Lost in La Mancha

Saw Lost in La Mancha on Friday. This is a documentary of the doomed effort to produce Terry Gilliam’s magnum opus, the story of Don Quixote. Gilliam had been working on the idea since 1991, and only managed to start filming in 2001. The undertaking was terribly precarious even before it began, and as soon as it did begin, almost everything that could go wrong did, from big things to little. Floods, fighter jets, illness, and recalcitrant horses.

The documentary made the point that Gilliam himself was somewhat like Don Quixote on a gallant but unrealistic quest, and indeed, there was an amazingly tidy parallelism between the story and the story-in-the-story. But something at the very end of the movie made me think that Don Quixote is the wrong fictional archetype to describe Gilliam. Ahab is more like it.

Rabbit-Proof Fence

Saw Rabbit-Proof Fence yesterday. It’s a quiet, quasi-documentary movie about a shameful chapter in Australia’s history where mixed-race children of Aborigines and Whites were kidnapped by the government and raised in institutions. This went on to some extent until the 1970s. (The same kind of thing happened in the USA with Indian and Hispanic children, though not as recently.)

More specifically, it’s the story of one girl, Molly, a real person (still alive, pushing 90) who was taken in 1931 with a sister and cousin to a compound for children like her, 1200 miles from her home, and their flight home — mostly the flight home, a slow-motion chase with her evading an Aboriginal tracker of some renown.

Molly was a gritty, smart, and almost silent kid, but Kenneth Branagh’s performance as Neville, the government “protector” of all Aborigines in western Australia, was particularly interesting. As he played it, Neville really believed that what he was doing was best for everyone, without a hint of malice towards the Aborigines. His was a paternalistic and beneficent form of racism, if that’s possible. The extent of his paternalistic authority was stunning — his secretary comes in saying “so and so has applied to buy a new pair of shoes” “She had a new pair last year” he responds, without missing a beat.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

Saw Confessions of a Dangerous Mind the other day. Movies based on the lives of obscure celebrities may be turning into a trend: first Auto-focus, now this. (Next up: The Nipsey Russel Saga, Scott Baio — Behind the Scenes, and Tragic Mediocity: the Unravelling of Dana Plato.) I jest, but it was actually quite an engaging movie.

This is George Clooney’s first stab at directing, and it made me realize that there must be incestuous cliques in Hollywood. George Clooney and Julia Roberts appeared together in this movie and in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven. Soderbergh is one of the producers of this picture, and (I suspect) had some influence over its look. Drew Barrymore and Sam Rockwell were together in this movie, as they were in Charlie’s Angels. Sam Rockwell and George Clooney were in Welcome to Collinwood, produced by Steven Soderbergh (I haven’t seen it either, I just checked). There are probably more overlaps and intersections.

Anyhow. Remember A Beautiful Mind? In that, John Nash, brilliant mathematician, had delusions of being an intelligence operative. In Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Chuck Barris (yes, that Chuck Barris) reports that he is a contract hit man for the CIA. The movie is based on Barris’ autobiography. The movie does not editorialize on whether the author is nuts, and hints that he might have been telling the truth. I’m skeptical.


Saw Baraka at the Paramount recently. Amazing movie. Very much in the same vein as Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi, that is, no plot, dialog, or story: simply a succession of loosely linked images of nature and human activity, with a very good score running throughout. Some amazing locations, including Angkor Wat, the Highway of Death, Everest, the Brazilian rainforest, and so on.


Saw Adaptation yesterday. This is an amazing movie. Multi-layered and turned in on itself, like a deck of cards made out of curled wood shavings, even the title is multivalent, referring both to the process of adapting a book to the screen, and adaptation in the Darwinian sense.

The movie tells the story of Charlie Kaufman’s efforts to adapt the book The Orchid Thief to the screen. Many of the characters in the movie are real-life people, behaving (we imagine) pretty much as they do in real life. Some are real-life people, but behaving (we imagine) very differently than they do in real life. And at least one major character, Donald Kaufman (Charlie’s identical twin brother, both played by Nicholas Cage) is completely fictional. It’s hard to know where reality ends and invention begins.

