Friday, July 31, 2009


One of the problems with modern criticism, be it in film, music, books, games, or any other media you might imagine, is that there seems to be an intense fear of being wrong. Everything is either loved or hated, with the opinion changing based on what someone else might think. Regina Spektor, for example, is a highly acclaimed musician, but I find her extremely annoying. But, you'll never hear a music critic be especially mean to her, because everyone else likes her, clearly there's something there, don't want to be the odd duck. Same with the band No Age, which recorded the worst album I have ever heard (Nouns), but got very good press from people who didn't want to be that person who didn't like No Age. This also brings us to Japon, which won awards and was generally well regarded. It's also unspeakably boring, but in such a way that gets critical acclaim.

The story is about an artsy intellectual from Mexico City going to a small little town in the middle of a pretty canyon. He claims to be going there to die. He stays with a kindly old woman, who teaches him how to live, and he falls in love with.

So, why does it get good press? Well, apart from being dull, it's filmed in an unconventional manner. Essentially, the camera is mostly disinterested in what is going on, often wandering to look at very pretty landscape, or some other object, or generally anything but the humans in the film. It is a lot like me, when I have to attend an especially dull event, paying attention for the most part, but then wandering off and taking pictures of the scenery and whatnot.

However, as a result of this camerawork, you begin to be curious what the writer/director - Carlos Reygadas - is going for. For most people, you might think that he's simply making a relatively boring redemption story with a surprising amount of animal cruelty, but if you're a critic you have a problem. See, a critic has to put his or her opinion of the film out in the press for other people to see. Other people who will inevitably judge it. If you have a suspicion that there's something deep within the endless shots of rocks, or the old lady serving tea, but you can't figure out what it could possibly be, you're going to get worried. There might be something here! If I say that it's just a sometimes pretty redemption story that is actually quite dull, all the other critics are going to laugh at me!

So, you'll get great reviews, talking about the christian allegory (which is broadly hinted at through multiple shots of Jesus) and the supposedly amazing final shot which is actually just very long and not even technically interesting, and how the title which is actually completely nonsensical (it takes place in Mexico, and is about Mexicans, Japan is not involved in any way) has something to do with the rising sun or some crap. You'll convince yourself it's good, because you don't want to be the person who doesn't think it's any good.

Hell, I almost did it to myself, and I have no real need to agree with the establishment. I was curious about the title, how the camera really doesn't relate to what is going in the film, and all that jazz. It was interesting, and I wanted to see where he was going, promising myself that it was somewhere amazing. Instead, I was lead to a story I have seen millions of times - magical person or animal teaches someone else to really live, and then ceases to do so itself - except with more animal cruelty and a really unfortunate sex scene.

Stuff like this is essentially why modern criticism is dead. Too many people feel as though they have to agree that it is impossible to tell whether something is actually worth paying attention to. Films (and other things) will get great initial reviews, and then extreme backlash, as people don't trust themselves and are trying to show that they're smart by generally getting along with everyone else. It has become too predictable what people will like or dislike, which means that it is impossible tell what is worth paying attention to. Criticism has become pointless, because everyone is striving to agree.

Well, here at Movies at Random, I don't care what other people think. That's why I will shovel praise on the first Star Trek movie. That's why I will proclaim this to be boring in a way that can make people pretend it isn't. Yes, there are a great deal of popular and well regarded movies I like. Yes, there are many poorly regarded films I don't. But I'm not going to say I like or dislike something because it's what someone else might say. We need more people willing to disagree.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

I Heart Huckabees

It's impossible to really approach I Heart Huckabees without bringing up the director David O. Russell. Mainly, that he's famously a bit of an ass. George Clooney punched him in the face, and videos have been leaked of him yelling at Lily Tomlin during the shooting of this movie. So, you know that, at least during shooting, he's really angry at everyone, leading to the bizarre situation of a wacky comedy made by an angry man, something that is very obvious from the first noise. Not many wacky comedies start with a stream of profanity.

