy. The narration provided by Beach often makes him sound like a creepy stalker who wants to dance around in her skin. This is due to bad writing, and a not very good reading. The strange thing is, Beach is not a bad actor - he was pretty fantastic in Flags of our Fathers, in fact. So I don't get why he's somewhere between psycho stalker and plank of wood here. Or maybe it's just the script, which is not interested in subtlety, but is quite interested in clumsy dialog and poor characterization.

Even the filming is amateurish. It's supposed to take place in a small Saskatchewan town, but as Saskatoon is not a small town, its city-ness keeps seeping through, often due to poor blocking. A scene set in "one of three motels in the area" (on Idylwild drive, which has many motels, but enough of my love of the filming location) is rendered unbelievable by the various tall buildings immediately behind it. Yet they managed to film one location in such a way that it hides just how close it is to a major highway (Highway 5, specifically, and it's RIGHT OFF of the road so it's pretty difficult to pull off. I was convinced it had to be a different building since it seemed further away from the highway than it was, but being that I recognized every single building in the yard, and the layout, from driving by so often, there's no other house it can be. Oh, I'm rambling), so clearly someone around can do things properly.

It's full on amateur hour, with a mysteriously stupid script, some bad acting, workmanlike directing and merely passable cinematography. The locations might be fantastic, but it's still a cheesy, badly made movie. No matter how much I love Saskatoon, being set in Saskatoon is not enough to make a movie great, or even tolerable.

Friday, October 30, 2009

A Mighty Heart

Oscar bait. A term used for films that are clearly gunning for a golden statuette. While it's difficult to be truly mean about it, A Mighty Heart is Oscar bait. We've got a film concerning major real life issues with a true story - the kidnapping and murder of journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, which naturally feeds into the major problems in the middle east. We have a major Hollywood star - Angelina Jolie - dressing down and trying to fade into a role. The bait wasn't taken - either by audiences or academy voters - and I can kind of see why.

This is not to downplay the importance of the story by any means. Mariane Pearl's story about losing her husband is one that is important to hear, especially considering the state of the world in which it takes place. It's something that should be shared, and should be heard, so we can appreciate the dangers of simply cataloging what is happening in the middle east. It's important to understand what is going on in these places.

It's also not to say that the film is badly directed either. Michael Winterbottom is one of my favorites, and this just confirms it. He creates some good tension - even if the end is in sight - and he never makes the characters into unrealistic "heroes", just people doing their jobs to the best of their abilities. There are a couple of times where it seems it should be obvious that Pearl was going into a trap, but they are countered by some fantastic flashback sequences, including a heartbreaking montage of a trip the Pearls' went on mixed in with a take down.

The acting is fine as well. Yeah, Jolie does get a moment late in the film which quite literally screams for an award, but otherwise she gets the delicate balance between strength and fragility necessary for the role. The performances all around are solid and they give the characters a bit of a grounding in reality.

Speaking of that grounding, the script is often fine as well. There are some very chunky moments early on, where it lays out the back story and the situation in a "middle east for grade-schoolers" manner, but it eventually subsides and the meat of the story is still solid. Once it gets away from trying to explain the situation, it gathers steam and does create well rounded characters. Little snippets of incidental conversation slip in, and that's strangely important, as it just keeps everyone human.

So...what's the problem? It eventually hit me late in the process, and it's quite simple. The story would have been a lot better in a documentary. We know how it ends, and while the developments are interesting, the in-the-moment dramatization tries to make us forget quite how it's going to end. The incident is important enough that I think the retrospective approach of a documentary, perhaps with dramatized scenes, would help the structure and tone of the film immensely. That, and I find myself wondering what many of the major players are thinking in any given moment.

However, documentaries never get the profile of a feature starring Ms. Jolie, so it would have never happened. Increasing the profile is a noble goal, and overall I can understand their motivations. If there's a story that needs to be told, it's a good idea to make that story get out to as many as possible. Still, it's not like it made boffo box office anyway, so maybe, in hindsight, doing it as a documentary would have been a better idea. But as I said, it's hard to be mean to it, because its (mighty) heart is in the right place.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Kids Return

"If you want to be a professional boxer, you need to learn to control your own life."