Although the movie winds up throwing off the Orchid Thief entirely, it manages to depict a fair amount of it, plus a fair amount of its writing by Susan Orlean, but ultimately of course is about the screenplay writing by Charlie Kaufman, who is the major character (who is obsessed with Susan Orlean, who is infatuated with John Laroche, the real-life figure at the center of Orchid Thief). And while Charlie is intensely absorbed with himself, hateful of himself, and paralyzed by both of these, Donald is all the things Charlie isn’t: oblivious, carefree, shallow, extroverted, forward-moving, but capable of occasional flashes of insight.

Donald is following his brother’s example by becoming a screenwriter, but follows a seminar’s recipe for genre writing and forges ahead, unreflectively (“My genre’s thriller. What’s yours?”). Charlie’s progress on the screenplay is thwarted by the lack of action in the story — while trying to carry over the book’s fascination with the wonder of flowers, he finds it’s hard to make a movie about flowers. He tries to re-focus it on Susan Orlean, but fails in that he is too awkward to even introduce himself to her. He becomes practically unglued when his brother’s screenplay (which was finished halfway through the film) gets an enthusiastic reception, and it is roughly at this point that the movie veers way out into left field, leaving behind Charlie’s constant inward obsessing for something else. As if Donald had hijacked Charlie’s typewriter. The movie shifts into high gear, clips along, and crashes to a halt. Charlie takes control of his typewriter back. Time lapse showing the wonder of flowers. The end.

In reality, Charlie Kaufman was the scriptwriter for Being John Malkovich (the shooting of which figures in Adaptation), and while the central conceit of BJM is whackier, the involuting and evoluting structure of Adaptation winds up being just as much fun, and perhaps more of a neat trick, intellectually speaking.

Vanilla Sky

Rented Vanilla Sky last night. I usually don’t blog rentals, for no good reason, but this definitely merits an entry. The film’s proximate inspiration was a Spanish movie, Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes — starring Penélope Cruz in the same role she played in this movie) but the main underlying plot device seems pretty clearly to originate in PKD’s Ubik. The story jumped around in sequence and in layers of unreality, and keeps you guessing and speculating even after it ends. Despite that, I wouldn’t quite call it a mindfuck — though I’m not sure if this is because I’ve been habituated by other films on this level, like Memento, because I’ve been desensitized and primed by the vastly more mindfucking Ubik, or because this movie’s just not far-out. But definitely enjoyable.

The Two Towers

Saw The Two Towers yesterday. I really enjoyed it. It’s very visual, and has been filling my thoughts ever since.

My criticisms, such as they are, are pretty much the same as they were for the first movie: the characters tend to get lost in the setting, just because the setting — the world and all the stuff — is so interesting and fully realized. It is, in effect, the most important character. And the movie necessarily is cut down a lot from the books. I don’t think Jackson & Co did a bad job choosing what to cut, and to their credit, despite the movie running a solid 3 hours, I never felt bored. I just wanted more. Gwen, who is averse to screen violence, found the combat to be hard to take. It’s definitely not a children’s movie. It wasn’t like watching Sam Peckinpah or John Woo flicks, which make acts of violence into objects of adoration, depicted in obsessive slo-mo detail. But there were a lot of flying heads and a lot of gibs.

Casting was brilliant. Brad Dourif as Wormtongue was perfect. Andy Serkis as Gollum was pretty amazing.

Aside: There’s been some talk that the book and movie are racist, depicting all good guys as caucasian, and the orcs as dark-skinned. While I can’t help but roll my eyes at this sort of thing, the comment is factually false (or very weak), at least as far as the movies are concerned. Orcs get a lot more screen time in LoTR-2, so it’s easier to refute now. The orcs show more variation of color than the other races, some being black (not negro-black but tar-black), some being very pallid. Many have features that caricature caucasian faces. And since all three movies were filmed at once, there’s no way that Peter Jackson could have depicted orcs this way in reaction to the charge of racism. Plus there’s that bit about Saruman the White being a bad guy.

Star Trek: Nemesis

Going by the numbers, Star Trek: Nemesis should have been a good Trek movie: the rule is that even-numbered Trek movies are good, odd bad. This was number 10. It was so-so at best.