The story is about Albert Markovski, played by Jason Schwartzman, and his curiosity about a series of coincidences based around a tall African, played by Ger Duany. He's also an environmental activist, who is trying to shave a marsh through poetry. He's also really angry at Brad Stand, played by Jude Law. So, he goes to existential detectives played by Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman, and Naomi Watts, Marky Mark and Caterine Vauban are also involved in the really complicated web of a story that is pretty much why I try to leave these synopsizes to one paragraph that's not very detailed.

So the movie contains a lot of weird, philosophical humor, as the plot swims around connecting everyone in a bizarre ways and piling on silly coincidences that are supposed to connect in a vague, inexplicable way. Also, everyone yells a lot, as though they're angry at the universe, themselves, and their director. I'm not sure if it's a great idea or not, but it's undeniably part of the movie.

The thing I don't like about this is how utterly precious it is, even with the anger running beneath the surface. The existential detectives sneak around and stalk our heroes in a very cute way. There are adorably half-assed video effects, characters clobber each other with balloons, and it's got an utterly adorable Jon Brion score. It's got this quirky cute thing that lots of really bad indie films try to pass off as character.

Also like lots of other really bad indie films, it is in love with its dialog, pouring out reams of messages, existential quandaries and attempts at being clever per minute. I couldn't help but think it was the end result of someone taking a class and it totally changing their life, man.

From the above, you might think it's a really bad indie film. You would be mostly right, in fact, perhaps I'm beyond having my mind blown by totally awesome philosophy. I took a course on it too, and it didn't save my life, so I'm totally not part of the target audience. I'm also not a huge fan of people shouting at each other - one day we'll get a Ken Loach movie, and I will get into this further - so there are a lot of moments that leave me cold.

Still, even if this isn't for me, it has some good moments. Jude Law is a master of his own face, and the scene where he realizes that he says the same Shania Twain story at every opportunity and becomes ashamed is a fantastic piece of acting. Like most indie quirk, it will often stumble onto genuinely funny and interesting moments. Curiously, the best moments are when people shut up and are just doing stuff, like when Marky Mark and Schwartzman hit each other with a big balloon.

I am not quite the target market here, but I can recognize who the film belongs to. College students with bad hair, a love of philosophy and affection for misusing the word irony, this is your film. It will make you feel smart, it will make you laugh, and appeal to your propensity towards quirkiness. When you outgrow quirk and are less fascinated by philosophy, it will leave you cold, like it did me.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Easy Rider

Easy Rider is one of those films that if taken on pure mechanical terms might not be considered classically good. It doesn't have a cohesive plot really, and the entire thing is just 90 minutes of riding on motorcycles. But really, when you hit the opening credits, watching Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper riding motorcycles to Born to be Wild, you can almost hear them saying "complaints? What complaints? We're busy redefining cool here!"

The story is simple, Fonda and Hopper - who also directs - sell some drugs to everyone's favorite homicidal music producer Phil Spector. Then, they drive to Mardi Gras on their motorcycles to cool music. On the way, they encounter hippies and hicks and a bunch of other people. It's edited in an interesting way and looks cool.

So, given the first paragraph, you might expect that I don't like this film. And you would be completely...wrong. See, whatever I think of the story, or lack thereof, the movie works anyway, all because of the cool factor. Watching this, I wanted to take a motorbike across the US while doing lots of drugs, and I don't even like motorbikes or drugs. It doesn't hurt that Fonda is impossibly cool in general.

There's another thing that works, the chemistry between Fonda and Hopper. As mentioned previous, Fonda is possibly the coolest person ever, or was at that time. Hopper, by contrast, has got a fidgety charisma that is a nice contrast. He's also rocking the mother of all mustaches. The contrast between the two is one of those film constants that keeps appearing - normal cool guy, wacky sidekick - but this is just more evidence of why it's a cliche, it plain works.

