Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Curse you Superchannel.

Let me explain. Superchannel was a channel that played movies in my youth. It was like HBO or MovieCentral today, except with more strange Canadian short films. Not sure what happened to it, but if you were a kid in the middle of Saskatchewan, it usually came in relatively clear, and would often air good, recent movies. Said good recent movies, unfortunately, were always preceded by Bio Dome.

I have seen the last half of this movie at least 20 times.

Here's the thing, for some reason it was always on somewhere near the end of school. So, if you tuned into the channel, you would wait until the end of Biodome in order to watch whatever comes next. Sometimes you would watch the middle of Bio Dome, realize that it was a far way from the end, and turn it off. I think I even saw the beginning of Bio Dome once, though recognizing the lack of dome at that point I swiftly turned it off.

Bio Dome was terrible, but for a Superchannel enthusiast, unavoidable.

From memory, Paulie Shore and Stephen Baldwin find themselves in a dome, and proceed to get into wacky, dome-related situations. Then they find a secret dome exit, which as memory serves was a padlock on a glass door near a tree, and then almost ruin the entire project. Something happens, lessons are learned, and then you watched a horrible Canadian short film about black flies in North Ontario-i-o, which still gives me nightmares if I am ill with fever, and hopefully a good movie would start. Whatever it was, it was better than Bio Dome.

To be fair, I don't actually know how they got to the dome. I usually arrived to the party after the dome had been breached, and never stayed if I arrived before. I know that they had ridiculous bulk Cheetos hidden in a back room, and the reasons for keeping them in the dome were highly dubious. I imagine there were loads of stoner references that flew far above my innocent childish brain. It was instead the precise moment that people stopped caring about Paulie Shore.

I don't remember why, but people liked Paulie Shore, yet recognized his talent was limited and his performances were one note. I remember there being controversy over whether he could pull off a movie without his trademark long hair, as though that was where his talent lied, like Samson. I was never a big fan, though I also didn't hate him. Being 12 or so, I was easily amused and not easily disgusted. Shore was not an object of derision, just something of a nonentity. He was terrible, but in a highly uninteresting way.

Play one note long enough, and people get sick of it. I'm not sure Bio Dome was any worse than any other Shore movie. It is the one I've seen the most, of course, but due to Superstation's love of Paulie Shore, I've seen more than one. They were no different from Bio Dome. The dome just replaced an army base, or a Jury, or...a tractor? I don't remember. The entire genre rested on trapping Paulie Shore in a situation where he was ill suited for the task at hand, and square people couldn't just drop him in a dumpster.

Bio Dome is famous for being terrible, but that's giving it too much credit. It's just a cinematic nonentity. I still remember it, so I can't say it's forgettable, but it's just dull. It doesn't deserve hate, just disinterest. By contrast with the worst movie ever, mentioned previous, Bio Dome doesn't do anything worth hating. It could have been any Paulie Shore movie that killed his star, really. That this one is so uninteresting that you could watch it more than once says that it's not even the worst. The one on the jury, with its ridiculous ending and hateful premise, I couldn't tolerate more than once, for example. This was just dumb. Whoop de do.

Still, I've seen parts of it several times. I can recall images from it even now. Not a single line, of course, the dialog was that forgettable, and I often turned it down and read a book while waiting for the next movie to start, but I do essentially know the movie. What it does, more than anything, is make me wonder what today's kids are watching waiting for better things to start.

I have admitted to knowing more about Paulie Shore than anyone should feel comfortable with.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Favorite directors

Good news everyone! Regular random service will resume early May. This is great! Unfortunately, this means I have to keep thinking up other movies to talk about in the interim. I've got a couple Kitano movies that didn't get a domestic release that I can see stashed away on my hard drive, so maybe they will last me, but doing movies by memory is hard. So, instead, I will tell you all about my favorite directors in the whole wide world.

