Friday, November 30, 2007

Futurama: Bender's Big Score

Viewed: From the Balcony

Good news everyone. I was pretty doubtful about The Simpsons Movie and came away pleasantly surprised. My hopes for Bender's Big Score were through the roof. So in my over-eager self-generating hype machine of a head this was already better than any Futurama movie could be. So it was with this in mind that I clutched my free pass and walked into the Kendall Landmark theater for a screening last Tuesday night. People in the theater were asking -- if this just came out on DVD today -- why would they bother making a print to show in theaters? They didn't, my fellow geek, they sadly did not. But they did digitaly project the dvd to a rapturous audience who cheered, awed and thoroughly enjoyed the movie -- myself included.

I'm not sure if they've ever shown a digitally projected movie at the Kendall before. I'm leaning towards no, because if it were any other situation people would be asking for a refund. It wasn't horrible, but the disservice it was causing the animation was distracting at times. We're talking about blocky pixels dancing on the screens. But with the voice actors Futurama has going for it I could be watching an 8-bit interpretation of the show and they'd still get huge laughs out of me.

And there were many of these. Every nervous laugh free moment was followed by a dozen hilarious bits that would put my worries to rest. The plot has to do with a band of aliens who manage to bankrupt the Earth through its people's weakness for email scams. Their first victims are the Planet Express crew with Farnsworth being scammed out of the company and Bender downloading a virus making him do whatever the aliens wish. Once the aliens literally sniff out a binary code for time travel tattooed on Fry's ass, the plan involves Bender looting the world of it's prized treasures and things getting "much more complicated" as the movie has its fun trying to avoid the paradoxes inherent in any movie that tries to deal with time travel. The first time the binary code is spoken aloud it is sent to Earth by the "God entity" Bender ran into when floating in space in the "Godfellas" episode. In fact just about every single character ever introduced in an episode of Futurama makes an appearance in this movie, which is pretty impressive and a fun tip of the hat to the fans.

One of the many great things about Futurama is the witty yet fundamentally sound way it deals with its science fiction aspects. Avid watchers will have no problem accepting the fact that it's co-creator studied theoretical computer science at Berkeley. So watching them make one of the more complicated time travel plots in movie history, you can sense the fun the writers had in creating and wrapping up all the loose ends. The Heroes writers could learn a thing or two from this movie -- better yet, they could simply apply some common sense to their show.

While there are many classic jokes in the movie, there's a fair amount of heart in here as well. This may or may not be good news to some of the fans. One of the better things Futurama did was lose The Simpsons tendency towards touchy feeliness and happy endings. And yet fans will know that the episode about Fry getting his dog back ended with one of the saddest moments in cartoon history. (Yes, Fry's dog is in the movie as well.) But of course the heart I speak of lies in the Fry - Leela relationship and I have to admit as much as I got a little antsy about their story when watching it, it ultimately worked for me. Leela falls for a museum curator named Lars, and they even make it to a wedding, which causes Fry much jealousy and leads up to one of my favorite bits when Fry hatches a devious plan to prevent their wedding by switching the pen they'll use to sign their certificate with one that has no ink. Can't fail!

There are a couple songs that are pretty much hit (the Chanukah Zombie) and miss (whatever that first song was about) -- is it an obligation for a cartoon movie to have songs? And there isn't nearly enough Zap; the whole crowd cheered when he came on, I'm guessing they're saving him for later. Overall though, the movie works as a welcome return of one of the best cartoons of the past decade. No one believed me when I told them in 2000 that Futurama was officially better than The Simpsons in terms of the episodes that were being produced at that time. That became more obvious as the years continued. With both shows putting out a movie this year -- it's a little difficult to compare. Futurama has three more of these coming out next year (this movie ends on a big cliffhanger) while The Simpsons Movie had gobs more money and works as a self-contained story. I'm not going to compare. They were both enjoyable. I like Bender's Big Score because believe it or not, Futurama speaks to me more personally these days. I enjoy the main characters more -- they haven't lost their luster as much as the Simpson's have by relentlessly ploughing on with shoddy episodes that degrade, even betray, what came before it. Believe it or not Futurama has stayed true to a pretty tricky continuity -- their absence over the past few years is dealt with first thing in the movie and gives us one of the funnier continuing jokes: television executives are killed, ground up into a fine pink powder and sold to consumers as a miracle cure-all.