Other people might want to bring up the whole prosecution of people who are different angle, or perhaps the fuzzy moral hidden in the last campfire scene, but the point the film is trying to make wouldn't work without the cool factor. If Hopper and Fonda were driving a VW van across America, people would be less sympathetic to their characters, because they're less enviable. You care about them because you secretly want to be on those motorcycles. When they face prosecution, you care because it's a lifestyle you would really like to have, and every unkind word, closed motel or more violent response punches that dream in the face.

For a film that from all reports was made in a fog of marijuana smoke, it turned into something fantastic, and yet obviously made by people who were stoned throughout shooting. It's got a very loose, very free associative, very not concerned with being cohesive style. Yet, somehow, it works, in spite of all logical counts against it. Even after the downer of an ending, you kind of envy the characters. They're doing something undeniably cool, and whether or not you can do the same, it still manages to be worth watching.

I fully admit to over-using the word cool.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Last time a movie with a one letter title appeared on Movies at Random, it was Z, and it was awesome, easily the third or fourth best movie ever made. The pattern suggests that the next one letter movie we encounter will also be good, right? Well, here's H, a Korean thriller, I bet it's awesome!

Jin-Hee Ji is detective Kang, an enthusiastic new detective investigating a serial killer. Jung-Ah Yum is detective Kim, who is also investigating the murders, but is less enthusiastic. She also has no emotion whatsoever in her face at any time. It's remarkable, I don't think I've ever seen an actor that stone faced, even Keanu Reeves has emotion sometimes.

I digress. Anyway, they are investigating a series of ovary-based murders. That might sound like me being slightly flippant, but no, they're murders which are planned to the detail on the habits of ovaries in general, and the disregard for their ovaries that the victims have. They appear to be copycats of murders which serial killer Shin Hyun did 10 months ago. Special note must be made of Seung-woo Cho, who plays Shin Hyun. He somehow goes through the entire movie in slow motion, which strikes me as bizaree, creepy, and not the least bit lazy. It's as he tried to be Anthony Hopkins, failed, and then just replaced brooding and intensity with lethargy.

The movie itself is a standard thriller, with red herrings, mystery and copious gore. There's a twist ending, which comes out of nowhere, is quite stupid, and strangely unsatisfying. Motives never ring very true, the ending seems both a bit too long and a bit rushed, and there are often odd leaps made without the audience ever getting a hint of how we got there.

There are some good moments. There's a fantastic low speed pursuit, where the chase is conducted with drivers trying to outwit each other rather than by sheer power, though it was a cool enough premise I wished it lasted longer. In fact, if someone is chased in this movie, it's usually quite quality. Also, some shots are very pretty, and there's one in a bus parking lot that makes the whole thing unworldly. Plus, like all Korean movies, there's a sense that the entire place was built yesterday, since every building is shiny and ultra modern, and I like that.

It's hard to say something interesting when you're presented with a product that actually isn't very interesting at all. It's a by the numbers thriller with an unfulfilling ending, the kind of movie that fades steadily to dust as we get further and further from its initial release. That's the funny thing about this project, sometimes you'll get something amazing, sometimes something terrible, but there's just as much of a chance you'll get something that's just middle of the road and unremarkable. I try to keep this as random as I possibly can, given my limitations, and unfortunately that means they can't all be fantastic winners or astonishing losers. H proves this.

Friday, July 17, 2009

F is for Fake

Orson Welles would have loved videogames, I'm sure of it. Nobody seemed to enjoy getting the most out of a medium like Welles. The famous radio play that made his name was all about doing things with radio that were never done before, doing a play as a series of newscasts. Citizen Kane played around with film - albeit not quite as much - and we come neatly to F is for Fake, a factual documentary, except when it isn't.

