23 March 2007

Mi cumpleaños

In addition to today being my golden birthday (23 on the 23rd), don't forget to wish Amanda Plummer, Chaka Khan, Catherine Keener, porno stars Octapussy and Champagne, Felicity's Keri Russell, musician Poe, John Wayne Bobbitt, Damon Albarn, Richard Grieco, Hope Davis, Michael Haneke, Ric Ocasek, and the late Akira Kurosawa a happy birthday as well. I think I'm in good company.

19 March 2007

Criterion in June

Exciting news from the Criterion front for July. They will be releasing two of Dušan Makavejev's most famous films, WR: Mysteries of the Organism and Sweet Movie, long unavailable on VHS. Expect radical sexual politics abound, and if you want to get ready for them, I highly recommend his Montenegro, if you can find it anywhere from Fox Lorber. Also in June, Lindsay Anderson's controversial If..., starring Malcolm McDowell (which became forgotten in time after the release of A Clockwork Orange), Chris Marker's La jetée and Sans soleil, and Claude Berri's first film, The Two of Us (or, Le vieil homme et l'enfant).

10 March 2007

Spot the allegory

300 - dir. Zack Snyder - 2007 - USA

It probably wasn’t a mere coincidence that Warner Brothers released Oliver Stone’s “final cut” of Alexander a week and a half before unveiling 300, their hotly anticipated action epic. I made the mistake of thinking that I wanted to see Alexander in all its (lack of) glory, turning it off merely forty-five minutes into its three-and-a-half-hour running time. With its truly awful cast that’s either just painful (Jared Leto, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) or painfully miscast (Angelina Jolie, Colin Farrell), Alexander is still a mess, nearly unwatchable. With its visually sumptuous trailer, 300 should have been the counter to Alexander, a glorious and triumphant epic; instead, it’s mindless fanboy trash, both visually inconsistent and intellectually vacant.

“What did you expect, Joe? I just wanted to see a bunch of Spartans kicking some ass,” says one fanboy. Certainly, if this is your expectations, have a ball with 300, even though I found myself almost as uninterested in the battle sequences as the inane storyline. Yet, 300 is wrapped in promise. What is Zack Snyder trying to convey with the struggle of these valiant men, battling a massive Persian army in the name of liberty? Apparently nothing. You can speculate all you want about whether or not Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) is a thinly-veiled portrait of George W. Bush all you want. Go right ahead and make some acknowledgement that the war itself takes place in the Middle East, yet keep in mind that these “maybes” are nothings. There’s no necessity or subversion taking place in 300; it’s simply a fanboy wet dream with red herrings to trick you into thinking it has any value beyond its surface.

Political theories aside, 300 is still a shitty movie. Synder has proven that his contribution to the surprising success of the Dawn of the Dead remake was completely overshadowed by James Gunn’s (Slither) clever screenplay. Based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller (Sin City), the film is reportedly faithful to its origins, but is this a good thing? Reading terrible dialogue in the context of a comic book is one thing, but allowing it to come out of actual actors mouths is unforgivable. Allowing the easiest possible answer to a vast struggle also works fine on the page, but film is a more sophisticated medium, with a much broader audience, than a comic book. I don’t so much mind that nearly all of our heroes solve their problems with violence as I do that their problems are so facile that a mere sword can sweep us past as dramatic conflict Miller can throw in front of us. Visually, too, 300 is simple and uninteresting. Shot on blue screen, once our heroes go to battle, our setting never changes as the Persian armies come to them. With such possibility in this digital medium, 300 wastes it with charging rhinoceros, boringly constructed framing, and Matrix-esque slow-motion.

Save yourself.

Romanticism and Gregg Araki

"To me, the fact that this idea of romantic utopia is such a driving force, and it’s what the characters are desperately yearning for, that makes the films romantic. Even if, at the end of the day, Jimmy’s character [Dark Smith] is denied that happiness, the fact that he’s searching for it is still romantic." - Gregg Araki on Nowhere

When combined with the closing song (which is always a jab-in-the-stomach, synthesizing the true meaning of his films) of The The's "Love Is Stronger than Death," one of the greatest, in my opinion, and most beautiful song of all time, Nowhere becomes best understood. I've been thinking a lot about music lately and its use in film (Martin Scorsese's next project will focus entirely on this relationship). Araki, a graduate in film theory and former music critic, is one of the finest examples of the relationship between music and film, whether concluding his film with Slowdive's "Blue Skied an' Clear" or New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle," the heart of his films come full circle and clear at these moments. The fact that "Bizarre Love Triangle" is used at the end of Splendor, his weakest (and, not surprisingly, most accessible) film, a film about, yes, a bizarre love triangle, the flimsiness and shallowness of the feature is realized. Even if characters name dropping Siouxsie and the Banshees and delivering lines like, "Dogs eating people is cool," isn't your cup of tea, Araki is one of the most perfect examples of the brilliant linkage between music and film.