It's not essential viewing but I think it ranks up there with the better episodes. But even my date for the show said she'll be watching it again when it plays on tv and she's more of a casual fan. Which reminds me, there's some great stuff in here for fans of Nibbler and the Nibblonians. I might buy the dvd since it has a full episode of Everyone Loves Hypnotoad (would there be a better thing to put on as a visual for your next party?) and to get the better digital sound and widescreen visuals that were ironically lacking in the theater experience. I swear, this youtube is crisper than the over-projected projection we were treated to...

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Into the Wild

Dir. Sean Penn

Viewed: From the Balcony

I don't think Sean Penn's directorial (or acting) skills have ever been in question. Even since The Indian Runner his skills have only improved and that trend continues with his adaptation of Into the Wild. Say what you will about actors aspiring to be directors, performances are routinely great in films under these circumstances and occasionally by actors that you didn't know had it in them (see Gone Baby Gone). Sean Penn has made several films that spotlight actors telling a story that basically weaves around their performances. Here Penn gives relatively unknown Emile Hirsch center stage as Christopher McCandless, and the young man is game to run with everything Penn throws his way. I'm going to guess that most people know the story but here's the short of it -- son of privilege throws his family backing away to start from scratch and make his way to live off the land in the wilderness of Alaska only to have his own life claimed by the harsh realities of this existence.

I almost always like William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden in whatever movie they are in. Here they play the parents, and they're given the first scene of the film, a powerful scene with the mother waking up to the cries of her child, which haunts the rest of the film since they're mostly derided by the main character for the rest of of the running time. One of the most prominent themes in the film is the Chris' coming to terms with his feelings toward his parents. One of the ironies of the film is that once Chris is ready to forgive his parents for their lies and essence of fake, it's too late -- he's reached the point of no return. But his does happens after he's met the surrogate father he's always wanted in Hal Holbrook who's simply brilliant and beautifully touching in this movie which definitely needed a good dose of his character's humanity and perspective.

As interesting as Christopher's journey is, you don't get into him very deeply or necessarily relate to him very often in the movie. The closest you get is when you're looking at him through another character's eyes -- this happens with Holbrook, when he's with the vagabond couple he runs into a couple times on his journey played by Kathrine Keener and Brian Dierker (who's a bit of a revelation, this supposedly being his first film according to IMDb) and when he's working on Vince Vaughn's contracting crew. It's in these moments that you're most comfortable to just hang out with the film, in other scene's, especially the odd detour to Skid Row, you feel the film losing it's momentum. This is helped by a nice devise Penn uses wisely -- we find Christopher's iconic "magic Bus" early on in the film, and whenever we make some leaps in time it's usually prefaced by, for example, "one month before magic bus". It's a good tool to keep you into a movie that runs a bit long by 15 or 20 minutes.

The ending and what leads up to it is fitfully touching though. Even though I knew what was coming it still packed a wallop. And the last shot of the film is one for the ages. I think Into the Wild will end up on the best of list since I saw this one about two months ago and it still feels fresh in my mind.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Encounters at the End of the World

Dir. Werner Herzog

Viewed: From the Balcony

Sean starts us up the hill:

Herzog explained to his producers before embarking on a journey to Antarctica that they should not expect any footage of cute, fluffy penguins when he gets back. While there is a particular devastatingly funny scene involving a Herzogian penguin which I'll get too later -- Encounters is a look at the people who end up in Antarctica, the people who decide that this place at the bottom of world is where they want to spend at least a part of their life. It is in these scenes, talking with the employees of Antarctica, if you will, where the movie shines. In other scenes there is more of a sense of unfocused wandering, filling up time while searching for meaning, that can take the movie off its tracks. These few scenes do not take away from what is easily Herzog's funniest film and a unique view into a culture of people most wouldn't bother investigating.