I think I'm going to start these things with a line from the film that neatly sums up the entire picture, what do you think? For example, Kids Return's overall theme can probably be summed up neatly right there, though professional boxer can be subbed out for any other profession. The people who succeed control their own life, the people who don't allow others to control them.

It's an interesting theme, considering the history of the production. See, somewhere between the last entry and this one, Takeshi Kitano had a major motorcycle accident. Actually, according to the writer/director/actor/editor/genius himself, it was more a suicide attempt. While he survived and went on to make some of my favorite movies, at the time there was a lot of doubt about whether or not he would ever work again. However, he decided that instead of never working again, he would pour all of his energies into making a new movie, which we see here. Not surprisingly, he's not in the movie itself, but he has clearly evolved as a person and a filmmaker, and it was probably his best movie up until that point.

So what's it all about then? There are two friends, Shinji (Masanobu Ando) and Masaru (Ken Kaneko). They are the school bullies and troublemakers, making strange anatomically correct stickmen dolls and beating up kids for their lunch money. One day, Masaru starts boxing, and cajoles Shinji into joining him. I suppose explaining the dynamics of their relationship is relevant. Masaru is very much the dominant personality, and Shinji is remarkably prone to suggestion. Due to their general misbehavior, teachers give up on the two students, and their paths diverge as Shinji proves adept at boxing, and Masaru wanders off to the Yakuza. It catalogs their rise and fall, which really isn't a spoiler since the film is cyclical and starts at the end, after everything has gone down.

Between the two, along with a series of other subplots, pressure from outside sources ultimately proves to be the downfall, especially when it comes to Shinji. Even if they know what they're doing is wrong, a charismatic person will get the best of their better judgment and lead to their ultimate failure. It's heartbreaking to watch as people who should have plenty of opportunity screwing up their lives because they are listening to an obviously bad influence.

It's a strange picture to watch at times, since there's a feeling that Kitano is trying to explain to himself why he crashed the bike. There's a scene very late in the picture showing the aftermath of an accident, and knowing the history of the production, one wonders how much of his own story Kitano put in. While one should separate the art from the artist, even subconsciously a lot of your own story can seep in, and considering this film's dramatic birth, one wonders just how much Kitano was influenced by himself.

Yet, even then, it ends on a hopeful note, as things start over again, perhaps with people learning from their mistakes and no longer letting themselves be dominated by a stronger personality. It certainly started over again for Kitano himself, as he went on to make some of the best films of his career, and also Brother.

Also, I would do unspeakable things for a big shiny Kitano Blu Ray set. Just saying.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Johnny Mnemonic

Here's a question, do people realize what the cheesy parts of the present are? Will there be something about 2009 that people will look back and say "my god, what were we collectively thinking?" Johnny Mnemonic - a film which a guy I knew could never, ever pronounce the name of - has me curious, because this is a very cheesy movie, in an early '90s kind of way.

The story requires an opening text scroll - with lasers! - so you know it's good. In short, it's the future, as indicated by a title card that says INTERNET 2021, and there's a disease called NAS that's making the rounds. The popular rapper apparently gives people spasms, and this is in some way related to Keanu Reeves, who is a courier. Not just a regular courier, he stores sensitive data in his brain, 160GB of it! Unfortunately, he decides to ignore the low disc warnings and shove 320GB in there, and this particular data is of interest to all manner of interests.

One has to mention the cast, since it has possibly the greatest variety of famous people who cannot act I have ever seen. We've got the aforementioned Keanu Reeves, who is quite effective at playing a man who has had people poke around in his brain more than is probably advisable. Direct to video superstars Dolph Lundgren and Udo Keir show up, not especially popular rapper and scowling guy from Law and Order Ice-T plays a scowling guy with bad makeup. Musician and talk show host Henry Rollins proves that being either a musician or talk show host does not prepare you in any way for playing an angry doctor. There's also Dina Meyer as the obligatory love interest, but I have never heard of her.