08 March 2007


Me (on Hans-Christian Schmid's Requiem): "Neither chamber drama nor horror film, [Requiem] is the holy union of Through a Glass Darkly giving The Exorcist the friendly reach-around."
Me (on seeing Black Snake Moan out of early morning boredom): "Seriously lacking in the sizzle and bang I needed to start my day... and why the fuck couldn't they overdub Sam Jackson's wretched singing voice?"

Customer at video store (on Tideland): "I guess it's official that Terry Gilliam has lost his mind."

On For Your Consideration:
Cindy: "What a disappointment, I know they can do better."
Nathan: "So uninspired, it hurts..."
Mike: "If this is what Guest plans on doing from now on, he may as well go make Almost Heroes 2."

Mike (on He Say, She Say, but What Does God Say?): "My sentiments exactly."
Mike (on Night of the Living Dorks): "It's just a German teenage sex comedy that happens to include the undead."
Mike (on Frankenhooker): "It's as good as it sounds."
Mike (on B.A.P.s): "Hi, Oscar winner Halle Berry, I think this was even less enjoyable than A Hole in My Heart."
Mike (on Running with Scissors): "I'd rather chug cock than have to watch this again."

Chris M. (on Clean, Shaven): "Hey, learn how to shave, you removed your scalp, you weirdo."
Chris M. (on The Gospel According to St. Matthew): "Sexiest Jesus ever represented on film, hands down."

Tom B. (on Jesus Camp): "If you want some McGod, you gotta do some cookin! Dreadful documentary, though."
Tom B. (on his two-star Ghost Rider rating): "An extra star because my girlfriend and I downed a whole bottle of champagne while watching this in the theatre."
Tom B. (on Notes on a Scandal): "Not good, but oh so deliciously cruel!"

Josh (on Half Nelson): "With the death of my beloved Anna Nicole, I didn't think life was worth living any more. But this movie makes it so."

I didn't have the surplus of wonderfully clever quotes as I did last time, but expect to see Requiem and Half Nelson featured on my Neglected Films of 2006 list that I'm working on now.

03 March 2007


Though I have hardly had any time lately for writing solely for this blog, I must extend an extremely enthusiastic recommendation for Andrew Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation. This Cassavetes-meets-Jarmusch-minus-the-hip-factor has certainly made the rankings of the best films of last year, along Children of Men, Volver, and United 93 (and has officially gotten me to bump Pan's Labyrinth, the mistake of my list, off the top 10). Netflix it, and thank me later.

02 March 2007

Fawlty Tower

Babel - dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu - USA/Mexico/France

It was inevitable that I would get around to seeing Babel, and probably more accurately, it was inevitable that I would end up hating it. I once considered myself a fan of Alejandro González Iñárritu, I suppose, in the same way one used to be a fan of Wes Anderson. His first feature, Amores perros, was ambitious enough, but when his two subsequent films really failed to stray far from there, my appreciation has waned. When one goes into Babel, how do you not know what’s in store? I don’t know a single person who has accidentally stumbled upon the film without at least a small understanding of Iñárritu’s agenda: to chalk global unrest to personal human suffering. So with that in mind, what’s left? I “got” it before I saw it, so the actual viewing part (which one would assume to be essential to the cinematic critical process) seemed more an afterthought. It’s tedious, for sure, but I think even Iñárritu would agree with that. As a director, he’s highly skilled in creating lip-biting, nails-on-chalkboard discomfort in the best possible way (only Haneke can do it better, in my opinion), but when these intense sequences result in… well, nothing… then why bother?