Takeshi Kitano: I mentioned this right? Kitano is fantastic because he's seemingly completely self taught. His movies don't worry about doing anything technically correctly, or following any formal structure or anything. He clearly just tells a story he wants to tell, in a way that he wants to tell it. You can tell a Kitano film pretty much from the first frame, with his use of static shots and odd yet clever editing choices. Nobody else makes movies like him.

Best film for the beginner: I don't think Hana-Bi has had a decent DVD release yet, but it is utterly fantastic. Plus, it gives a pretty good taste of his overall style and obsessions, and seems to be an early example of him actually moving the camera. A fascinating film.

Wong Kar-Wai: He's a Chinese director, who seems to film a bunch of stuff in a flashy style and piece together the story through the edit through voiceover. His films are often melancholy ruminations on love lost, with a couple exceptions. These are atmospheric films, and if you're willing, they can be extremely absorbing.

Best: I'll go with Fallen Angels. Again, an obscure entry, and mostly a silly story about an assassin, his boss, and a wacky mute guy, but it might be best to be eased into Wong Kar-Wai with a bit of goofy comedy, and this one is just endlessly entertaining.

Park Chan-Wook: Korean Filmmaker, famous mostly for Oldboy and is often marketed as an extreme filmmaker. His movies often have lots of gore, and the stories are usually messed up, but if you can handle that they are amazing in terms of cinematography and editing. Endlessly stylish, if a bit disturbing.

Best: Gotta go with Oldboy here. It's the one everybody knows, but it's shocking and stunning, a film that's completely unforgettable, for better or worse

Michael Mann: American, pretty well known actually. Like all the directors I like, very stylish, I have a feeling that I'd rip off a lot of his shots if I ever made movies on my own.

Best: Heat. I got into him through Collateral, but Heat is a fantastic movie anyway.

Michael Winterbottom: Not as familiar with him as I would like to be, but he directed to of my favorite comedies ever, Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, and 24 Hour Party People, both starring Steve Coogan, and both being gloriously self-referential.

Best: 24 Hour Party People has some odd tonal shifts, but it also helped me discover Joy Division. I still like Joy Division, thanks Winterbottom!

And those are just some of my favorite directors. Hooray for a filler post!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Fat Girl

As I continue in my quest for a permanent address, I'm finding it tricky to figure out what to cover each week. But, since I covered the best movie I've ever seen, let's look at the worst. It may have been released on the Criterion Collection, the go to place for film snobs to look for classy movies, but so was Armageddon.

The movie is about the titular fat girl and her discovery of sexuality. And then an axe murderer shows up. Directed by Catherine Breillat, who seems to have a thing for portraying sex as something essentially unpleasant, it is completely pointless.

I imagine she wanted the viewer to feel very uncomfortable with young girls doing sexual things. Mission accomplished, because most sane people would feel uncomfortable with naked 14 year old girls. This is what is called being obvious. It's the rest of the movie that's the main problem though. Characters don't have personality, they're just there to lead to one or two uncomfortable and unpleasant sex scenes. They had no motivations, no personality, no internal life, they just existed to have their shirts removed in order to make some sort of statement on sex. Unfortunately - especially in regards to the end - that statement seems to be that the director should be going to therapy, not making audiences be her therapist for her.

Up until the ending, I was annoyed by wasting my time with this nothing of a film. It was a horrible little nothing of a movie, and completely unwatchable, but that's no different from a lot of movies. No, what made it the worst film ever was the axe murderer, who kills most of the characters, and then rapes the fat girl. The axe murderer exists for two reasons. One, it gives an ending to a movie that didn't actually have a story. Everybody dies, because they were killed by an axe, apart from the main character, the end! It's lazy writing. Second, the rape is played as something the victim enjoys. Call me old fashioned, but what the hell? Not to get into the psychology of sex, but is there a sentiment that's more damaging than playing a rape as something the victim likes? Especially in the case of a rape of an underage character.