I’ve always enjoyed Star Trek in its various forms, but sometimes it calls for more suspension of intelligence than others. This movie called for a fair amount. Early in the movie, there’s a coup on Romulus, the heretofore unmentioned Remans are now in charge, and they say they want to make nice with the Federation. The Enterprise just happens to be near the Neutral Zone, so Admiral Janeway (!) dispatches Picard & crew as ambassadors. Right off the bat, we should be raising our eyebrows at the Federation’s hasty enthusiasm.

Picard wants to believe, but is too smart to. Good thing. His clone, Shinzan (created as part of a discarded plot to plant an agent in the Federation, and then relegated to slavery on Remus, who somehow (how? dunno) rose to a position of prominence among the Remans, built a kick-ass starship with a baroque doomsday weapon, and instigated the coup on Romulus) has a bundle of ill-defined Issues with Picard and his human heritage in general, and the only way he can see to overcome these issues is to kill everyone on Earth with his death-ray. Although he kind of wants Picard alive, because Shinzan’s DNA was altered, and he might need a transfusion from Picard. Picard, predictably, tries to appeal to Shinzan’s better nature to rise above his baser instincts. He fails, and so a big shootout in space ensues. The crew of the Enterprise triumphs, partly because the death-ray takes so freaking long to deploy, and even then, not without paying a price (one that could plausibly be rebated through some obvious plot devices if there were a followup to this movie).

So the movie insults our intelligence in a few ways. It also absentmindedly invites snarky ridicule from geeks who watch way too much Star Trek for the line where Picard says to Shinzan “your blood is the same as my blood, your heart is the same as my heart” or words to that effect — Picard has an artificial heart, as a couple episodes of the show discussed.

Oh well. I don’t resent the time and (matinee) money I spent on the movie, but they could have done a better job. Instead of staging a coup on Romulus, Shinzan could have been a rebel, leading the Federation to gamble that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” — more plausible story. They could have fleshed out Shinzan a lot more — a potentially interesting character that wound up being very flat and villainous just because that’s his job.

In the Bedroom

Rented In the Bedroom recently. Interesting movie, especially in that the storytelling style mimicked the story. The main characters in the story are incredibly uptight New England types who never say what they really think or feel. The movie itself never quite depicts any of the key action that takes place, cutting away or looking elsewhere at the critical moment.

Die Another Day

Saw Die Another Day yesterday. I’m ambivalent about this movie. I enjoyed most of the action sequences and gadget-porn (although some people have criticized the invisible car as going beyond their suspension of disbelief, it’s not as far-fetched as you might think. There were a few subtle (or not-so-subtle) bows to earlier Bond flicks–Berry emerging from the surf with a huge knife-belt on her bikini is obviously evoking Ursula Andress in Dr No, for example. Inexplicably, Michael Madsen seemed to have on the same suit he wore in Reservoir Dogs.

But the plot had holes–nay, chasms–that any viewer smarter than a tuna salad couldn’t help but notice, even with the distraction of top-flight action sequences, and apart from those, it just muddled along without a clear direction or good pace. Some of the dialog between Pierce Brosnan and Halle Berry was just awful.

Far From Heaven

Saw Far From Heaven a few days ago. Good movie. I’ve only seen one other movie by the director, Todd Haynes. That was Velvet Goldmine, which, in most respects, is completely different, but both have a lush, colorful, and contrived visual style, both are recent-vintage period pieces, and both deal, in some way, with sexual ambiguity.

The story in Far From Heaven has nice symmetries and contrasts, appropriate considering the themes of closeted homosexuality and unpleasant racial attitudes under a veneer of perfect Eisenhower-era America.

The less said, the better

I’ve noticed a rash of websites lately that cater to the harried film buff (who may not have time for the kind of review Pauline Kael cranked out–the kind that takes longer to read than the movie takes to watch…or perhaps film) by turning film reviewing into a lapidary art: Four word film reviews, Haiku movie reviews, and Movie-a-minute. The review for Dr Strangelove perfectly summarizes both the movie and this approach to criticism: “Oops.”

Auto Focus

Saw Auto Focus last night. A good movie, but very emphatically not a bring-the-whole-family movie: I mentioned to Gwen midway through “we’ll need to bathe as soon as this is over.