After a lofty introduction regarding the questions Herzog has in his mind before embarking -- most memorably, why monkeys haven't evolved enough to use other animals to serve their purposes -- why doesn't a monkey hop on a donkey and ride into the sunset? Whether or not Herzog even comes close to touching on an answer to this question is up for debate, but shortly after arriving at a military base in Antarctica I think he successfully sets the theme for the rest of the movie. He quickly finds a man who he credits as Bulldozer Operator / Philosopher and when describing his thoughts on how he ended up moving dirt at the bottom of the world he quotes Whitman and looks at it as an almost obvious path for people who can't find footing in their native societies. Another interviewee describes the group of people down there as what falls to the bottom when you give the planet a shake.

These interviews are all priceless and benefit greatly from Herzog's legendary refusal to any sort of pre-production. When he indulges in the science, the underwater photography that inspired his trip and the scientists studying the native life on the continent, I felt like these subjects could be and probably already have been better dealt with by other nature documentaries. Herzog shines in studying the individual, the motivations behind a singular vision and this is why that "insane" penguin was so beautiful. It was like the thing knew Herzog had turned his camera onto him and so he decided to split from his pack and head for the mountains. How perfect was that? It summed up the essence of a Herzog protagonist perfectly and it was downright hilarious.

That's not to say some of that science and nature footage was completely wasted, those underwater images are amazing and the songs of the seals is a wonder to behold. But the time spent with the volcanologists, which seemed like a lot, didn't add up to much except for that spectacular climb through the steam tunnel -- which as wonderful as that two minutes might have been didn't justify the aimlessness of the rest of the time we spent with them.

Overall this is a great success for Herzog who even admitted to being a bit frightened by the prospect of failure when he embarked on this project. One of the great things about having Herzog do a project like you know that for as many glorious shots of gorgeous sunsets and striking landscapes you're also going to see the grime of the military base, the big patches of seal shit that you never see on National Geographic expeditions and you'll have an abundance of perfectly captured absurdities like people placing buckets with goofy faces painted on them to recreate being caught in a white-out. In fact I felt Errol Morris made a whole lot of sense when he'd asked Herzog after the film if it wasn't so much "Ecstatic Absurdity" he was after more than "Ecstatic Truth". Even Herzog smiled and felt there might be something to that.



I agree that the individual interviews were the highlight of the film, and that Herzog has definitely learned from Morris the value of "lingering" with the camera. But while most people I talked to seemed to think that Herzog was making a point about the weirdness of Antartica and the people that come there, I think that misses the point. In Herzog, everyone is weird.

The world we live in is weird, the people that try to explain it are weird, and the way in which we try to make sense of all this weirdness (science) may be the weirdest thing of all. How else to account for the single-celled creatures who may be considered intelligent, or the dedication to terrorizing seals, or laughing at penguins who are walking to their certain death?

All the time while we laugh at the stupid animals or the stupid people, Herzog is having the biggest laugh on us. How? Well, consider the themes of the movie: homo sapiens are not unique with regard to intelligence; the desolation of Antartica is both a reminder of our inglorious past and a vision of our post-industrial future; our time on this planet is limited; and, finally, that the world may be better off without us. And this is the man's "funniest movie"!

While the prime of Herzog's career consists of stories of people trying to exceed their boundaries (Fitzcaraldo, Aguire, The White Diamond) or survive where they don't belong (Grizzly Man, Strozsek, Cobre Verde), I think Herzog may be taking a more pessimistic, and possibly misanthropic, turn. Between Encounters and the limited-release The Wild Blue Yonder, Herzog seems to be less in awe at the lengths to which men (its always men) will try to transcend their limitations, and more derisive.

I think a lot of the people at the Wasserman Cinematheque at Brandeis may have come away from this screening thinking they saw a funny and interesting film about nature. They may even have told their friends about the silly penguin and the bucket-heads. What I'm guessing is that over cocktails and hors d'ouerves, they declined to explain the absurdity of even trying to exist in a world as meaningless as the one Herzog describes. That wouldn't make for good conversation.



