Saturday, August 9, 2008

DVR-O-RAMA

Death to Comcast! Long live RCN! Of course this cable tv provider switcheroo left me with having to make some serious choices. I had a dozen or more movies saved up on the ol' DVR and about 12 hours to watch them. I quickly, painfully resigned myself to the fact that I'd be discarding the 5 episodes of this season's Venture Brothers I was planning for a sweet 'lil marathon. Other than that it was all movies on the DVR.

A cursory glance at the list made for few easy decisions. One was Apocalypto. I'd watched the first half, got sleepy and turned it off about a month ago. It may have been better letterboxed, but the Encore cropping made the DV cinematography look pretty crummy. And the cinematography was about all I liked from Gibson's previous leering, lingering look at a history of violence. Deleted.

A couple of documentaries quickly got the ax: Startup.com and Bus 174. I love good movies about a real-life crisis. One Day in September is one of my favorite documentaries. I had this feeling that Bus 174 could be something similar -- an engaging look into a hostage crisis on a bus in a Rio de Janiero. I'll find out one of these days. Startup.com on the other hand is something I have a more passing interest in -- the .com bubble burst of the early 2000s. I'm more interested in E-Dreams, a documentary about Kozmo.com, a failed business that I still hold a bit of a fascination towards. Startup.com got deleted but E-Dreams is still on my Netflix queue.

With three down from the get go we dove in. Surprisingly enough my girlfriend was willing to put up with entire day of watching movies that I'd recorded onto the DVR -- usually in bored, heavy -idded fits of playing with the programing guide. First up was No Such Thing. A movie of Hal Hartley's that I hadn't seen since it was first released. It is certainly one of his funniest movies -- in a dark, misanthropic way, of course. But what strikes me still is its odd premonition of NYC. The movie was made and released shortly before 9/11 and takes place, at the beginning anyway, in a NYC that is plagued by terrorism and outbreaks of violence. Getting from one side of town to the other calls for catching a ride with fearless men in pick-up trucks. The media loves this stuff yet has become bored with it by now. A rumor of an actual monster in Iceland that leads to a team of reporters being killed gets mogul Helen Mirren excited enough to send Sarah Polley to find out what happened. The monster is played as a hilarious loathing by Hartley regular Robert John Burke. He hates everyone and routinely terrorizes a small village of people who try to placate him with booze and sacrificing whatever unlikely travelers pass through. Unfortunately for him he is indestructible and the only guy who may know how to kill him is a mad scientist who got swept up by the CIA a while ago. Off to find him! It's not one of Hartley's best but it is a nice scathing look at humanity's dark side. Like most Hartley movies there's a killer monologue -- this one given by the monster upon his press conference where he lays it into the human race saying he knew there was going to be problems... (this is an excerpt taken from a poor transcription I found -- but you get the jist)

"I saw you evolving, moving. Annoying to me to die, I sighed and I waited while you spent millenia becoming fish. I encouraged you? I jumped, I threw stones at you while you crawl stupidly to sand. Lamentable. I threaded in your small villages at night. I seized an old man or a child and I broke to their cranium on a rock. Afterwards, I looked at, I studied, I tried to understand how you were made. What returned were cretins like you, so able to adapt. But there was nothing. Blood, tripe and of shit, as all the remainder. Without reason, absurdity. It was only another whore of accident. I went on cliffs at night and I howled with stars, me asking how I would finish. Would I live eternally? I want to die, but I cannot. I am indestructible I am sorry. It is not my fault. That must be yours. I do not know a god who can be also cruel. I do not know a god, except if, of course, I am God� But then, where is the difference?"

Next up was the burden of the day, in a way. The longest movie of the bunch but a glaring hole in my movie watching history: Nicholas Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth. It's not that bad, really. It has a good amount to say, but boy does it take it's time saying it. Nicholas Roeg has never been one for brevity - a good number of his movies are what the people call "challenging". I happen to be a big fan of his for the most part. Walkabout and Don't Look Now are near perfect and I had a VHS copy of Track 29 from Tower Records that I held onto for months before I returned it -- and it wasn't because I didn't get around to watching it -- I got around to watching it many, many times (what a wonderfully fucked up movie that one is...). But when your lead is novice actor David Bowie playing a despondent alien you're testing your limits. As enigmatic or hypnotic as he may have been on the stage and on album covers, his routine gets a bit stale as you reach the two hour mark with no end in sight. The grating personality of the girlfriend, Mary-Lou, he picks up at a Texas hotel and deals with for a majority of the movie doesn't help much either. It's a good premise though -- alien astronaut comes to Earth and uses his advanced knowledge to progress human technology and becomes wildly rich in the process, trying to make enough money to build his own space program, advanced enough to get him to his far away home planet. Having Rip Torn and Buck Henry as his colleagues helps out the movie a great deal. But they're powerless against the doldrums of the Bowie - Mary-Lou relationship and the huge lengths of move time where it feels like either nothing is happening or the same crap that happened ten minutes ago is happening all over again. A half hour could easily be trimmed from this movie and I doubt there'd be one person besides Roeg who would miss it. This is the exact kind of indulgent shit that led to the end of the film auteur. But hey, that's not yo say I didn't enjoy the movie for the most part.