A lot of people have likened his interconnected story-structure to the revolting Crash, though most will note Iñárritu as a far more sophisticated filmmaker than Paul Haggis. Babel’s resolutions are not simplistic, as they may be in Crash, but, again, if you’ve read the tagline, “Pain is universal… but so is hope,” what more do you plan to get from the film? A friend of mine, AJ, made an interesting observation, suggesting that the course of events in Babel could be linked directly to an unspoken rape. As the wings in Iñárritu’s filmic “butterfly effect,” Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) acts out sexually to any man that comes along her path, taking off her panties at the J-Pop, assaulting her dentist, coming onto a police officer. Her mother has killed herself, and Cheiko appears distant to her father (Kôji Yakusho). AJ speculated an incestuous affair occurring between the father and daughter, which would explain the mother’s suicide, the father’s selling of the gun that killed his wife, and the sexual antics of the teenage daughter. There’s a weirdness about the final shot of Babel, where Cheiko’s father embraces her on the balcony as she stands fully naked. If we’re to follow the tagline, hope has arrived. But if we’re to understand that an incestuous relationship is going on, creepiness is here to stay. I’m not saying that I particularly agree with AJ’s theory, but it’s certainly worth thinking about, even if it’s in regards to a film I’d rather forget. One good thing I can say about Iñárritu in this regard though is that if Paul Haggis had directed Babel, this revelation would have been the gut-puncher at the end of the film, à la “omigod Larenz Tate is Don Cheadle’s brother!!”.

Theories aside, I still find it difficult to say anything nice about Babel without a “but.” Certainly, the actresses (particularly Kikuchi and Adriana Barraza) are wonderful, but at what cost? Brad Pitt does little in the film but convince me that he’s a stupid American, and the scene where he and his injured wife (Cate Blanchett) begin to embrace as he helps her urinate is simply nauseating--not because she’s pissing, mind you. The moment had my eyes rolled all the way back in my head because it felt so painfully contrived, as if put through the perfect screenplay machine to deliver the strongest impact: beauty in ugliness is so passé.

Now I hardly consider myself any reigning authority on anything written in the Bible, but as you should know, the title of the film comes from a particular passage within that text. In what I remember to be a mythical explanation of the multitude of languages around the world, the tower of Babel crumbles, dispersing people around the world. It would seem more than fitting that a crumbling tower would be the basis for a film so creaky and unstable in structure as Babel. The film isn’t linear (you might remember that non-linear is the new linear) and isn’t segmented. Instead, we see Adriana Barazza lost in the desert well after Cate Blanchett has been shot, even if the scenes follow one another. We discover the purpose of this at the end of the film when we see the other end of a conversation Barazza has with Pitt at the beginning of the film from his perspective, yet once the purpose is revealed, it’s rather difficult to piece together why the film is structured in such a clumsy manner. The only thing that unifies the stories, from Morocco to Japan, is the news stories of Blanchett’s injury, so this leads me to question if everything but Barazza’s story is unfolding at the same time. If so, that’s a severe mistake on Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga’s part.

Despite all of this bitching, I can’t say that I don’t want you to see Babel in a similar way that I don’t want you to see Crash. For Crash, it’s a litmus test: if you like it, I’m bound to not like you. But for Babel, it’s simply for conversation. Babel is a mystifying failure that has sparked more conversation than any film I’ve seen in the past year (of course I’m referring to random conversation and not with my friends, because in that case, we’ve discoursed about Shortbus a lot more). Babel is a lot better than 21 Grams if simply because of small moments (maybe there are some in 21 Grams, but like the Bible, I’d rather forget). Iñárritu has a gift for creating iconic images in his films, from Brad Pitt carrying Cate Blanchett across a rundown Moroccan town to Rinko Kikuchi’s Catholic schoolgirl uniform. Even if a lot of the Japanese portion of Babel slows the film down (the dance club/ecstasy sequence feels as if Iñárritu had just watched Morvern Callar), there are some really powerful shots in there, especially of hands during Kikuchi’s meeting with the police officer. Yet, I can’t help but wish Iñárritu would run screaming from his own ideas and his collaboration with Arriaga. Though strikingly different filmmakers, Iñárritu is a lot like Alexandre Aja (Haute tension, The Hills Have Eyes). Both are master craftsmen that can’t step away from their inability to ruin their films with their own screenplays. Alejandro, Alexandre (oddly enough, variations on the same name), show a little humility, and put down your pens.