While I know you've never met an overarching statement you didn't like, I think you forget to mention that Herzog is pretty weird too. And what are everyday people going to look like through the lens of a weirdo? I of course wouldn't have it any other way, but let's not make it seem like Herzog is looking at the world through clear, non-judgmental eyes without a skewed perspective and a deft hand at the editing table. In Herzog's world, everyone is weird -- do we live in Herzog's world, or does he live in ours? I believe it is the latter -- which is why his reports back from the battlefield are so great, he plays the part in us that is curious about the most minute, sees the absurdity in the things we take for granted and ends up championing (even if he doesn't mean to sometimes) the extreme visionaries.

You should change that "or" in describing Herzog's movies to an "and" because I think all those movies you mention fit fine in the other category as well -- this film fits into both as well. To say that recently Herzog as gotten more into doomsday mode is something that simply reflects the change in the environment, as it were. I'm sure in the upcoming years we'll be getting a whole lot of "end is near" entertainment like we already are on the Discovery, History and Learning channels on tv. The first of which I believe was ostensibly the producer of this project.

The only thing I think we'll disagree upon is the "meaningless" tag you want to put on his description of this world. You'd already stated that this world serves as a great window into our past and our future -- so I think right there you have you answer as to why people would be willing to try and survive here, for the same reason Herzog came, because even the most remote place on the planet has plenty to say. He was clearly disappointed when the weather for his trip was unexpectedly non-hostile and relatively pleasant, which was something that brought a laugh from the audience. Of course Herzog had preconceptions that he was hoping to get reinforced on this trip and I think he got something he didn't expect, a fairly boring, functioning society of misfits. Who knows how many hours of footage were shot and what ended up on the cutting room floor to make this project an interesting Herzog movie (would he have left out the penguin and the non-responsive penguin researcher if he'd had other material?).

Whether you take Herzog's musings as gospel or simply take Encounters at the End of the World as an interesting series of encounters with the people (and other living things) who live at the end of the world is obviously something that will vary from person to person. I'm sure if you're own world view is that of utter meaninglessness than you can read into film this as another of Herzog's wonderful reassurances to you through your day, other people may see it otherwise. But everyone will come away with a better understanding of Antarctica (something that Anne Curry's recent trips utterly and miserably fail at) having witnessed a wonderful deconstruction of that continent's inherent mystery and a look into what it does give us -- "a reminder of our inglorious past and a vision of our post-industrial future", unique views into our planet's highs and lows and the people who call it home.

A couple of tubes -- Paddy you may want to close your ears at around 4:45 of the first tube -- the second one follows up on Henry's last question from the first.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Assasination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Director: Andrew Dominik

Viewed: From The Balcony

Oh what could have been.

Between the beautifully written script, the superb acting by both major and minor stars, the washed-out cinematography, and one of the saddest and most curious stories to come out of the great myth that was the American West, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford could have been a classic; certainly the best movie of 2007, and maybe one of the best of the decade. Could have been.

Let's begin with the positives of a script (adapted by Dominik from the novel by Ron Hansen) that takes one of the biggest bad-asses in history and turns him into a confused, paranoid, and lonely madman. Those who go to the theater looking for shootouts and daring robberies will be sorely disappointed as the only holdup occurs in the beginning of the film, with Jesse and brother Frank leading a group of local misfits on a somewhat botched train robbery. Among this group, the titular Coward surprisingly turns out to be Jesse's most trusted companion and close friend, and the first 90 minutes is a wonderful (if somewhat slow) dance between Ford's admiration for James (at 19, he still reads the sensationalized stories about the James Boys) and James's skepticism and, eventual, baffling trust of Ford.

Since the title of the movie is a spoiler in itself, I don't mind saying that yes, at some point, Ford will betray James by shooting him in the back, but it is how this comes about that is the real surprise. Without going too far into it, it is clear that Jesse wanted to die, especially at the hands of one of his idolaters. Like Judas, Ford has to serve his master, even if it means killing him.

