Movie Roundup: I Hate Sony Edition

So many movies, so little time.

Princess Raccoon – This bizarre little pan-Asian film stars Favorite Actress© Zhang Ziyi, as, well, Princess of the Raccoons who falls in love, against natural law, with a human, who’s on the run from his villainous father, the King of a neighboring Mountain, who’s trying to kill him because a magic mirror claimed that the son would one day become more beautiful than the king. All this is presented as a highly stylized and colorful musical, complete with cheap, effective special effects, sparse, artificial sets and some truly weird music. Directed by ancient gangster auteur Seijun Suzuki (Tokyo Drifter, Fighting Elegy), the film has yet to be released in the US, though it did play the Seattle Film Festival. A strange, wonderful movie. The #9 film of 2005.
New York Times critic Manohla Dargis after seeing princess Raccoon at Cannes:

“Seijun Suzuki’s “Princess Raccoon” is mad, nuts, lysergic, wonderful, kitsch, genius, smutty, sexy, funny, funny, funny, Zhang Ziyi, Joe Odagiri, Kabuki, “Snow White,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Romeo and Juliet,” Noh, hip-hop, rock, Broadway, Disney, fuzzy-wuzzys, yakuza, swordsman, by the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea, the cherry blossoms are in bloom again. In other words: I had a blast.”

The Sea Hawk – Director Michael Curtiz and star Errol Flynn followed up their great Adventures Of Robin Hood in 1940 with this mediocre swashbuckling film about an English privateer commissioned by Elizabeth I to harass Claude Rains and his Spanish Armada. There’s certainly a lot of fun action sequences as you’d expect, and despite the lack of Basil Rathbone, this film’s significantly more fun than Curtiz and Flynn’s 1935 pirate movie Captain Blood, which I found dreadfully boring.

Santa Fe Trail – Also in 1940, Curtiz and Flynn made this film, about Jeb Stuart and his West Point classes struggle against evil abolitionist John Brown. An interesting chapter of Lies My Teacher Told Me is devoted to the distortions about John Brown that are taught in American schools, and this film’s perfect example of those lies. Raymond Massey plays Brown as a homicidal lunatic whose desire to end slavery is obviously a symptom of his deranged mind. Flynn’s Stuart repeated explains what apparently is the point of view of the filmmakers: that the South knew slavery was wrong and would go about getting rid of it eventually, in it’s own way. Anyone who tried to tell them differently would justifiably suffer the wrath of the South. Coverups don’t get any more apologetic than that, ugh. With Ronald Reagan as Custer who gets himself tied up in a silly love triangle with Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.

The Break-Up – Peyton Reed directed this surprisingly good Vinnafer Vaughniston vehicle about a couple trying to, well, break-up while trying to decide if that’s what they really want to do. It’s been aptly described as an anti-romantic comedy, as the humor comes in the midst of the wreckage of a romance and is leavened by some truly disturbing scenes. Where most directors would have played the situation of two people sharing an apartment after they break-up as silly farce, Reed takes those farcical scenes (a bad dinner party, Vaughn bringing strippers to the apartment) and plays them long past the point they’re funny to create an almost realistic scenes of just how uncomfortable it is to watch a couple’s life disintegrate. Reed’s previous films (Down With Love and Bring It On) show a similar willingness to explore and twist genre conventions, whether sports movie or musical and romantic comedy. Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau get to reprise their Swingers friendship in a more overweight form, Vincent D’Onofrio get to show off some new ticks as Vaughn’s brother, and Aniston and Jason Bateman effectively play the same characters they so successfully played on TV. Judy Davis, as Aniston’s boss, however, is just plain creepy.

Two-Lane Blacktop – This great little film directed by Monte Hellman is the movie people seem to think Easy Rider is: an examination of Nixon-era angst and the underbelly of America via a cross-country roadtrip. Where Hopper’s film is soaked in drugs and a rather silly hippie ideology, Hellman is all existential and mopey. Two guys and a girl (james Taylor, Laurie Bird and Dennis Wilson) challenge an older man (Warren Oates) in a GTO to a cross-country road race for no apparent reason. It’s not really much of a race, and there doesn’t really appear to be any animosity between he two cars. What there is is an elegiac tone as the film features very little in the way of dialogue or action, but a beautiful slow pace and some magnificently rundown and rainswept scenery. It’s the mood of the film as they travel through 1971 small-town America that’s entrancing. The #3 film of 1971.