At that moment, the film stopped being merely bad. I can handle bad, I watched Tomorrow We Move all the way to the end. No, it went from being indifferently directed and poorly written to being something highly objectionable. It's difficult to imagine a film where that would work. I suppose it's possible if you had some extremely well written characters and the psychology of the situation well defined, to make it clear that the victim still is a victim, possibly in unexpected, preexisting ways. In this case, it turned into something terrible. Given that the characters existed only to make some sort of sex point, and that they had absolutely no personality otherwise, the message of the entire movie seemed to be that rape is okay, as long as it's a fat chick, she wouldn't get to have sex anyway. Is there a message worse than that?

The worst movies are the dull ones, but the very worst movies are dull ones that aspire to be art. Fat Girl wants very much to be edgy art, but instead it's a nauseating look into the psyche of a woman. None of the ones on screen - they don't have psyches - but the one behind a camera. Someone who thinks the last scene is a good idea clearly has some serious problems.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Glory to the Filmmaker!

Today, we return to Takeshi Kitano, and visit a movie I had lying on my hard drive because I can't find a DVD release in this country.

For a comedian, Takeshi Kitano doesn't direct very many comedies. This is only the second overt comedy from him I've seen, the other being Takeshis'. He also did a movie called Getting Any? that I've never seen that is also a comedy. Takeshis' was brilliant, in its way, even if the story seemed impenetrable on first viewing. It was visually inventive, often amusing, and a joy to watch no matter how out there it managed to be. It's easily one of my favorite movies, though not something anyone else could possibly enjoy unless they knew his other movies and had a high tolerance for free associative weirdness. I fit into both categories, so it's the film for me.

Glory to the Filmmaker is a bit less weird. It functions almost at a sketch comedy, with scenes mostly derived around the gag rather than how they relate to any sort of plot. It's about Kitano and his fiberglass doppelganger, as he tries to figure out how to make a movie that doesn't involve gangsters in any way. As a result, we get to watch a number of parodies of Japanese films, and learn why Kitano is bad at making them. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't, like all sketch comedy. Eventually, it turns into something else entirely, but it maintains the whole sketch comedy atmosphere.

It also doesn't work as well as perhaps it might. Part of the problem is how it's enthusiastically half-assed. Wires are always visible, there's some obvious green screen, and the sets are clearly cheap. Some of this was clearly done for effect, and some stuff does work. The dummy wranglers that can be seen whenever the dummy needs to be moved on its own never fail to be amusing. However, Kitano films usually have a sense of flair and style. This doesn't have nearly as much, and that's disappointing.

Still it's clearly a Kitano film. He's still completely obsessed with suicide (there must be 50 ways to kill your fiberglass copy), he still uses the anti-reaction shot to great effect, and the shots are often quite clever and interesting. It's just a bit sillier than usual. When you reach a late scene when a gigantic red penis getting played like a guitar (it makes less sense in context), you have a sudden desire to forgive all of the movie's faults because you know that this is clearly the work of a mad genius, and for all it's flaws, it's at least very unique.

Between Takeshis' and this, I get a feeling that Kitano is reflecting on his life's work. Some people would write an autobiography, he's decided to make films that reflect on what's important in life and what his legacy is. As he is a suicidal clown, I wonder if he isn't giving himself enough credit, by constantly mocking the work that made him famous. But I will continue to indulge him, because he continues to make movies like nobody else.

Don't forget to win me a car, okay guys?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Win me a car, friends.

Click here and vote for me.

So apparently I could win a car. And that would be super. Can you vote for me?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Important Movies: City of God

To preface, I should probably say something about how declaring something to be the "best ever" comes with certain risks. When you deal with art especially, there are a lot of subjectivity to mess around with, so everyone's going to disagree. Citizen Kane is a popular contender, given its innovative visual style and playful use of the medium, along with everyone's favorite under-appreciated artist Orson Welles behind the helm. The people's champion, so far as the IMDB is concerned, seems to be Shawshank Redemption. I like Shawshank, I even own it, so I can see the appeal. It's clever, and it's designed to be as audience pleasing as possible. But I like it, sometimes audiences need to be pleased. Some screenwriter claimed Casablanca had the best script ever, and the script is good, aided by the excellent performances. I can see the point of all of these movies being highly regarded, along with at least several others that I didn't mention.