F is for Fake is forgery. It's about a famous art forger Elmyr de Hory, and his biographer Clifford Irving, who made a fake biography of Howard Hughes. Between them, they fooled millions, and according to Elmyr, he's got his paintings hung in galleries around the world, masquerading as real paintings by famous painters.

That the film opens with a magic trick tells a lot about the nature of the story itself. It tells what I don't doubt is a factual story - for the most part - but it does it in a way that makes you inherently suspicious of the nature of the film. You know, from the way it is edited and the filmed, Welles is up to something. You're fascinated, and you are inclined to trust him, but you can't help but think there's a reason for it being a film about forgery, and if you're paying attention, you begin to think something is up.

It's amazing because it makes a point while telling a story, and uses the story to make a personal point Welles wishes to. It rewards paying close attention and close study, and there's a constant mystery about when he's trying to pull your leg or when he's simply telling the story. It's brilliant.

It's cut in a highly clever way as well. The cuts are quick, and as it uses some documentary footage, he uses freeze frame as a reaction shot. The story is true, but the edits are all lies, it's astonishing how clever it all is.

It's a very fun movie, but it has a purpose. In essence, it makes you appreciate trickery, and the clueless people who try to catch it. It's fun to find out how these fakes pass muster with people who claim to know it all about art and history. Welles seems to regard our forgers as some sort of odd folk heroes, and you can't help but agree. They pull the wool over the eyes of people who claim to know better. Welles, throughout the film, does the same, and it's just plain fun to watch.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A View to a Kill

Roger Moore gets a bad rap as a Bond. I never used to get that, since he was in the movie that got me hooked on the series, For Your Eyes Only. It was fantastic, an exciting and interesting film that I might cover one day, though I do own it so lord knows when. More importantly, Moore was good in it, giving me my initial idea of what Bond should be.

Well, around when Casino Royale came out, I decided that I should watch all the Bond films in order, and I got it. He really only had two great films, two acceptable ones, and three of the worst. This film was one of the acceptable ones, I thought, though the consensus seems to be that it was a series low light. Truth be told, it has some serious problems, but I can never say it's bad.

The oft cited problem with this film rests with Moore, specifically how he had aged into a creepy old man by the time shooting started. That age seeps into the film as a whole, starting in the stuffy world of horse racing. It seems to be a very interesting world only to those old enough to give a crap about top hats, so fairly dull for most people. That's not it though, Moore is much too comfortable in the role, often sleepwalking and pulling out his eyebrow ticks rather than acting, which becomes really obvious when better actors are on the screen.

There are other problems too. The evil scheme is basically lifted from Goldfinger, albeit with a geological twist. It is yet another film that suffers from what I'll call the Tara Reid Rule of Science, essentially stating that the girl least capable of conveying intelligence will always be cast as a scientist, in this case the mildly ditzy - though likable - Tanya Roberts.

However, there are things to like as well. Being obsessed with film stock, I love how it's an 80s film that actually looks good. The score is pretty great, apart from one really unfortunate audio joke in the first stunt sequence. Also, the last half hour is exciting and fun, elevating the movie to acceptable.

But the best part is the two villains, played by Christopher Walken and Grace Jones.
Walken plays a Nazi experiment gone horribly awry who wants to destroy Silicon Valley, and he clearly has great fun with the role. The only problem is he's so good he acts cartwheels around Moore whenever they share the screen, highlighting just how lazy Moore was being. Jones is an freakishly toned visual presence, who is absolutely fantastic just through her body language and her look. She's got a bizarre androgynous appearance, and it takes over the screen whenever she appears.

Between the two, they make the movie watchable, and elevate it from what should logically be a lesser Bond into a mid-range Bond. It would never be great, Moore was a bit too old and the series needed a little kick in the pants, but it's still enjoyable, and it's not a crushing piece of rubbish like his worst examples (Man with the Golden Gun being the most flagrant example). Still Walken and Jones save the movie from oblivion, if only they could have been in a finer example of the breed.