The assassination takes place at around the two-hour mark and at this point, the viewer is probably justified in thinking that the movie is over. Nope. Following the assassination the movie adds a half-hour coda that is among the most beautiful and sad 30 minutes in recent movie history, following Ford's eventual path, from his dramatic recreations of the murder itself (over 800 times!) and his eventual ridicule by society, to his own tragic and violent end. Ford had achieved the fame he always sought (we are told he was recognized by more people than President Grover Cleveland), but he sacrificed much of himself to do it.

Ford is played to perfection by Casey Affleck, in a role that draws often (but judiciously) on Affleck's reticence, crackling voice, and forlorn eyes. While Brad Pitt's James has the alert eyes that size-up the world in an instant, Affleck seems to be staring into an alternate reality, someplace beyond death. There is one scene where Ford is surrendering to the local sheriff and emerges with his hands up, looking like a ghost. He is unbelievably creepy (Frank notices this from the start) and spectral, and yet, sympathetic and approachable. It is a performance that will stay in your mind for a very long time.

Aside from Pitt, who is fine as James but distracting, the supporting crew if fantastic, featuring great turns by actors I knew (Sam Shepard as Frank James, Sam Rockwell as Ford's brother Charlie) and those who I had never heard of (Jeremy Renner, Garret Dillahunt (looking sort of like Affleck in 30 years), and Paul Schneider as intermittent members of the gang). Mary-Louise Parker also appears as James's wife Zee, but it is a useless part, and you know Parker was only added to provide the inevitable scream.

So Sean, you may be asking why all of this does not combine to make a great movie. The problem as I see it was the director's decision to tell the story chronologically, which leaves the best part of the story - Ford's life after the assassination - until the end. I would have suggested that the movie start with the fallen Ford and his dramatic recreations and move through the back-story using flashbacks. So much of what happens during the long second act would have worked better if you had known where it was heading. Probably the three greatest scenes of the movie appear in the final half-hour and the movie just feels like it opens up after all of the claustrophobia of following Ford and James around. Additionally, while the supporting cast is great, there is far too much time spent on an incidental plot point involving James's cousin Wood Hite (Renner) and Dick Liddle (Schneider) in Kentucky. While it was fun to watch Wood and Dick (hee hee) bicker over a woman, the digression takes away momentum from the James/Ford story.

It is possible that I may see this movie again, and realize that it really is a classic, even if flawed. Just in preparation for the review, I've gone over the movie more than just about anyone I can remember. Part of the reason is the ambiguity of the film - I still don't really know what to think of James or Ford other than pure, heart-wrenching sadness - but it may be that the ending works well the way it is, and that a great final half hour can transform a merely very good previous two hours. However this movie does in the awards season, it will be remembered for some time, not only for Affleck's breakout performance and for the visual beauty of Dominik's camera, but for the completely original approach Dominik and Hansen take towards the dual tragedies of Jesse James and Robert Ford. Though James was, as one of his cronies says, "the only American other than Mark Twain known in Europe," it is clear that Ford's life as subject was equal to (or surpassing) the tragedy of James's life. The narrator of the story tells us in the opening shot that James had eyes that looked "as if he found creation more than he could accept" and it appears Ford had the same view of life. For both, the world was both more than they could handle and less than they could accept. It is to the credit of Dominik, Hansen, Affleck and (yes, even) Pitt that they created a world in which these two characters could have existed, even if it only lasts for 150 minutes in a dark theater.


Thursday, November 8, 2007


Dir. Stuart Gordon

Viewed: From the Couch

Sean looks forward to Stuck:

Another happy day in Mamet Land, filled with joyous machismo, racism, misogyny and humiliation. Who would want it any other way? Not I, and certainly not Edmond (played by Mamet regular William H. Macy in certainly his best performance since The Shoveler, or at least outside of a PTA movie), a lost soul who longs for something else besides his empty existence as husband and successful 9-5er. Spurred on by a tarot card reader, who tells him he is not where he belongs, and a deliciously despicable Joe Mantenga, who reinforces some racism in him and tells him he needs to get laid, Edmond ventures out into the after hours of NYC and begins his path to, um, self-discovery?