Pootie Tang – After for years being told that this was the greatest film of all-time and no believing it, we finally decided to give it a chance after watching the director’s new HBO series, Lucky Louie, which is a hilarious inversion of the lower-class family sitcom. Louis CK, said director is a very funny guy and he brought an interesting visual style to his sitcom, all forced artificiality and shabbiness (right down to a comical and initially annoying laugh-track). There’s a visual wit to Pootie Tang as well, especially some cool editing tricks in one of the final showdowns. But this movie just isn’t that funny. Or rather, the film is two funny jokes, repeated again and again for 90 minutes. Maybe that’s something you wouldn’t noticed if your consciousness is correctly altered, I don’t know. . . . The #30 film of 2001.

Clerks 2 – I can’t deny that Kevin Smith makes me laugh. I’ve honestly enjoyed every one of his films save jersey Girl, and that I found more of a sad sympathetic failure than an egregious waste of celluloid. This sequel is no exception: I laughed all the way through the film and thoroughly enjoyed watching it. But, like the film’s hero dante (terribly acted, again, by Brian O’Halloran, yup, he did not spend the last 12 years in acting class) I’m left wondering if this is really all there is. A passionate ode to giving up, Clerks 2 chronicles Dante’s learning to accept that the life of a Clerk really isn’t all that bad, just as Clerks was all about Dante learning too quit being a Clerk and make something of his life. Its no great stretch to see that after a decade of trying to be a real filmmaker, this is Kevin Smith’s own statement of acceptance of who he is: the fart joke master of his generation. I guess that’s something.

The Far Country – Another Anthony Mann-James Stewart Western, this time with Stewart playing a selfishly capitalist cattleman driving his herd from Wyoming through Seattle to Alaska. He encounters a corrupt lawman on his way but doesn’t want to get involved in the small town’s fight to free itself from the villain’s control. It’s as dark as the other Mann-Stewart films, but it’s neither as expensive or as perverse as Winchester ’73 nor as taut and intense as The Naked Spur. Henry Morgan and Jack Elam costar.

Hatari! – I reviewed this a couple weeks ago in the 1962 Movies Of The Year list.

The Corporation – A ridiculously long documentary about the history and evils of the American and mulit-national corporation. The directors, Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbot, use some slick animation and computer graphics, along with a lot of fast-cutting through stock footage in an attempt to liven up what is essentially a two and a half hour long lecture in lefty economic theory. It’s long on evils and indictments and short on actual solutions, which makes for a really depressing film. It’s nice to learn that Fanta is the Nazi soda, however. The #25 film of 2003.

Heaven’s Gate – This much maligned Michael Cimino film has been undeservedly attacked since before it was even released for a variety of the usual reasons: over-budget, way over-schedule, a megalomaniacal, unfriendly director with a previous big success (in this case, The Deer Hunter, the #3 film of 1978) which led to studio interference and the chopping up of large sections of the film. As with many films that fall in this category, it’s a masterpiece. Kris Kristofferson plays a Harvard-educated sheriff in Johnson County, Wyoming who gets caught in the middle of a war when the local cattle barons (led by Sam Waterston) decide to start killing the local immigrants who’ve been poaching on their land and livestock, with the full approval, of course, of all the relevant authorities, including the US President himself. Christopher Walken plays an immigrant who works as an enforcer for the barons, and is also in love with Kristofferson’s girl, the local madam played by Isabelle Huppert. Jeff Bridges plays a bartender who joins the immigrants fight and John Hurt plays Kristofferson’s alcoholic old college chum who ends up on Waterston’s side against everything he actually believes in. Brad Douriff (you’ll recognize him from the Lord of The Rings films, but he’s truly great as the doctor on Deadwood) also appears as one of the leading immigrants. Cimino takes the Western archetype of the reluctant hero ultimately defending the cause f law and order against chaos and adds a clear leftist slant to it as the struggle for order becomes a struggle for the rights of the poor, uneducated, unlanded proletariat. Given the ending of the film, and the leftist critique of The Deer Hunter, the value of this leftism is left ambiguous enough to be really interesting, even 25 years after the film bombed. The #4 film of 1980.

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Bringin’ It All Back Home

Been away for awhile as I was on vacation last week. I plan on getting some stuff written this weekend, however, as I’ve seen a number of interesting movies over the last couple of weeks.