Friday, July 10, 2009


Here's something interesting, someone desperately wanted me to see this movie. It was well at the bottom of the queue, but somehow it got sent out before 19 other films which I had placed on higher priority. It was also placed on high priority before, in a hint that I should actually use the high priority list. So, person, I assume that you work at the movie place and have figured out my little project. I hope you're not disappointed!

As I watched this movie, I could think of but one thing. Specifically, this image. In this movie, we see CGI enhanced men running around in their underwear stabbing and kicking men who deign to wear clothes. A big group of totally heterosexual and not at all gay in any way men go out together to kill dudes and be violent in a fountain of repressed homosexuality. I mean, Leonidas has a wife, he can't be, right?

Oh, you say, that's not fair really. Just because they are all impossibly fit and handsome and sweaty, and wear less clothes than are seen in the average porno. That doesn't mean that it's a gay movie really, does it? No, perhaps not, but it's an easy joke to make, and an integral part of the sheer ridiculousness of this film.

The story is simple and a bit dumb. Gerard Butler is Leonidas who is a Spartan king, and impossibly awesome and manly and heterosexual. He is insulted by a Persian messenger and kicks him into a pit of eternal overplayed internet memes. This means he has to go to war with Persia, though he can only take 300 men for silly political reasons. Of course, since Spartans are the most heterosexual men around, that's all they need, and a bunch of killing and silly, comically simplistic characters show up and are easily dispatched.

Certainly, it's pretty, but it's a very artificial pretty, each shot overproduced and wading in the uncanny valley. There's so much slow motion here that one begins to think that time simply goes more slowly in Sparta. The movie is less a film than the cutscenes of a videogame.

See, a lot of critics look on games as something of a lesser art form. I'm looking at YOU, Roger Ebert! This is unfair, at the best of times they can have fantastic stories, good characters, and be art. But just as often, you get games about manly men killing obvious evil in a particularly manly way, and that has gotten the medium something of a poor reputation. This is a film with the weak, killing intensive story of something like God of War, something so violent it becomes comical.

If I want to play such a game, I'll play a freaking game. They can be fun. Sure, I didn't like God of War very much - in fact, I got quite bored of it, for similar reasons as why I got bored of this movie. It's just violence and testosterone, but for no purpose. There's no joy in killing, unless you're killing in a particularly inventive or interesting way. I was never intrigued, never fascinated, and never curious as to what happened next. But at least in GoW, I was an active participant in the action. Here, watching slow motion sweaty men in their underpants, I got bored. Without an investment in the one dimensional characters and their one dimensional nation, I had no real side to root for in the endless battles, and really couldn't care less what happened.

Action is good, but you have to care. The villains and heroes have to have motivations and a personality. While you should have a side to root for, the sides shouldn't be so exaggerated and silly that you can't take them remotely seriously. Turncoat characters should not be obvious from the FIRST FRAME THEY APPEAR IN, villains should have at least a modicum of motivation, rather than they kill because they're evil, heroes should at the very least be slightly identifiable. It'll work in a game because you're participating in the action. But in a movie? Simplistic and exaggerated characters just get dull after a while.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Ashes of Time Redux

Being a fan of Wong Kar Wai, I saw the original cut of this movie ages ago, in an admittedly less than legal rip from the internet. I had no choice, the movie just plain didn't exist in this country, and until very recently it was not available here in any form. Truth be told, I couldn't make very much sense of it. It was clearly a story from feudal China, but I couldn't make heads or tail it.

After some research, it seems I wasn't alone. That cut took years to assemble, and was so long and frustrating to get pieced together that Kar Wai took a vacation mid-edit to make an entirely different movie that would be less of a pain. That movie, incidentally, was Chungking Express, which was fantastic and the reason California Dreaming can get stuck in my head at a moment's notice.