In fact, there's precisely one actor in the lot who turns in the decent performance, and I believe I've mentioned him before (and will again very soon, if the DVD sitting on my desk is any indication). I'm talking about Takeshi Kitano, acclaimed film director and fascinating film presence, in a movie that's probably beneath him, but what can you do. The lucky Japanese got a version were his role was significantly expanded, but even here he's got the most character, the best delivery, and some great silly moments that I can't help but think he created all on his lonesome. Using his hand in a quacking duck pose is classic Kitano, for example.

Apart from everyone's favorite Japanese superstar, this is pretty much early 90s b-movie. Everything is lit with the most neon possible, the world's supply of smoke machines has been commandeered in order to make the futuristic city of Newark, New Jersey seem as futuristic as possible. Apparently in the future everything's on fire, and fire itself has turned hot pink and neon green. The general aesthetic of crap glued to other crap that was prevalent in the early 90s has been deployed in full force, and everyone looks like a drag queen except for Keanu Reeves, who has one of those really thin ties, and Kitano, who remains the only person who doesn't embarrass himself during the proceedings. The internet is accessed through the power of mime and looks like the worst CG in the world. The climactic sequence in particular looks like it belongs on the 3D0, not at the end of a major motion picture.

Inexplicably, however, it predicts the general function of the Nintendo Wii (albeit used for a phone). Huh.

I enjoyed this because I grew up in the 90s, but I'm not going to call it a great movie. The story is decent enough, but the performances are so bad and everything else so cheesy it gets in the way. The director - Robert Longo, who proceeded to never direct anything else again - is of the 'tilting the camera makes everything more exciting!' school of film making, and the 90s-ness of it oozes from every frame. If you're feeling a tinge of nostalgia for the early 90s, you could do worse, and it might prevent you from pulling out your favorite skinny tie, 3D0 and Ice-T records. Anything that keeps those Ice-T records stashed away counts as a good thing.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

I'm Not There

"I know more about you than you'll ever know about me."

Roughly in the middle of I'm Not There, Cate Blanchett, in the guise of one of the many variations on the theme of Bob Dylan - this one named Jude - delivers that line to a snooty British interviewer. It neatly summarizes the movie and the man, since it's pretty difficult to actually know anything about Bob Dylan, and even with Todd Haynes' fascinating attempt at exploring the man, he still presents something of a mystery, perhaps by design.

I'm a latecomer to the Dylan party, and I certainly would never consider myself a massive fan. Still, I've been growing ever fonder of the music, and I notice that what I like most is that he stubbornly does whatever he feels like, damn what his shallow fans might prefer. Going electric when all of your fans are shallow, folk loving proto-hipsters? Fantastic. Finding, then losing, religion? Why the hell not? Recording Wiggle Wiggle? That's the thing to do right now. Making a Christmas album? Sure, let's do it. Every time a hipster cries that their favorite "living legend" is doing something that doesn't fit their narrow perception of what they're allowed to do, a kitten is born. Dylan keeps us awash in kittens.

That stubborn following of his own muse, the swirl of legends crafted by the hipsters who care not a whit about the man but are obsessed with the symbol and a deliberate crafting of a shifty, mysterious persona creates a character that is, in essence, near impossible person to make a film about in a traditional manner. As is quite well known, this is far from traditional. No less than six people play different parts of the Dylan persona, all fictionalized and renamed. Cate Blanchett, Ben Whishaw, Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Marcus Carl Franklin, and Heath Ledger all play a part of something Dylan, and all are filmed in a different manner in a neat little mirror of the shifts in genre Dylan himself liked to make.

Yeah, it's far, far, far from a traditional - or accurate - biopic, but it's pretty much the only way to make a film of Dylan. He's an interesting personality, but he's not a film-friendly one. There's no arc to his story, though there are arcs to small parts, and there's no real beginning and end. Plus, there's the sticky matter of everything being obscured by legends, both gleefully fabricated by Dylan himself and by his ridiculous fans. It's a valiant attempt to find consistency in a person who seems to delight in being inconsistent. It's not a complete success, but it gets as close as anyone could in film form.