As a refreshing glass of new-indie goodness, Primer was up next. According to The Rolling Blackout I'd watched this one back on 4/25/05 and I'm here to say that it's mind-boggling intricacies haven't lessened up since then. Scott Tobias' New Cult Cannon puts it better than I can. It's a $7,000 head trip and it's one of those movies that you bow down to. Just when you think an ambitious, truly indie movie can't find its way in this world anymore -- something like this comes along. A truly beautifully shot and wonderfully acted movie shot on weekends with friends and family that actually is better than a majority of the studio produced filler. We have two white collar corporate tech guys who tinker in the garage on their spare time stumble upon something... what is it? We has a hunch it would do something. Is it applicable? Can we sell the idea? Once they find out what it does, they know they can't sell it. They can use it, but can they trust each other with it -- a time machine? It is such an achievement even if at the end of the short 77 minute running time you have barely grasped what you've just watched. It's an inspiring indie movie -- something that you rarely see these days.

Time for lunch and then some more tough decisions. No one has the energy for another 2+ hour adventure, so High and Low goes regrettably out the window (I will watch you soon, promise). It is quickly followed by The Pope of Greenwich Village (I quickly confirm that it is being shown again in a couple weeks, so no big loss here). We decide upon Gus Van Sant's Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, a movie that I hadn't seen since it first came to theaters. I recalled not liking it much then, but since I'm still riding a bit of a Van Sant high that's lasted about 5 years now, I figured I'd give this oddball movie another shot. His 1993 follow up to the one-two punch of Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho is at first intriguingly off-beat and then just off. I hate to pin the downfall of a movie on any one actor. Some people like to think Sofia Coppola ruined Godfather III. But upon even a half-assed inspection it's clear that there are many reasons that movie falls short. I can't say quite the same about Cowgirls. The reason being that Bonanza Jellybean plays such a big role in making the rest of the movie work, her character is the lynch-pin of the movie. You can almost chart the demise of the movie to Bonanaza's first appearance sitting on a toilet. The first half hour or so are fun (hey there's Buck Henry again!) as we tag along with Uma Thurman's Sissy Hankshaw as she finds her way to the Countesess' ranch. But once she gets there it's clear she's the only one finding this fascinating. Rain Phoenix plays Bonanza like a lazy-eyed, mildly enthused eccentric. Uma Thurman is supposed to fall in love with her upon first sight. Bonanza is supposed to be this inspiring force of nature and, well, what you get on the screen is a goofy chick playing dress-up that isn't any more alluring than if Sofia Coppola stepped into her shoes. Actually I'd watch the movie again if Sofia reprized the roll. Anyway, toward the 2/3 mark I fell asleep. Bad form, I know, but what can you do? I wasn't about to hit rewind.

Time for another safe bet -- George Washington. David Gordon Green is one of my favorite directors working these days. Idiosyncratic almost to a fault and simply making beautifully crafted small, personal movies that are unlike anything any one else is doing. He's continued to make the kind of movies that have long been left behind to the 80's and early 90's -- when guys like Jim Jarmusch and John Sayles were still considered hip and a quiet low budget feature could still find an audience at the theater. George Washington is that kind of movie. Talky, kinda slow, a movie of small events, lingering shots and characters you hang out with and observe rather than watch. Green's movies are doused in the feel, pace and conversational style of the back-woods southern towns his movies take place. He captures his environments so well that he quickly got into the good graces of Terrence Malick - how's that for street cred? (He also has one of the coolest selection of personal quotes on his IMDb page.)

George Washington is Green's first picture and his least plot driven one. It leisurely follows around a small group of friends and family loosely attached to a local mining site over the course of a summer. Some tragedy does strike the group but it never delves into any melodramatics or let it change the tone or pace of the picture. In a way it has a very documentary feel to it. All of the dialog feels natural and real -- coming from the mostly black cat it certainly doesn't feel like the words of a white 25 year old. It's not my favorite David Gordon Green picture -- I'll take All the Real Girls or Undertow -- but it's a hypnotic, and fascinating movie filled with striking imagery. Certainly one of the greatest debut pictures to come around in the double oughts.

The nightcap was an enjoyable piece of high concept popcorn movie called Deja Vu. I usually enjoy when Tony Scott and Denzel Washington get together. They have this weird ying/yang about them that makes it work. While Tony Scott, unlike his brother Ridley, is anything but high-minded you can't help but look at Denzel and feel the weight of the world. While Deja Vu doesn't quite measure up to Crimson Tide or Man on Fire, it provided a fun, ridiculous, implausible but ultimately entertaining look at time travel crime fighting. Where Primer deals with time travel in a serious, intellectual way that completely sells you on the idea, Deja Vu is all about movie slight off hand that keeps throwing things at you so that you hopefully don't pause for a second and realize that what they're trying to sell you makes absolutely little to no sense. But those people explaining or dodging the questions are Val Kilmer and Adam Goldberg, two guys that are part of a experimental task force that tries to use wormholes or something to look back in time and solve crimes. After a ferry explosion in New Orleans they take in local ATF cop Denzel to help figure out what happened. Scott actually tones down his woozy camera shots, over-saturated colors and jump cuts but like a number of Tony Scott movies, the crazy keeps getting ratcheted up in the name of car chases, gun fights and explosions. When you have a solid core of story and actors like you do here it can end with a fun time (in this case it certainly helps when you're paying little to no money), in other cases, like Domino for example, it can fall into style over substance and only be appreciated for the level of gonzo Scott is always willing to deliver. In this case he walks the line and offers up one of his more balanced films -- for better or worse.

Bleary eyed and satiated, sleep came easy that night.

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