The bizarre story it tells, of Hogan’s Heroes star Bob Crane’s descent into an obsession with random sex and (ahem) home movies, and a relationship with a friend, John Carpenter, that can only be described in the psychobabble of today as “co-dependent,” is disturbing and absorbing. The complete disconnect between Crane’s self-image and his behavior is fascinating.

It’s a Paul Schrader movie, unmistakably so. He’s one of those directors you can just recognize by the look and the subject matter. In his case, dark, stylized lighting and strong colors. And dark, often sexualized stories.


Saw the Mr Sinus treatment of Crossroads last night. No, not the one with Ralph Macchio, the one with Britney Spears.

As usual, they did a fine job. Of course, with this material, their job was like shooting fish in a barrel, but nevertheless, I was in tears from laughing so hard.

Bowling for Columbine

Saw Michael Moore’s new movie, Bowling for Columbine yesterday. This is a documentary about gun violence in the USA. It asks a lot more questions than it answers, the central question being “why is there so much gun violence in America?” Moore trots out the counter-example of Canada, which has widespread gun ownership, a similar culture, and very few gun-related deaths. He doesn’t have an answer to this question, but gives a lot of food for thought. Is America’s bellicose foreign policy somehow related to street violence? He suggests that it is, but doesn’t say how (if at all), and it doesn’t quite ring true for me.

One review I read before seeing the movie criticized Moore for his argumentative interview with Charlton Heston at the end of the movie. I had a different reaction: If Heston didn’t already know that Moore is a rabble-rouser, he had time (and a publicist on-hand) to find out between the time he made the appointment for the interview and the time of the interview itself. But more to the point, Heston clearly did not have the moxie to defend his position. If someone is a prominent representative of a controversial viewpoint, as Heston is, that person should have the intellectual courage to defend it. Heston didn’t–he allowed himself to be backed into a corner very easily. If I had any respect for him before, I lost it there.

Punch-Drunk Love

Saw Punch-Drunk Love last night. Excellent movie. Very weird, jarring audio throughout. Very studied use of symmetric framing, apparently to reinforce the sense of soul-crushing artificiality. This is perhaps only the second good movie that Adam Sandler has been in (Shakes the Clown would be the first), and he really goes beyond himself in this role, as Jim Carrey did in the Truman Show. But I’ll see just about anything from P.T. Anderson on spec.

Standing in the Shadows of Motown

Gwen and I saw Standing in the Shadows of Motown last night, a documentary about 14 session musicians in Detroit known as the Funk Brothers. The story goes that these 14 guys, in some combination or another, were the sound behind every hit vocalist that came out of Motown for about 12 years.

The movie was interesting if for no other reason than that it exposed me to that fact. It had a lot of good music (seemingly shot at concerts staged for the movie), and a lot of bullshitting and storytelling by the men in question. Although it keeps things in a rough chronological order, there’s not much organization to it. That’s OK up to a point, but running about two hours long, it starts getting a little old–it could either use tighter editing or more structure.

Dirty Dancing

Saw the Mister Sinus treatment of Dirty Dancing last night with Gwen. As always, they were hilarious. I think they just keep getting better. Their commentary was all over the map last night.

Late Marriage

Saw the movie Late Marriage with Gwen yesterday. Interesting movie. Not particularly well acted, staged, filmed, or whatever, it was interesting for the story, of Georgian Jews in Israel, and specifically, a family’s efforts to marry their aging (31) son off to a suitable girl. Note that I’m not being gratuitously un-PC here–they were lining up 18-year olds for his consideration. Definitely an insight into a community that just plain operates according to a different set of rules than anything I’ve ever been around.

Lovely & Amazing

Saw Lovely & Amazing with Gwen yesterday. Good movie. Very good acting. The little non-verbal ways in which the characters conveyed their feelings towards each other impressed both of us, and the interactions were very true to life.

It was also refreshing that, although serious things happened to the characters in the movie, we weren’t hit over the head to convey “hey, this is serious!”–the filmmakers trusted us enough to figure that out for ourselves. Also refreshing is the fact that not everything was wrapped up with a bow by the end.

Catherine Keener may have already typecast herself with bitchy roles, though. While her character in this movie was somewhat bitchy, my initial reaction to her was that she was especially so (I don’t imagine she’s like that in real life, of course). It took a while to see past that in this movie.