I like the attempt, though I think I'd like a full length film about the Cate Blanchett part of the character might be more interesting. From the surprise of a woman in the role trying to replicate the surprise of Dylan going electric, to the way she captures the fidgety weirdo behind the music, she's got the most interesting part to play. I could probably do without the Richard Gere part as well, which doesn't have a good connection to the overall character until very late in the film. Still, overall, I like how it's done, since it makes an effort to be so interesting.

Do I understand more about Dylan as a result of this movie? Not really. Do I like the music more? Maybe a bit, since it's used quite well, but he's still not my favorite musician. Was it worthwhile? You know what, it is. Successful or not, it's interesting to watch, never dull, and I genuinely liked it. Imperfection is fine if you're doing your best to be interesting.

As a side note, Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays the wife in the Heath Ledger section, is behind 5:55, an album I quite like. It even mentions Saskatchewan! Yay!

Friday, October 16, 2009


24 minutes. That's how far I got into Happiness before giving up. To be fair, I didn't strictly turn it off - it's playing as I type - but I cannot sit through it. I made it all the way through Tomorrow We Move. I made it to the end of Fat Girl. Japon? I didn't even turn it off during the 90 year old sex scene. I've seen the entirety of all manner of irredeemable crap, but this defeated me after 24 minutes.

What is it about Happiness that makes me unable to bear it? It all started with the first scene. Jon Lovitz is on an awkward date with Jane Adams, gets dumped and starts crying. Then he gets angry. It's uncomfortable, unbearable, and unwatchable. More importantly, it's difficult to care about either character in the scene, since it opens at the end of their relationship and both characters haven't even been established yet. The message seems to be "Oh we're going with an ironic title here, hope you're prepared for two and a half hours of depressed people!"

And boy oh boy there are some depressed people! Joining the miserable brigade is sexually frustrated (and briefly shirtless) Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing a man who has uncomfortable and improbable fantasies about a sexy neighbour. Dylan Baker, playing a pedophile. The woman who plays his wife...playing his wife. Oh, and then some old people hate each other. See, Happiness! Feel the irony, swim in it, make it into an idiotic pop song.

Why am I going to willingly subject myself to the neurosis of the various uninteresting yet incomprehensibly dire predicaments of these characters? Why on earth do I care what happens to any of them, since they're at best boring, though for the most part they're thoroughly objectionable. Maybe it redeems itself somewhere in the remaining two hours, I'm judging it on a fraction of the total running time here, but my lord if I had to set through any more miserablist twaddle I would have had to shoot myself. As I do not want to shoot myself, I couldn't do it anymore.

Some people have called the film darkly comic. How? Where is the comedy here? Am I supposed to find humor in the unrelenting miserableness of it all? Am I supposed to be compelled to find out what happens to the uninteresting and unlikable characters? Well, sorry, I just don't. I can't sit and be bludgeoned with a bat of depression. I simply don't find two hours of bleak misery worth watching.

Unfortunately, I'm saying this at 24 minutes. Can I be trusted to give an opinion on a movie I couldn't stand to watch all the way through? Yeah, the first 24 minutes could be terrible, but there's so much more movie, maybe it all turns around? I...don't care. Well, the dialog playing in the background suggests that I'm right to have walked away, but honestly, I can't imagine how it could possibly redeem itself.

I like smart, visually interesting movies. I like movies that are funny, movies that are entertaining, and movies with interesting stories. I don't like to sit and wallow in someone else's misery. Other people love stuff like this, they call it thought provoking, subversive and dangerous. Honestly? I don't see it. What I see, and hear, is like an overcast day, light drizzle, that dull gray of a dreary afternoon. It's a slightly miserable nothing. I like sunshine, I like rain, I like thunderstorms and snowstorms and anything of that nature. Why? Because something's happening. Stuff like this, there's nothing happening but dreary misery. I can't accept dreary misery. And I can't accept this movie.