But they're all wrong, the best movie ever made is City of God.

I have a funny feeling it'll never be recognized as such, being a bit too foreign and much too bloody. The top spot will always be reserved for something without subtitles and too much violence, in order to have the list have some mass appeal, given the people who are suspicious of both. It's also not particularly crowd pleasing, though I'll get to that in a minute.

This movie is about the Brazilian slum City of God, and the people who live there. City of God is not a particularly nice place to live, being filled with drug dealers and all. This world is where our hero Buscape is born into, and it is also what Little Ze is born into. The difference is, Buscape wants to get out, while Little Ze loves the world of violence and drug dealing. The story follows their respective rises to prominence, and how their fates are unexpectedly intertwined.

This is pretty much the reason I distrust gimmickry so much, because this movie does it well. This movie makes heavy use of a shaky camera, non-linear storytelling, and voice over. If a movie gets any one of those things wrong, it can be difficult to watch. This gets all of those elements right. First off, the cinematography. The camerawork is relentlessly stylish. The camera, mostly handheld, moves fluidly around, acting like another character simply observing. Also, the cinematographer seems to have gained control of the sun, since the film gets steadily less bright and sunny as the violence escalates. In the early scenes, it is bright, almost relentlessly so. The summer sun is so intense it might even raise the temperature of the room you're sitting in. Near the end, especially during Little Ze's confrontation with police, there is a sense of grayness around.

The story is non-linear, but not aggressively so. Things happen which the viewer is not privy to, and when they are revealed they are initially shocking, but not surprising after further consideration. You, at that point, know the characters, so their actions are, while not justified, explainable. You're also frequently introduced to characters before they are properly included in the story proper. The best example is Knockout Ned, whose introduction as an honest man making an honest living is set up to contrast with his getting sucked into the drug trade and the dishonesty it brings in him.

The characters are where this film really shines though, having clear and obvious psychological profiles without ever taking the time to explain them. Little Ze has clear problems with self esteem, which he thinks he can solve by being a big man. Never stated, but you can see it in scenes where he is visibly uncomfortable with someone else getting attention. His actions are a greater indication of his character than anything any other character might say for him. This is true of all the characters. You can see what they want in life simply by the way they act.

It's designed to be a portrayal of life for the kids who live in these slums, and it doesn't try to be a depressing and gritty movie just to claim realism. It's tragic, sure, but there are many moments of humor and levity, particularly Buscape's desire to get laid. These scenes are there not just to be amusing and distract from the violence, but to paint a complete picture of the kids' life. It's not all drugs and violence, there are good times too, and these are complete and interesting people dealing with the situation life has given them.

This movie is sad and depressing, hopeful and uplifting, and it ends on both a big high and a massive low. It transports you to a place where you don't necessarily want to go, and teaches you how people much less fortunate have to live every day. It is a film which managed to get a government inquiry after revealing the condition of the slums, likely making life better for hundreds of people. It can be funny, clever, violent, depressing, and entertaining. It has a social conscious and a message, relying on the story itself to provide the message rather than having any scene which clubs you with a moralizing stick. It's just simply the best movie ever made.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Violent Cop

In this series on movies that are important to me and how I view film, I start with, of all things, a highly obscure Japanese police film. Not only that, I don't even remember the story for the most part, and what little I do remember is quite generic. It's a movie about a violent cop, and some people who mess with said violent cop, and some other stuff happens. So, why do I even bring it up? Clearly I'm no expert on it.