And so Edmond travels from strip club to brothel looking for a reasonable price for some lovin'; these early scenes show us a very naive Edmond and offer the only real comic relief in a movie that quickly spirals into blood and rage. Edmond's path can be easily looked at as the life of a bad seed from childhood, where Joe Mantanga's father-figure type sends him out into the world looking for the wrong things, to maturity when Edmond does get the sex he's after and reaches the point of no return. I hesitate to give much more of the plot away, it is this point of no return halfway through the movie and the unexpected twists that follow which make for gratifying viewing.

While this work is certainly not Mamet's best, it does feel like the earlier work of a man who's still finding the strength of his voice, in the hands of horror auteur Stuart Gordon, it is a work that resonates even when you're not sure if you're even enjoying the ride and sticks with you after it's done, which is due in large part to an unexpectedly poignant third act. While the original play was written in the 80's, and some of it's themes can come off a slightly dated, it's not much of stretch to see this story taking place at any time, in any big city.

It certainly helps matters that there's wall to wall good performances here. There's a reason Macy and Mantegna show up in every other Mamet scripted movie, his words never sound clearer than coming from these guys. Of course, as a testament to his skills, all the other actors come to work with their A game. It's a blast to see Gordon regulars Jeffrey Combs and George Wendt trading lines with Macy -- Combs is especially effective as an unsympathetic, put-upon flop-house hotel desk clerk. Mena Suvari, Julia Stiles and Bokeem Woodbine are all effective as well. Why Woodbine hasn't been able to break out of B movie status is beyond me. Even when stuck in a futuristic vampire cop movie, he shines. In Edmond, Woodbine shares with Macy the oddly tender final scene of the movie and tries to works out the meaning of it all: do we always get what we deserve? And are we all just one wrong step away from this fate that is beyond our control?



Uh, yeah, Mamet's metaphysics need work.

The movie worked for about forty-five minutes, but that "poignant" third act was for me a ponderous mess, with banalities ("we are shaped by our destinies") mixed with high-school dope-head philosophy ("what if we're the real animals"?) spouted by Edmund Burke (and no, I can't tell you why he is named after the famous Irish conservative critic of the French Revolution) and friends.

Mamet clearly wants to say something about the loss of male authority and power (Mantegna's early speech pretty much sums it up), but he also thinks everyone is controlled by a larger destiny? And is the emasculation felt by all of the straight white men historically contingent, a loss of power in a post-industrial world where all you do is wear a tie and long after young pussy, or is it timeless, as the end seems to suggest? I honestly don't think Mamet has much of interest to say on either subject; his strength is in giving voice to angry white men, not explaining it.

As Edmund works his way through his existential dilemma with the help of a rapist and platitudinous priest, I was longing for the quick pacing (helped by the eclectic original score of Bobby Johnston) and oddball characters that come from all angles in the first half of the movie; however, when Edmund's adventurous evening takes a turn for the worse, so does the movie.

The cast is great, but mostly wasted. I love to see Debi Mazur as much as anyone, but what is the point of casting her as a brothel receptionist, other than to get a few film aficionados to say "hey, there's Debi Mazur - she sure is great"? Fat Ton- er, Joe Mantagna, on the other hand, is perfectly suited to his role, and while I would take the whole Glenngarry crew over Mantagna and Macy, they are fantastic in their monologues. Suvari and Stiles? Eh, whatever.

I imagine how much you enjoy Mamet depends a great deal on how interested you are in his themes. I've never had much interest in the castrated male genre, whether it's existential (Mamet) or visceral (Chuck Palahniuk/Neil LaBute), and tend to find the most interesting questions apply to everyone, not just white men. I think these writers are correct to point to some of the dangers inherent in the rapid loss of power for SWMs, but I'm not too concerned about a coming wave a psycho killers or Edward Norton-led terrorist cells. In the 80s it may have seemed we were heading for a generation of angry young men, but these things have a way of working themselves out; instead of a bunch of Edmunds and American Psychos, all we got were metrosexuals.