You win, Happiness. May we never cross paths again.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Gate of Flesh

One of my favorite directors, as mentioned somewhere previously, is Seijun Suzuki. I appreciate that he did whatever he wanted with the studio's money, and made some genuinely ambitious and visually interesting movies on a shoestring budget. I also am fond of movies that make no sense in an intriguing manner, so there's also that. Then naturally I would be rather excited about Gate of Flesh showing up at my door.

Post-war Japan was apparently a bit of a hell hole, at least if this is anything to go by. Here, we have a story about a woman named Maya - Yumiko Nogawa - who falls in with a group of prostitutes. Kayo Matsuo as Omino, Satoko Kasai as Sen, and Tamiko Ishii as Oroku welcome young Maya into prostitute club, where the only rule is to not talk about prostitute club not give away the goods for free, under punishment of severe beatings. Unfortunately, one day a stranger with utterly ridiculous cheeks, cheeks so bad they almost the movies he's in because he looks like a chipmunk with the measels and it's really distracting, arrives on their doorstep, Shintaro Ibuki as portrayed by the cheeky Jo Shishido. He had cheek injections to get that look, what's wrong with him? Apparently Japanese ladies have a thing for impossibly big cheeked men, and it slowly divides the house.

At the beginning of the film, it seems almost feminist. Yeah, they're all whores, but they work for themselves, and they're doing it by exploiting the base instincts of the surrounding men. They're the ones in control in the scenes, and they seem to wield more power than anyone else. That vaguely feminist thing comes crashing down as soon as Ibuki arrives, since he immediately becomes the most powerful character by promptly beating up one of the ladies when she tries to beat him. It's an interesting slant while it lasts, however, since the movie was also designed to tie up naked ladies and whip them, in order to titillate the movie goer - or at least that is what is claimed in the special features.

Feminist or not, the film is as a whole unrelentingly grim. Everyone who shows a trace of human compassion or caring is immediately whipped, beat, shot or raped. This list includes a kindly priest getting raped by the leading lady. The message seems to be that people in post war Japan only survived by being the worst people possible, and that was the only way to survive. I wasn't there, so maybe it's true, but it's still quite dark.

Unfortunately, this features less of the visual invention that Suzuki is famous for, and it stars my least favorite actor of all time - seriously I can barely look at him and his freakish cheeks, it's like he lives in the uncanny valley. It's a fascinatingly dark movie, the perspective of a losing country immediately post war, when they're still struggling to admit defeat and rebuild. It's grim, but let's be honest Japan, you did pretty well for yourselves in the years since. Besides, if memory serves, you were kind of dicks anyway.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Fahrenheit 451

It's a curious trend for acclaimed, talented, and generally fantastic foreign directors to go Hollywood. While American directors going off to work in a foreign language and country is rare, it seems that some days every foreign director who garners a little bit of acclaim will make an attempt at the American mainstream. Walter Salles, a fantastic Brazilian director, came and did Dark Water. Takeshi Kitano attempted (and failed) to break the American market with Brother. Wong Kar-Wai enlisted Norah Jones and a loose, pie-based narrative to try to bring his own style over in My Blueberry Nights. Acclaimed Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron went and did a Harry Potter film of all things - albeit one of the good ones. Of course, at least he made a good one, whereas acclaimed French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet came to do the fourth Alien sequel, something which doesn't actually make sense considering his style. I could go on, but instead I'll focus on today's "acclaimed foreign director goes abroad" film, Fahrenheit 451.

Francois Truffaut is the man behind this one, and he's perhaps most famous for being one of the leading directors in the French New Wave movement. Unlike Jean-Luc Godard, he's a bit less angry, and as a result he's arguably more accessible - though I've only seen this and The 400 Blows, so what do I know? In his attempt at English film making, he's gone with an adaptation of a book so subversive and controversial that it's required reading in many high schools.

