Movie roundup

Been a long time since I actually blogged the movies I’ve seen. Here goes.

  1. Off the Map. Good, evocative, low-key, and smart. Directed by Campbell Scott, who I only knew of as an actor (but one who takes smart roles). Joan Allen is excellent, and seems to improve with time.
  2. Sin City. Wow. Visually, this is one of the most arresting movies I’ve seen in a long time. The stories are, well, pretty much standard pulp-fiction, although kind of interesting in that the good guys aren’t really all that good; the bad guys are inventively despicable, though. The babes are hawt. The violence is really, surprisingly, intense and remorseless. I learned after seeing the movie that, like Sky Captain, the whole movie was shot in front of greenscreens and the backgrounds were all CG–I had guessed there was a lot of CG, but I didn’t realize it was total. I’d say Rodriguez did a better job with it here. Like Sky Captain, the visuals are stylized, but this kind of stylization seems to work better. And the technology has probably improved. I also learned that Rodriguez was fanatically faithful to Miller’s layouts from the comic book in his scene composition.
  3. The Interpreter. A formula Hollywood suspense movie with pretty good execution. Problems: It peaks too early. It tries to lard too many red-herrings and distracting personal stories. (I mean, really, did they need to make it so Sean Penn’s character had just lost the wife from whom he had been sort-of separated but on the verge of a reconciliation? He plays tortured personalities naturally, you don’t need to pile it on.) But, speaking as a translator, I can say that they accurately portrayed the members of my sister profession as a bunch of attractive stateless vagabonds with shady pasts in guerilla organizations.
  4. Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room. Didn’t tell us a whole lot that we didn’t already know, and was forced by time constraints to omit some interesting aspects of the company’s shady dealings. It did give us more insight into the personalities at the top. Felt a little disorganized, but still absorbing.

Bad Education

Saw La Mala Educación. A story within a story within a story, which gets a little dizzying at points, but it works. A twisty-turny plot that, in a very abstract way, reminds me a little of The Sting. Gay sex. Pedophile Priests. A movie about movies (as is Almodóvar’s wont).

Million Dollar Baby

Million Dollar Baby is one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time, and one of the toughest to watch. The fight scenes have savage choreography–real boxers could never fight like that–but those scenes just soften you up (as if with a meat tenderizer) for the last part of the film, which is completely devastating. Do not see this movie if you have any plans to be happy for the next day or so, but it’ll give you plenty to think about. It’s a movie about many things, but at its root, I think it’s about looking at what loyalty means from different angles.

There’s no wasted motion. Clint Eastwood strips everything down to the moral consequences of one’s actions, and omits or barely sketches legal, financial, and everyday issues that would just get in the way of telling the story. The cinematography is equally economical and beautiful.

Strange fantasies of childhood

Gwen and I recently saw two movies that make a surprisingly apt pair: both about adult men obsessed with fantasies of childhood.

First, Finding Neverland. This is a fictionalized account of JM Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, and the writing of that play. It’s either very affecting or very schmaltzy, depending on what mood you’re in when you walk into the theater. I was initially in the former camp, but part of the movie’s power derives from the fact that it purports to tell a story of real people. When I later learned that it had taken considerable artistic license the facts of their lives, I felt cheated. Still, on its own merits, it’s a good movie. Not really for kids.

Second, In the Realms of the Unreal. This is a documentary about Henry Darger, a reclusive Chicago janitor who died in the 1970s, leaving behind an astounding 15,000-page saga, with 23 mural-sized illustrations that are masterpieces of outsider art. The man was so little known to his neighbors that there isn’t even a consensus among them on how to pronounce his last name. Darger’s story in itself is compelling, but the movie adds little to one’s understanding once you already know the basics of it. Although the murals get plenty of screen time, the treatment isn’t as deep as it could be–we never get a full view of them, what some of the stranger aspects of them might mean, etc. And in some spots, the filmmakers animated them (need to liven up the movie, I guess), which is a questionable artistic decision. As an introduction to Darger’s story and work, it’s not bad.

Barrie was fascinated with boyhood because boys haven’t lost the potential for imagination, or gained the burdens of responsibility. Darger, after enduring a very difficult childhood, created a fantasy world that recapitulated many of the worst aspects of it, perhaps initially as a way of working through difficult memories. But it clearly consumed him, to the point where it was not only more important than his everyday reality, it may not have been entirely distinct.