The reason why lies in a bunch of French film critics from the 50s and 60s. Apart from eating copious amounts of cheese and doing other stereotypically french things, they had this theory called the "auteur theory". It stated that the director of a film was the ultimate author (or auteur if you're French) of the final product. It's a good theory, even if auteur is probably not the right word to use. It's more like the arranger of a musical piece. The notes and words are all laid out beforehand, but the arranger makes them into the final product. A great arranger - and I'm going to be mentioning stuff that has appeared on Album du Jour because that's what got me thinking about this - will take someone else's song and through their talent and style, make it into something their own. See, every Johnny Cash cover ever. A bad arranger will take a great song - let's say Warren Zevon's Poor Poor Pitiful Me - and turn it into an awful country song with a strange glimmer of good beneath the rubble (Terri Clark is the culprit in this case). That's the same thing that separates a great director from a bad one.

The point I'm circling around like a procrastinating shark is that there was one movie that finally made me believe in the auteur theory, if my own variation on it. It's a movie with a fairly typical script which a Japanese actor and television personality, most recognizable from that MXC show of all things, decided to direct after the original director fell ill. He's become one of my favorite directors, though he does all of his own scripts now, scripts which are becoming progressively stranger and don't seem to attempt to make sense anymore. This is the first film directed by Takeshi Kitano, and it's probably the most atypical typical movie I've ever seen.

It's all in how it's shot, a style apparently born out of inexperience but that is striking and fascinating. Reportedly the heavy emphasis on static shots was derived from a fear of getting equipment in frame, but it's striking and bold. The sequence I remember most involves a chase scene which has all of the energy and excitement drained out of it. It makes a point about chase scenes, and the futility of the escape. Yet, it does this by being the opposite of how most people would have shot the scene. It's better in spite of being, from a purely objective and film school-y standpoint, wrong.

The film is made of sequences shot in a way that nobody in their right might would have done, and stronger for it. It takes a typical script, and treats it in a way that acts almost as a commentary on the story it's trying to tell. Objectively, it's wrong, bearing no relation to how a film is expected to look. But subjectively, it's genius. It sold me on auteur theory simply by being a film nobody else would make. That's why a film I barely remember is one of the most important to how I view film.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Silence of the Lambs

One of the things I recall about this movie is that it was marketed and presented as something of a horror movie. Perhaps I grew up around one slasher flick too many, but this isn't what I'd associate with a horror movie. Horror, through no fault of my own, has become associated with particularly dim teenagers going off to engage in premarital relations and then getting stabbed by someone in a mask. That's not this movie, and really not horror in general if you think of it. This gets much closer to what horror actually is, and weirdly far from what a horror film is often held to be.

The story is fairly well known, of course. There's a scary serial killer (known as Buffalo Bill, and played by Ted Levine) whose murdering the larger lady in order to make a lady suit. Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster, is a young almost-FBI agent, called in to talk to crazy psycho killer Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins) in order to see if a serial killer could somehow help understand other serial killers. There's a time limit, ratcheting tension, and a thick fog of psychology wrapped around everyone.

This is what you might call an actor's movie. It lives and dies on the performances of all the characters, and whether or not they can believably portray the menace or determination (depending on the role) required to effectively create the tension. While there are violent scenes and some gore, that's just an inevitability. The real scares come from what the characters do and say, especially Hannibal. He's often made to look directly at the camera, seemingly staring into your soul. The dialog alone ensures you know he is a bad man, and having him stare right at you reinforces that.

But a camera trick is a camera trick, helpful but not any good if your actors can't pull it off. Luckily, Anthony Hopkins is an amazing actor, embodying the character so perfectly you may want to check his basement for bodies. His portrayal exudes quiet menace, and when he finally is shown to be violent, it's an inevitability more than a shock. The best part is, the rest of the acting is fantastic as well. Jodie Foster manages to convey more in a twitch and a slight move of her head than some actors can do with a lengthy monologue and interpretive dance. It's not a showy role, but she deserved the Oscar she won.