So, perhaps you've been living in a cave, and you are unfamiliar with the book? Well, I will spell it out for you in as few words as possible. It's about a fireman named Montag, played here by Oskar Werner, in the middle of a battle to the death with his German accent. Firemen in this book start fires instead of putting them out, though what they burn is books, because books are forbidden. The logic is that ignorance is bliss, and a society of dumb but conforming people watching big TVs (which, due to changing technology, are smaller than mine) is a happy society. There's a suggestion of war in the distance - subtle in the book, extremely subtle here - but on the whole going around torching books is viewed as a way to keep things peaceful and suppress dangerous thought. Through the course of events, Montag has an intellectual awakening, spurred on by talkative neighbour Clarisse (Julie Christie, also playing his rock stupid wife Linda in a well done double role). The film and book divert in interesting ways - something that always annoyed me about the fate of Clarisse in the book is resolved in a more sentimental but better executed manner here - but the spirit remains the same.

This is a very clever movie, but the cleverness never overwhelms the content. From the opening credits, with color tinted images of television aerials (the viewers of tomorrow will have no idea what those are) with the opening credits read out rather than printed on screen. Subtle, but you don't have to read, which plays neatly into the entire message of the film. The devil is in the details, and this is filled with little jokes and hidden messages that require a bit of thought to fully understand. From Montag taking a bite of an apple in the initial raid - obvious biblical reference, but not overplayed, which is key - to the title of the books - including a special appearance by Cahiers du Cinema, which Truffaut wrote for and was the spark behind new wave movement. A great number of the books were works considered dangerous at a time, but it's such a subtle reference that I wonder if it passed some viewers by.

There's a lot of that, and I think that helps the film. It rewards repeat viewings just by having so much detail there's bound to be something that went unnoticed the first time, and none of it is overplayed. For example, technology continually stops working for Montag the more he reads, suggesting a society that is rejecting him. It's never overplayed, just set there for people to do with what they wish.

Not that all the details were perfect, the production design didn't completely work, for one. I can see what he was going for, something clean, sterile and artificial. Unfortunately, instead we get something annoyingly toy-like. The fire truck and hall belong in Busyland, not a science fiction dystopia. There's one note that does work, and that's a school which is given a very unsettling vibe by recalling images of the Hitler Youth, from the overall design to the uniforms of the children. A fantastic touch, and it makes up for the flaws in other aspects of the design.

I can't imagine someone outside of the New Wave really doing this film justice, since it plays into the movement's strengths so well. The intellectualism of Truffaut is the perfect match for that of the book, and the appreciation for literature goes hand in hand. In the final scene, with people reciting the books they have memorized, one gets a sense of the beauty of the words, and the value of literature as a whole, just from the way the characters have memorized it, and the way their recitations blend and stir together. It just makes you want to read something, and to interact with the world and culture in a meaningful way. That's one of the things good art can do.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


One of the troubles with democracy is that the losing side never seems to take it well. Take the anger directed towards the Obama administration in the US, or its predecessor, the anger directed at the Bush administration. In fact, right now, the entirety of Canadian politics is structured around the bitterness of the losing side. If Election is to be believed, even the triads (they're kinda like the mafia I guess, for a parallel more familiar to North American audiences) in Hong Kong have to deal with election problems, as the loser just doesn't want to admit they're not in power. It's like regular politics, except with machetes.

Election starts as just being about an election, between two potential chairmen of a triad. One is Lok, as portrayed by Simon Lam. His platform is based on loyalty, brotherhood, and the expansion of property. The other is Big D, by Tony Leung Ka Fai, easily the second best Tony Leung. His platform is based on a solid foundation of giving everyone lots of money. There's also a symbolic baton, which is very important in a very traditional outfit like the triad. Big D loses, so he decides to hijack the baton and start a war, leading to two separate yet equally important storylines. One is the journey of the baton, as the two opposing sides in the battle attempt to gain control and give it to the person they like best. The other is the older people in the triad trying to convince Big D to stop being so foolish and prevent the triad from being destroyed. Caught in the middle are the police, who, more than anything, just want to make sure there's not too much trouble on the streets.