House of Flying Daggers

Saw House of Flying Daggers yesterday. Excellent. Beautiful cinematography, costumes, acrobatics and fighting, and all that. A multilayered plot that changes directions quickly and makes you think.

Like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (to which all big-budget martial-arts movies must be compared), at one level the story revolves around the conflict between desire and duty, but if that movie was wushu Jane Austen, this is wushu Shakespeare. In Crouching Tiger, duty won. In this movie, desire loses. The intricate way that the fates of the characters play out is like a blacksmith’s puzzle–you can tug on it a dozen different ways, but none of them seem to disentangle the pieces.

The Aviator

Saw The Aviator last night. Very good. It kind of drops you in the middle of things without giving you much of a lead-in, which is unusual for a biopic, but the movie is already pretty long, and Scorcese probably felt that the parts of Hughes’ early life that he was omitting weren’t that interesting, and that the audience could fill in the blanks.

And there’s a lot of ground to cover. When people my age think of Howard Hughes, we probably think of him in his latter years, as a pathetic figure–I know I did. What I’ve always failed to appreciate is that he really was a larger-than-life character who also happened to be nuts. This movie brought that side of him into sharp focus and showed how he battled with his dementia. It’s easy to write off Leonardo DiCaprio as another pretty-boy actor, but he did a damn good job.

Cate Blanchett as Kate Hepburn was just uncanny–the movie is worth seeing for her performance alone. Hepburn was so distinctive in her mannerisms, speech, etc, that any imitation would easily slip into parody. Not here. Lots of other big or recognizable faces pop up throughout the film, too. What’s Willem Dafoe doing in such a tiny part?

The movie ends before Hughes did, and relies on our knowledge of his decline for some of its power. The movie sticks in my mind, making me think about the potential of a man like that, held back by madness that (at least at the time) could not really be addressed, and perhaps wouldn’t be when the sufferer is in a position of such authority.

Movies movies movies

A little catching-up to do on the movieblogging.

Saw Ocean’s Twelve. Apart from the fact that this is indicative of the colossal lack of originality in Hollywood–a sequel to a remake of an original so awful it should never have been remembered by anyone–this was a fun, well-done movie, but not life-changing. Steven Soderbergh always does a good job, and this had good characters, a good story, good dialogue, and good cinematography. So, good but conventional.

Saw the Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Very much enjoyed this. I’m always a fan of Bill Murray’s, and he seems to keep doing better as he gets older–though, as Gwen pointed out, it’s saddening to see Bill Murray portraying an old character, since we remember him when he was young, and it’s still a bit of a shock to see him looking old. Beyond that, though, the story goes in unintended directions, ties itself together surprisingly well, and has whimsy. It also has whimsy in things like the set design–there’s a wonderful cutaway shot of the Belafonte, Zissou’s ship, showing all the crew doing things in its various cabins. At first, this dollhouse view seems like some kind of trick of compositing, but later, when we actually see the crew moving from cabin to cabin to cabin in one long shot, it seems that the entire ship-set was constructed as one giant cutaway.

Finally, saw the Last Days of the San Jose (no IMDB listing at this time). Fascinating. In 1997, South Congress was a dicey part of Austin, and the San Jose was a seedy hotel, its rooms filled by long-term residents half a step away from homelessness, by hookers and johns, by kids who needed a place off the street to get high. Liz Lambert bought the place with a vision, not shared by many other people, of transforming the place into an upscale boutique hotel. She tried to get bank financing for the massive renovation, and in the meantime, documented the daily goings-on and lives of the people at the San Jose with an inexpensive handheld movie camera.

In fact, it took three years for her to get financing, so long-term customers became part of her life. There’s so much in this movie, and there’s so much surrounding it. The renovation of the San Jose was the front edge of a wave of gentrification in South Congress, and I can only imagine that Liz Lambert looks back on the trail she has blazed with mixed feelings: the renovation of the San Jose was a dream of hers, and clearly one she held onto tightly through what must have been three pretty tough years, but when it came true, she had to kick out these people who had become important to her. But beyond that, I imagine she looks across the street at what used to be “GUNS JUST GUNS,” beholds Factory People (a pretentious shop selling ugly, overpriced hipsterwear), and thinks “wait…this isn’t the South Congress I signed up for.”