I’m waiting for my copy of Bob Dylan’s new album Modern Times (released today). I paid extra to get it from the Sony Music Store because they include not only the DVD with a few live performances, but a sample disc of his radio show that is supposedly baseball-themed. No, of course, it’s stuck in shipping limbo and I’ve no idea when, if ever, it will actually show up.

In the meantime, here, in what has got to be the longest allmusic.com review I’ve ever read, is a glowing review for Modern Times. The highlight:

“Modern Times offers a new weird America, one stranger than any that’s come before, because it’s merely part of a new weird world. In these ten songs, bawdy joy, restless heartache, comical scenes, and bottomless sadness all coexist and inform one another as a warning and celebration of this precious human life and wondering about whatever comes after. This world view is expressed through forms threatened with extinction: old rackety blues that pack an electrically charged wallop, parlor tunes and crooned pop-style ballads that could have come from the 1930s or even the 1890s. Modern Times is the work of a professional mythmaker, a back-alley magician and prophetic creator of mischief. It offers a view of the pilgrim as pickpocket, the thief as holy man, the lover as the fighter. And all bets are on to see who finishes dead last. What could be more confusing or so ultimately timeless as contradiction as entertainment, provided with a knowing, barely detectable grin.”

Snakes, Planes And Cocoa-Puffs

Chuck Klosterman appears to have camped out in my brain again, as once more he’s taken the thoughts out of my head and written them up far better than I ever could. Reading his book Sex, Drugs and Cocoa-Puffs was an excruciating exercise in learning that I’m not a writer, as essay after essay pondered terrain I myself had thought or written about, with the difference being that Klosterman’s writing is actually good.

Anyway, here’s the bastard’s essay on the upcoming hype-classic Snakes On A Plane, wherein he once again articulates the vague notions floating around my disordered and distracted brain far more cogently than I ever could. Jerk.

Movie Roundup: I Need A New Hat Edition

Eighteen recently seen movies I need to write about. So, with a refreshing martini, Buffy on the TV (hey, that’s the guy from Deadwood and Me And You And Everyone We Know!) and while trying to ignore the fact that Mark McGwire probably won’t get elected to the Hall Of Fame because he plead the Fifth during a Congressional witch-hunt. In that vein, here are some noirs and pseudo-noirs:

Miami Vice – I’ve seen Michael Mann’s latest film twice now, and it’s easily the best movie of the year thus far. In essence a sequel to Heat, it covers the same terrain of professionals who are obsessed with their jobs. The difference is that this time there’s no need for all the speeches foregrounding the themes. Instead, there’s hardly any dialogue at all that isn’t mumbled, jargonic and oblique. That’s a good thing, as far as I’m concerned at least. Visually, the film is stunning. Mann, with this and Collateral (#11, 2004) has done some pioneering work with high-definition digital cameras. The daytime scenes are filled with light, vibrant, colorful and incredibly detailed (the digital camera has an unbelievable depth of focus), while the night scenes are blurry, fuzzy, and impressionistic. The main characters, Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx playing MTV cops Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs, are constantly framed against the Miami sky, with it’s incredibly detailed and expressive clouds (and the occasional flash of lightning). The effect is one of puny humans struggling in vain in a hell of their own making, all the while being tragically aware of an unattainable heaven hovering above them, always just out of reach. The skies are hopeful and oppressive simultaneously. The supporting cast features some very strong performances by Gong Li, Naomie Harris (from Pirates 2), John Hawkes (the Deadwood guy mentioned above), Ciarán Hinds (from Rome and Munich), and Luis Tosar and John Ortiz as some very bad guys, Ortiz the psychotic jeri-curled crazy guy and Tosar the eerily calm, truly frightening Big Boss.

T-Men – This fairly early Anthony Mann film is more of a police procedural, than a noir, as it tells the story of the Treasury Department’s anti-counterfeiting detectives in a pseudo-documentary style. Based on a composite of actual Treasury cases, the film’s entertaining enough as a crime story, and it’s shot with obvious skill by the great noir cinematographer John Alton. It’s a B-movie story with a B-movie cast but A-list talent calling the shots. Interesting if you’re into Mann, otherwise, it’s decent enough.