The fantastic thing about the story is that director Johnnie To has created genuine tension in this story. First, there's a side to root for, since Lok is a bit less of a jerk than Big D, and he won fairly. This makes you care about what happens to the baton, and whether or not the triad can survive. Yes, it's still a criminal organization, but considering the alternative Lok is someone you want running it. Second, as Lok and Big D play their respective influences and change the minds of other triad bosses, there's a sense of complete unpredictability. Someone's side can change in the space of a phone call. Add Big D being a complete loose cannon, and you honestly don't know what's going to happen, or whether or not peace or chaos will reign. From beginning to end, it's a complete unknown what's going to happen next.

The story is tense, but it's helped along by an insistent guitar score. In essence, you know something is soon happening, even in what might appear to be a relatively banal sequence. Since anything can happen, it keeps you on your toes, and since there's payoff early and often, it never feels like the movie is lying to you. Car chases aren't high speed, and there's really only one extremely elaborate fight scene, but there's always a sense of violence lurking under the surface, a necessary component to keep the viewer curious.

The closest the film has to a weak point is the ending, which flops around not knowing when to call it a finish. It's certainly not a bad ending, and a succession of twists are all worthwhile, but it gives a sense of someone who didn't quite know how he was going to piece together the ideas he needed to express. Even the editing and cinematography get a bit haphazard at this point, but it doesn't make it bad by any means. Besides which, the final twists are worth whatever inconsistency there is.

The best thing is that it takes the mud slinging and back stabbing of normal politics and makes it literal, and that's fantastic to watch. As a demonstration of the problems of democracy, it's pretty spot on. That's not to say that democracy is a bad thing by any means, but that every time your party loses, you should just let it go and start preparing for the next election.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Raising Arizona

It can be argued that it is quite easy to make a very personal situation universal. After all, many people experience many similar situations, and the stages of life are often repeated between generations. Following that logic, can one make a completely absurd situation seem universal? Well, Raising Arizona is evidence that is possible as well.

From old Movies at Random favorites the Coen Brothers, in a relatively early example of their being totally awesome at movies, we get a simple story about a couple wanting a baby. The couple in question consists of pre-crazy Nicholas Cage as H.I., a convenience store stickup...well artist really isn't the right word, since he gets caught all the time. He falls in love with Ed, played by Holly Hunter, the police officer who is always booking him. He decides to go straight so they can get married and raise a family. The family doesn't come, but discount magnate Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson) has five babies! Five! Since they figure they'll never have one of their own, H.I. and Ed decide that the best thing to do would be to steal one. Then a bunch of increasingly bizarre chases happen - including a pure genius one involving the police, dogs, and a supermarket - and we have a situation that has never actually faced anyone, but is completely universal.

Raising Arizona is all about anxiety, especially the anxiety inherent in becoming a parent for a first time. There are questions about whether or not you can get a kid, whether you can raise them when you do get one, and whether a gigantic guy with a beard and grenades will try to steal him away. Okay, that last one is more symbolic than an actual fear by many parents, but that's kind of the point. It lets you laugh at the increasingly ridiculous worries these people face, since you know that an embryonic version rests in all of us.

One day I'll talk about pre- and post-crazy Nicholas Cage, but I think we need a good post-crazy entry before we get to that point. While he's so goofy you wonder how he became a leading man, he's turns in a great performance here. H.I. needs to be a strange looking guy with a goofy voice, and if there's an actor alive who fits that description, it's Steve Buscemi. However, Nicholas Cage also fits that description and he can play a loser with the best of them.

Now, I've never been a parent, though I know people who are, but I am no stranger to anxiety. Worries can start small and escalate into a scary bounty hunter of a concern if they're allowed to persist, and it's nice to see a movie that confronts the ridiculous things resting in the subconscious head on. It's nice to see that all the worries a parent might ever experience are confronted head on in a variety of different ways. It's as though the film is saying, it's okay, it's normal to worry, if just by including anything one could be anxious about somewhere in the film. That's the beauty, no matter how ridiculous it might be, you're going to see something you've worried about represented in the film.