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Saw Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Very good. The production design showed meticulous, fantastic visual imagination (as did the closing credits, which are worth sitting through)–I noticed an Escher lizard tesselation in the floor of the herpetophiliac Uncle Monty’s place, and the movie was chock full of this sort of thing. Jim Carrey was his usual elastic, hilarious self. Lots of bit parts by great actors. Emily Browning, who played one of the children, is going to be the Angelina Jolie of the next generation.


Sideways is a damn good movie. Gwen and I both enjoyed it greatly, for the flawed characters, the un-Hollywood feel, the humor.

It’s about two guys who are friends, but in most respects, very different people. One thing they have in common is a pathological aversion to hard truths–a pathology that manifests itself in different ways, and gets them into different kinds of trouble. Hilarity and agony ensue. Paul Giamatti was excellent, as usual–perhaps moreso than usual. Thomas Haden Church seems to be typecast as a callow himbo, but he does a good job at it.

I have no idea what the title means.

I ♥ Huckabees

Saw I ♥ Huckabees this weekend. Fun movie. The whole existential angle seems more of a plot device than an opportunity for serious philosophical exploration, though like the director’s previous movie, Flirting with Disaster, there is a sort of existential core to the thing. But the fun, the awkward situations, the snappy dialog with people talking on top of each other, and the characters are what really make the movie. Putting Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin in a movie together is gold, I tell ya, comedy gold.

Team America: World Police

America, Fuck yeah!

The chorus from the movie’s most memorable song pretty much says it all, encapsulating the movie’s love-it-and-hate-it attitude towards the USA. The movie manages to be political without being partisan, insightful without being dull, and completely fucking hilarious. Go see it now.

Code 46

Released with no fanfare that I know of, Code 46 is one of the best SF movies I’ve seen in a long time.

The movie tells of a bustling, gleaming future where everyone in the world speaks perfect English, liberally sprinkled with Spanish, French, Arabic, and Chinese (five of the six official UN languages–I didn’t notice any Russian). It’s a world that looks very much like our world today–the same cars and clothes, though the cities are perhaps shinier.

I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who doesn’t want it spoiled, so I’ll discuss the rest of it inside. Go watch it and then read the rest of this post.

Allegro non Troppo

Continuing its fine tradition of showing movies with live sound, the Alamo had a showing of the animated feature Allegro non Troppo, accompanied by Peter Stopchinski and another three musicians, who played variations on the music in original score. These were quite good–they fit with the action on the screen, and nodded in the direction of the originals without being retreads. But I have to say, you can’t do justice to Bolero (or anything like it) with a quartet.

I’d seen Allegro non Toppo back in high school. It was great seeing it again, and the live accompaniment was a real treat.

New Jersey double-header

After too many weekends devoted to productive house-drudgery, tt was a two-movie weekend for Gwen and me.

On Friday, we saw Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle. Some simplify this down to a pot-humor movie, others point out the significance of having the audience identify with Asian-American leads. Both are fair points, I suppose, but the movie mostly made me think of After Hours: a surreal overnight journey. With pot and low humor, yeah. Anyhow, it’s very funny, and falls into my “much better than it needs to be” category.

Number two on our viewing list was Garden State, also a surreal trip through New Jersey in its own way, but a story driven much more by characters than situations. And although it has plenty of funny moments, the movie isn’t a comedy. It’s more complex than that, and so is my reaction to it. While it’s worth seeing, there’s a lot about it that seems out of kilter. The lead character (played by the writer/director) moves through life with his emotional affect tamped down by pharmaceuticals; in some ways, that’s how the whole movie felt. Perhaps this was intentional, but in many cases, I suspect its the result of hack editing. Characters become important without the audience knowing whether we’re suppose to like them or not (and I don’t think this is an intentional effort to keep the audience off-balance), and characters develop strong relationships without the audience seeing how strong they are. Symbolically freighted elements–like a boat out of water at the bottom of a quarry–parade before us with no particular relevance to the rest of the picture. So the audience feels these events and tableaux pass by without really getting emotionally engaged in them, just mildly amused. But there’s still plenty to like: the dialog is good, the surreal quality is interesting, and Natalie Portman is a superstar waiting to happen.

One thing about Garden State that struck me was the soundtrack. Almost every incidental song was something I know and like; at least half are already in my music collection. “Damn, they have just nailed my demographic/psychographic makeup here!” I said to myself, and it annoyed me: as Douglas Coupland wrote, “I am not a target market.”

The Bourne Supermacy

Dumb name, decent flick. The Bourne Supremacy is another action-type movie that doesn’t require excessive neural activity to enjoy, but it does have car chases, including one in which an improbably sturdy Russian cab acquits itself admirably against the entire Moscow police department and an assassin in a Mercedes SUV.