Sean isn't very jazzed about Redbelt:

Some might say metrosexuals are the worst threat of all, Paddy. Hey, I'm just glad you're thinking of other viewers. But I guess making someone think about racism, white man's role in urban society and one man finding his place in it is too pithy a subject? A movie has to be about the role the entire male gender plays in the world to be of interest to Padraic? And since when do you need answers given to you in a movie? Aren't the best movies left up to the viewer to decide? Isn't most art created to raise questions, not give answers or in this instance need Mamet to explain why masculinity is his favorite subject? Would you ask David Lynch to explain in his films why he loves his themes so much? Don't a lot of writers and other artists continue to use the same themes because the search is never over? Aren't you being a bit harsh on this movie, Paddy?

Here's a few other questions: Is our generation of urban white males going to be the last to feel the real effects of the masculinity of the 50's and 60's? Is Mamet's oeuvre going to continue to be dated the further we move forward? Or are his movies going to seem more important for being a document of the times, a window? And wasn't that smile at the end killer?

And so here comes the classic Sean, Ah whatever. I've been given a good dose of the impending holiday doldrums. Every day Thanksgiving inches closer the more lethargic and given to ennui I become. Oh, and the title of the movie is Edmond -- not Edmund -- you're correct, we're not dealing with an Irish conservative critic of the French Revolution. I'm sure he wouldn't burden us with dialog about being animals shaped by our own destiny -- dialog I don't mind hearing when it's delivered by David Mamet (even in a lesser work like this one) via W. H. Macy. And I think it's a testament to the material that actors like Debi Mazur will jump at the chance to have the smallest of parts in this movie.

Spoilers below in both of these tubes by the way -- especially the second one which is a homemade version of the pivotal scene (and a none to shabby one at that).

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The November Beer of the Month

Lagunitas Absolutely Free 22oz (Kill Ugly Radio)

A beer made to honor Absolutely Free.

Pours easy. Beery orange color with a nice inch of white on top which dissipates soon enough. Smell and taste some honey, also a bit flowery. Easy drinking without too much carbonation -- just enough. A little bit tangy but it doesn't linger too long. Almost crisp. Basically a good pale ale. Damn fine beverage.

I like Lagunitas Brewing Company. They hardly ever disappoint. And this yearly thing they're doing to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Zappa albums with beer has been pretty successful from a beer drinker's perspective -- last year's Freak Out! was hella good too (to use a Petaluma term [that they probably don't use anymore]) and the use of the album cover as the bottle label really makes it stand out next to the other beers in the store. I don't have too much interest in Zappa music, he's always been one of those guys where I've had more interest in the artist than in the art, but this beer is another winner. In fact, more than anything or anyone else in the past, Lagunitas has successfully gotten me curious to check these albums out. Not sure if I will (albums that use schizophrenic as a term to describe them are hardly ever my thing), but hey, that's the sign of a good beer.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Southland Tales

Dir. - Richard Kelly

Viewed: From the Balcony

It's been 5 long years since Donnie Darko -- and aside from a Tony Scott-ed script for Domino it's been a quiet 5 years for Richard Kelly. It reminds me a little bit of the time between Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction -- other people started buying up Quentin Tarantino scripts and like Natural Born Killers is to Oliver Stone, I don't think you can call Domino a Richard Kelly movie. Anyway, Southland Tales, Kelly's second feature-length movie, is nothing like Pulp Fiction. Actually Southland Tales is nothing like anything. I honestly am going to be struggling trying to write about this one (I just watched it a couple days ago -- I've tried to let it sink in but I think any honest evaluation of this movie is going to take multiple viewings -- for better or worse) as there are no easy comparisons and yet the movie deserves more conversation than it's likely to get.

The movie starts off with an effective home movie type sequence in Abaline, Texas where we watch a neighborhood run into the streets to witness a nuclear bomb go off nearby. Justin Timberlake's narration walks us through one of many computer animated sequences that feed us data and try to catch us up to speed on the state of the union following the attack. Basically, the country is spending lots of money trying to come up with alternative energy sources and there's a whole lot of politicking going on as we're in campaign season leading up to the '08 election. The narration is heavy with doomsday tones and Revelations quotes. There isn't much doubt that what we're watching is how the end of the world occurs -- "...not with a whimper, but with a bang." (Up for election is the Eliot/Frost ticket.) After the intro we're dropped right into the thick of it. (*deep breath*) An amnesiac action star with political ties is trying to unravel a conspiracy that involves militant political activists, a porn star that can see the future, two Seann William Scott's, a big brother type operation with more than a few dwarfs helping to pull the strings of the media and the government... and wouldn't you know it, it all has a lot to do with the colliding of parallel universes. A word to the wise, you may want to leave the booze and dope alone before entering this world.

