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.