Matt Damon had an interesting role in that he had very few lines — most of the acting was in his face.

Beyond Black Rock

Last night Jo’s Coffee hosted an advance screening of Beyond Black Rock (surprisingly, not in the IMDB), a documentary by Austin locals about Burning Man.

Quite a crowd turned out: the entire parking lot behind Jo’s was jammed full–perhaps 500 people. Some of my fellow fire freaks and I were going to provide a little pre-show warmup; as it turns out, I was the only one of the people slated to perform who actually did show up; the guy who was supposed to be coordinating this (and shall remain nameless) called me at the last minute to inform me of his non-appearance and, implictly, to hand off the baton. There were plenty of fire people there, though not many actually had their rigs with them, but in the end, four of us went up and burned, and there was much rejoicing.

Oh yeah, the movie! Enjoyable. Focused a lot on the people who organize it and the organization of it; also featured at some length a couple of artists (including the amazing David Best) who were putting in installations there.

The Story of the Weeping Camel

Saw The Story of the Weeping Camel with Gwen last night. This is the first Mongolian movie I’ve ever seen (unless you count Genghis Blues, which I don’t). It’s not clear whether this is a documentary or a work of fiction that just happens to be made with real events and real people who are basically being themselves. Subtitling was very minimal, telling just enough to keep the audience from getting confused.

It’s a slow-moving movie. Not much happens, and the things that do happen are small things. But it gives you a feel for what it must be like as a nomadic camel-herder living in the Gobi Desert. It’s astoundingly bleak: it’s hard to imagine that there’s enough vegetation to support the goats and camels in the flock, and it’s hard to understand how human beings came to inhabit that part of the world. But the people don’t seem to have bitter lives, or much desire to do anything different.

At one point a couple of boys head out to the nearest town; Gwen and I just looked at each other and asked “what do they steer by?”

Before Sunrise

In 1995 (was it really that long ago?), Richard Linklater made Before Sunrise, where two young people, Jesse and Celine, meet and spend a night in Vienna, having a “My Dinner with Andre” — style rambling conversation. They agree to meet six months later at the same train station where they separate.

I always wondered what happened to them. In Waking Life, there’s a segment showing Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy (who played the characters in Before Sunrise) in bed together. When I saw that, I thought that it answered the question in an oblique way.

Apparently not. Before Sunset answers the question directly. It’s another two-person gabfest, this time in Paris. The movie almost feels like it was filmed in a single shot–the conversation almost never pauses, and it does have some very long shots (something you don’t see much anymore). I especially liked one that wound up up up a staircase.

The story is bittersweet and wonderful, and like it’s predecessor, ends without answering its big question.

Tangent: in finding links for this entry, I discovered that there was a movie titled My Dinner with Andre the Giant. It strikes me as funny that Wally Shawn, who was in My Dinner with Andre, starred in a movie with Andre the Giant, one of my favorites, The Princess Bride. If anybody should have made My Dinner with Andre the Giant, it’s him, but Andre the Giant is no longer with us.

Spider-Man 2

Saw Spider-Man 2. It’s as good as they’re saying–not just good as comic-book movies go, but good as movies go in general. The special effects don’t dominate the movie, but they’re damned entertaining.

Doc Ock’s tentacles are pure genius–good enough that I didn’t bother asking myself “how’d they do that?” and just enjoyed the effect.

Fahrenheit 9/11

Though we planned on seeing Supersize Me, Gwen and I arrived at the theater a few minutes late, so we decided to catch Fahrenheit 9/11 instead. Not exactly the feel-good movie of the summer, we both walked out silently and barely said a word on the way home. There was very little in the movie that was news (though the bits about James Bath were interesting), but the impression they make when taken together is one of horror.

Anything Michael Moore does is automatically controversial, if for no other reason than he’s the one doing it. That said, I suppose there’s plenty to take issue with in the movie, but still, it’s very strong.

There are facts and there are stories. Moore uses facts as building-blocks for stories, and he’s clear about where he’s troweling in the mortar of speculation to make them hang together. Critics can and should fact-check Moore’s ass, and Moore knows that: he’s pretty meticulous about backing up his facts. And critics can take issue with the edifice he’s constructed. But the building-blocks fall into place pretty snugly in this movie without a lot of mortar to hold them there. That says a lot.