The major criticisms of the film are inevitably going to come from the over-ambitious nature of the film. It tackles politics, corporations, media, the war in Iraq, celebrity obsession, all while putting together one of the more insane conspiracy plots ever put to film. In some ways it did remind me of Alan Rudolph's Breakfast of Champions -- a movie I think more people dislike due to the handling of its source material than for it's merits as a bat-shit crazy, shoot for the moon, fun movie. While Southland Tales doesn't have a mesmerizing eye of the hurricane like an unhinged Nick Nolte to latch onto, it's never boring, has endless energy and if you can give yourself over to it's anarchic spirit you'll be entertained and impressed by Kelly's ballsy experimentation.

A good amount of this fun comes from Kelly's casting choices. Every actor in this film comes with a certain amount of iconic baggage. You have The Rock playing the amnesiac action star; Sarah Michelle Gellar as the prophetic porn star/screenwriter; Miranda Richardson, John Larroquette and Wallace Shawn as the shady conspirators; Justin Timberlake is our narrator and wounded veteran; Nora Dunn, Cheri Oteri, Jon Lovitz and Amy Poehler all play a part in the "Neo-Marxists" angle, who have a hand in precipitating the apocalypse (similar to that 12 Monkeys group); and Highlander Christopher Lambert himself sells heavy artillery from his ice cream truck. Any of these casting scenarios might uncomfortably stick out in your average movie -- but it's all strangely symbiotic here.

You reach a point early on where you feel like anything can happen at any moment in this movie -- so it's not really strange at all when a dyed-blond Jon Lovitz shows up playing a homicidal cop -- convincingly, I might add. Brilliant, you think, what will come next to top that? Many, many things. Two SUVs going at it doggy-style is the first thing that comes to mind (and I'll have you know a muffler turning into a vagina is not something that leaves the brain easily)... a flashback to military barracks in Iraq turns out to be a Dennis Potter type song and dance number... and those may mot even be the strangest bits in this film.

Southland Tales is certainly not for everyone. Even if you enjoyed Donnie Darko, this might simply be too inaccessible. There's certainly some common threads to be found -- the science fiction elements are handled very similarly and the ending of Southland definitely resonated with me in a way that echoed Darko. Both films are rather dark at their core -- people hurtling uncontrollably towards their destiny. In this case it's the end of world -- or at least the end of Western Civilization, as Kelly puts it. If you look at it with that perspective, that you're simply watching this array of characters and situations as they rush to fulfill their destinies to meet this end, it frees you up to simply enjoy the filmmaking that's at hand here. And there's plenty to be impressed with. Scenes so elaborate and on such a grand scale that a relatively young filmmaker like Kelly shouldn't be able to pull them off. Elaborate and grand pretty much describes the plot as well, and while that isn't quite nailed on the head, the ambition is easy to appreciate. I saw the film with Special Fellow at the Harvard Film Archive (it made up for being shut out of that Funny Games advanced screening) and upon leaving he summed it up with something like, "I don't know what the hell just happened, but it was fucking awesome." He later called it the next Brazil.

This movie is going to divide audiences pretty much down the middle -- I don't think it's going to succeed in theaters but I believe it will have a long and prosperous life on home video; much like Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Donnie Darko, it's something that will reward repeat viewings by allowing the details to be savored (that NY Times link above offers you a glimpse into the amount of literary and film references that are scattered throughout). I'll definitely be catching it again when it gets its proper release and the first thing I thought about when I left the theater was I need to pick up the rest of those comic books that Kelly released before the movie. I'd read the first one almost a year ago and that didn't help too much going into the movie but I'm more than interested in expanding this world.