Evidently a glutton for punishment, Kar Wai decided to have another go at the film. Well, it could be that, or maybe it's that time and moving away from the stress has given some form of clarity well after the fact. In this cut, the movie makes perfect sense, and Kar Wai becomes the bizarro George Lucas, taking a movie that wasn't fantastic and making it great in a new edit.

This is the story of Ouyang Feng, played by Leslie Cheung, and Huang Yaoshi, played by Tony Leung Ka Fai (one of two Tony Leungs in the movie). Well, it's sort of the story of them and how they connect to several other stories, all connected by themes and the subtle effects of those two main characters and their actions. It is typical Kar Wai fare, tales of love, longing and loss shot in a stunningly beautiful manner.

It's an interesting looking film this. For one, it's grainier than a grain bin during harvest time belonging to a farmer with a bumper crop. Now, being picky about film stock, you might expect that to bother me. It doesn't, sometimes the grain is used to great effect. The action scenes are a formless blur of action and reaction. It's stunning to behold, distancing the audience and the characters from the presumed brutality of their actions. It's filmed instinct, separate from the over thinking that causes the characters such misery in their normal lives.

If you know Kar Wai, you know what to expect here. Nobody can capture the futility of human desire like he can, and there is no director that films a movie like he can. His frustrating swordplay adventure always seemed like something of a lost kitten in his oeuvre, hard to find, but making big noise in the influence of his later works. Now, that kitten has grown into a beautiful cat, and while this analogy is being stretched beyond the breaking point, I think it stands somewhere among the best he's made. Not bad for a movie I really couldn't get my head around on the first go.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Galaxy Quest

In one of the special features to one of the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg films (I do bring those two up a lot, don't they?), they mention that their parody is out of love, not out of derision, and that might be why it connects. They have a point, because in their films, you can tell they love the material, which allows people who also love the films they mock get in there and enjoy it just as much. Which brings me to Galaxy Quest, a Star Trek parody, which is also made out of love, and also happens to work.

I say Star Trek parody, but it's not simply a parody of the series, but the strange obsession that comes with it. Tim Allen is William Shatner, errr...the arrogant, scene-stealing captain, Alan Rickman is the second in command who believes the whole thing is beneath him, Tony Shaloub seems kinda stoned, and Sam Rockwell thinks he's the obligatory redshirt. Sigourney Weaver is the token hot chick and Daryl Mitchell is the token black guy. Together, they go to conventions and visit obsessive fans, and quietly beginning to dislike each other and their lack of career.

Suddenly, some childlike aliens don't understand that it's a TV series and believe that it's all real, so they take everyone off to space. The collection of washed up actors have to go save them, and discover that they're just like their characters after all, and they save the day, and everyone is happy.

People who are Trek fans will recognize the silly psuedoscience, the stock characters, the silly writing, the ship based on goofy writing before logical design, and the various clashing personalities, and the sheer arrogance of the captain. Moments are pulled from Trek lore and legend, which make the characters familiar and amuse the fans. People who aren't fans can appreciate it anyway, because it's an entertaining piece of science fiction, with good action and a funny script. It works simply as a movie, but for fans of the parodied material, it works on another level.

It also helps that the cast is fantastic. Tim Allen is somewhat underrated as an actor. I'm not sure if he's necessarily versatile, but his slightly arrogant actor/captain is perfect. Everyone else is believably sick of him, and they do function well as a unit that is generally sick of each other and their lack of success.

More than that, you can tell that the people behind it recognize the value of the series and what it means to people. Yes, there's something a little ridiculous about the production values, the scripts, the day being saved by ridiculous deus ex machina and really the whole thing. But the series is more than just a bunch of actors pretending to be in space. It means something, the values it presents are worthwhile, and by the end, you can recognize the value of series' like this, even if they might be silly to some eyes. Galaxy Quest is a highly amusing adventure, but it's also a good movie, and you know, it does mean something in the end.

Like all properly good parodies, it's a good movie full stop, but if you get the jokes, it becomes that much better.