The Narrow Margin – This is more like it. At barely one hour long, this sleek little noir is certainly a classic. It was remade in 1990 with Gene Hackman, and is my #41 film of that year. The original’s much better, directed by Richard Fleischer (His Kind Of Woman, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Soylent Green, Conan The Destroyer, and Red Sonja) and interesting director who certainly had an interesting career. The set-ups as basic as they get: a cop has to protect a witness on a train trip from Chicago to Los Angeles. The bad guys, of course, are on the train as well and while they know who the cop is, the witness is unclear.

Dark Passage – Another of the Bogart-Bacall collaborations (along with To Have And Have Not, The Big Sleep, and Key Largo, all of which are better), this time directed by Delmer Daves in a rather mediocre style. The interesting thing, I guess, about the film is that the entire first third takes place before a point of view camera as Bogart’s escaped con makes his way into the city and to a plastic surgeon. It’s only after Bogart has the surgery that we get to see what he looks like, or anything from any real camera perspective. The first person camera thing was also done in The Lady In the Lake, a Chandler adaptation directed by and starring Robert Montgomery in 1947, the same year as this film. That’s about the only interesting thing about the film, as far as I know, because it’s all I can remember. It’s just another generic 40s thriller with a gimmicky camera trick.

Picking back up after a day long delay. Now with the freshly delivered Season 4 of Newsradio playing. Super Karate Monkey Death Car, in fact.

Infernal Affairs – Andy Lau and Tony Leung star in this Hong Kong noir that goes over a lot of the same terrain John Woo dealt with in his late 80s/early 90s classics such as Hard-Boiled (#5, 1992) and The Killer (#6, 1989). Leung plays a cop who goes undercover in a criminal gang, Lau plays a gangster who goes undercover in the police force. Inevitably, their paths cross and each is assigned by their boss to find the mole in the organization, which is, of course, himself. It’s not as flashy or exciting as Woo’s films, but it has more psychological depth, some suspenseful action sequences, great performances from the two leads (who are always good) and a nice shiny visual look. The movie was directed by Alan Mak and Andrew Lau, no relation to the star. Martin Scorsese’s remaking it as The Departed, set to be relaesed this fall and starring Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Marky Mark Wahlberg.

The Roaring Twenties – Raoul Walsh’s gangster epic starring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. After returning from WW1 and finding the job market for veterans rather rough, Cagney becomes a cab driver and, eventually, a transporter of bootlegged alcohol. Bogart becomes a gangster and their friend Lloyd becomes a lawyer. Eventually they all join up to form a criminal syndicate. And of course, this being a gangster film, it all falls apart in a cascade of violence and betrayal. It’s a great film, a real classic of the genre.

The Shanghai Gesture – This Josef von Sternberg film is very weird. I guess you could say that about any of his films, actually. Ona Munson plays Gin Sling, the proprietress of a casino (etc) in pre-war Shanghai. Unfortunately for her, Walter Huston and a bunch of businessmen want to shut her place down. Complications ensue when his daughter, Poppy, played by the very hot Gene Tierney (Laura) becomes a drunken, debauched gambling addict and a regular at Madam Sling’s establishment thanks to the persuasive powers of Victor Mature’s Doctor Omar, who appears to be a pimp of some sort. A fun, beautiful, dark, cynical, perverted masterpiece of a film.

After The Thin Man – The first sequel to the classic screwball mystery starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as alcoholic sleuths Nick and Nora Charles. This time, after arriving in San Francisco to hang out with Nora’s wealthy and annoying family, they become caught up in the mystery of her cousin’s missing husband. They succeed in tracking him down, but then he’s murdered, apparently by said cousin. Nick and Nora must then solve the crime and rescue the cousin. Along for the ride is Jimmy Stewart, in one of his early roles that’s a terrific showcase for the mix of folksy and neurotic that Stewart would go on to exemplify. Really, that’s about the best part of the film. It’s not nearly as funny or entertaining as the first one. But Stewart’s great.

The Trees Are In Misery And The Birds Are In Misery

A couple of things from around the internet:

1. A nice interview with Werner Herzog from an Australian paper. Here’s the whole of the Burden Of Dreams speech as well:

“Kinski says it’s full of erotic elements. It’s not so much erotic, but full of obscenity. Nature here is vile and base. I wouldn’t see anything erotic here. I see fornication and asphyxiation and choking, fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away. Of course there’s a lot of misery, but it’s the same misery that’s all around us. The trees are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing; they just screech in pain. Taking a close look at what’s around us, there is some sort of harmony. It’s the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.”

2. A trailer for Martin Scorsese’s upcoming inspirational film The Taxi Driver.