The script and performances are great, the only problem with the movie lies strictly in the fact that it was made in 1990. I do not know what happened to film stock in the 70s and 8os, but the color has that washed out look all movies of era have. Worse, I was accidentally sent a full screen version, which is terrible. Since the shots were composed to be claustrophobic in wide screen, with heavy emphasis on close ups, full screen just makes it look uncomfortable.

Don't let my film quality nitpicks put you off though. That really is the only thing wrong, this movie is a milestone in smart scares. I mentioned the typical slasher movies before, they scare your primal instincts. This aims to strike a more intellectual center, a full fledged attack on your emotions and reason. That's why even after you forget all the slashers jumping through windows, Anthony Hopkins staring right at you will stay with you forever.

Due to various reasons, Movies at Random will temporarily be less random. Not going away though, I intend to do some write ups on movies that, for whatever reason, are important to me. No screens, and I'm going from memory, but until I get a more permanent address, this will have to do. Stay tuned, same bat time, same bat channel.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Moon Child

(No screens, because my computer doesn't want to admit this is a disc)

Vampires aren't cool. All they do is sit around moping or being pale, sometimes mustering the energy to go suck someone's blood. They don't even do that in a cool manner half the time, looking more like they're making out with someone's neck. Not especially cool. This hasn't stopped people from convincing themselves that vampires are awesome, so you get things like the recent teen sensation Twilight, and the not at all related Japanese pop star vanity project Moon Child.

It all begins with Japanese Pop Star #1, Hyde, who is a vampire. You notice this because his skin blisters a bit in the sunlight (and, in a later scene, he appears to be farting plumes of smoke), and he also mopes a lot and drinks some blood at key plot moments. A little street boy comes across him and tries to help him, and in turn he helps the little boy steal a bunch of money from some rich guy, also sucking said rich guy's blood. This little boy eventually gets a sex change and grows up to be Japanese pop princess Gackt, and he's best friends with the vampire, and they go out stealing money from drug dealers, just like Omar from the Wire, except more gay. Eventually, however, Gackt finds a woman to love, and there's some really bad family drama.

The great thing about this movie is everyone thinks they're very cool - Gackt wears more leather than a herd of cattle - but they're really, really not. It's directed by Wong Kar-Wai's non-union equivalent, so it's very flashily shot with lots of slow motion and a wash of color, often by a camera man who appears to be missing a leg. The sets are all super fashionable and cool, which is kind of a stretch considering everyone is supposed to be a criminal. But given the often ridiculous fashion sense on display and the ultra awesome lighting, you can't help but think that they're trying to hard. Which they are, of course.

Then there's the acting. Hyde has attended the Keanu Reeves School of Conveying Emotion, able to effectively display brooding, and brooding while drowsy. Gackt, on the other hand, has decided that there needs to be some sort of emotional equivalency on display and has his needle pegged deep in the ham zone. He tries to achieve every emotion in the world in pretty much every scene. The funny thing is, he's still not actually very good at that, so it winds up being mostly silly faces and bad makeup. It's fantastically awful.

The best part of the whole thing is the fight scenes, a strange combination of the Matrix and the Three Stooges. These don't actually make the film worthwhile, but since everything else is played so seriously, when they decide to bring the laughs with murder, it's an amazing yet terrible experience.

I want to say this is an awful movie, so I will. This is an awful movie, of that there is no question. But I have to say I enjoyed it, if not for the reasons the creators intended. There's something strangely amusing about a movie that tries so hard to be hip and cool, and fails completely. I can't read Japanese, so I don't know what they think, but to me it's right in the same sphere as Crossroads, Glitter and Cool as Ice. Pop stars usually have no business being film stars, and Gackt and Hyde are really no exception to this rule.

(By the way, after Tuesday updates are going to get very sporadic, due to moving and a bunch of other stuff. Hopefully I can get in the groove again soon, but that depends entirely on several factors I don't want to go too deep into.)