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January 17, 2007

Filed under: movies»commentary»classic

La Jetee

Warren Ellis found the classic French film, La Jetee, on Google Video. If you've seen 12 Monkeys, you'll recognize parts of the plot and some design elements, since Gilliam's film was basically a remake. I'd never seen the original before. Ironically, the use of relatively banal still images juxtaposed with matter-of-factly surreal narration makes the film seem older than it actually is (1962), but also makes it ideally-suited for low bandwidth online video.

May 9, 2006

Filed under: movies»commentary»cult

Maxximum

Last night, prompted by some strange chain of links, I found myself watching MTV's short-lived adaptation of The Maxx, which you can find on YouTube here. I remember when my family first moved to Virginia and we were living in an apartment temporarily until we could find a real house, I sometimes stayed up late and watched the bizarre animations that MTV was playing (anyone else remember Liquid Television?). The Maxx is one of the more intriguing examples. Theoretically it's about a big, purple, Tick-like superhero named the Maxx--but since he's actually a big, purple, Tick-like homeless guy who involuntarily finds himself in a dream-world (or hallucinates the whole thing), there's not a lot of classic superhero-ing taking place. The Maxx is mixed up with a freelance social worker named Julie and a serial killer named Mr. Gone, all three of whom begin to increasingly blur the line between the dream and reality.

It's pretty strange, but oddly affecting. Whether or not it eventually makes any sense, I found it captivating due largely to the stellar voice acting. The animation is also surprisingly well-done, combining traditional cell art with mattes and limited CG, mixing art styles as it moves through different story arcs--a bit like Furi Kuri. Until it comes out on DVD, it looks like YouTube is the only place to watch it.

March 2, 2006

Filed under: movies»commentary»others

Vendetta Vetted

James Wolcott likes V for Vendetta. It's hard to predict how the movie will turn out--the Wachowskis have shown that for every subtle or gripping directorial choice (most of The Matrix or Bound), they can also make one that's clumsy or overindulgent (the first ten minutes of Bound or the last two movies of The Matrix). V has, compared to Moore's other works and to its advantage, a much more over-the-top Hollywood plot. It's less likely to be sabotaged than the literate references of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

January 11, 2006

Filed under: movies»commentary»independent

Brokeback Mountain

The albatross around the neck of Brokeback Mountain is that it is "the gay cowboy movie." I hate to say that. It's not the fault of the director, or the actors. It's a product of our unfortunate political climate, I think. And it means that you spend the first half-hour of the movie wondering when Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall are going to make out. Granted, in a perfect world a lot of people would still be spending the first thirty minutes wondering, but it'd be of their own volition.

Brokeback continues on to be a fine film, even a powerful film. It reminds me very much of Ennis, Ledger's character. He doesn't talk much, he doesn't really make eye contact with people, and he's not terribly good at figuring out his own drives. Like Ennis, Brokeback Mountain mumbles along without drawing your attention to its craftsmanship. It's not flashy. But Ang Lee basically asks us at the end of the movie to look back across its arc, and I was a little surprised at how deeply it resonated for something that seemed very humble as I was watching it.

I'm reminded of last year's Saving Face, which faced similar barriers as "the Chinese lesbian movie" (I could probably write a whole other post on why one of them is about gay cowboys and the other is Chinese lesbians). Both movies work better if you can ignore the PR and watch them as the genre films they actually are. This isn't to say that the homosexual aspects of each aren't important, since both of them integrate those aspects into the plot and into the characters. But it's a far cry from, say, Bound, where the lesbian relationship is almost completely a gimmick that cashes in early and is then discarded. Even if that movie treated sexuality respectfully (again, another post completely), its meta-thematic representation was exploitative. I think that the public labels for Saving Face and Brokeback Mountain are attempts to trivialize films that are willing to handle sexuality the same way they address any other aspect of character.

My inner optimist hopes that enough people will watch Brokeback that the narrative will be turned on its head. Instead of being the "gay cowboy movie," it'd be "the movie that everyone said was just gay cowboys, but was actually really good." It's not going to magically spread tolerance on its own, but it might crack the market open just a bit.

My inner pessimist says "Sure. Just like the waves of tolerance that swept America after Philadelphia and Will and Grace. How'd that 2004 election work out for you?"

September 7, 2005

Filed under: movies»commentary»translation

Observations after watching The Grudge in Spanish

(don't ask)

  • Where it's at: Isn't it amazing that they made a movie set in Japan, based on a Japanese film and a fictionalized Japanese folklore, and yet it somehow has no actual Japanese people in anything other than bit parts? How can we explain this away? Are Americans really that challenged by Asian actors in film?
  • Dub this: I can't decide if localization into other languages is just lazy or incompetent. Why, in a movie already dubbed into Spanish, does Ted Raimi's character complain that he only speaks it a little? Why did they leave the English-for-Japanese subtitles at the bottom, and change the spoken Japanese to Spanish (thus making several scenes look either very foolish and disjointed)?
  • Joke that never gets old: "Man, Sarah Michelle Gellar's Spanish is fantastic."
  • Gimme lo-fi: In the original Japanese version of this movie, the effects were terrible. Nevertheless, it was a lot scarier than this. Why were so many great images cut? The entire subplot about the policeman's daughter and her undead schoolgirl pals is gone, presumably to make more room for Bill Pullman. I like Bill Pullman, but I like zombie schoolgirls more.
  • Una vista muy clara: Watching the movie in another language makes you pay more attention to the cinematography. A very effective device (and one that's very particular to Japanese horror--Miike uses it a lot, for example) is a close camera framing that remains completely stationary. It creates a lot of tension, possibly because the viewer really wants the camera to look elsewhere as the music rises, and it refuses. This can be very evocative of certain dream-logic, where your body refuses to follow your orders.
  • Do I frighten you? The monochromatic image of a woman with long black hair, combined with odd bodily movements, is still very striking, but it's also getting a little old. Let's find a new freakish visual, shall we?

July 5, 2005

Filed under: movies»commentary»horror»zombies

All You Zombies

Last week I was unable to see Land of the Dead, the fourth of George A. Romero's critically-acclaimed (and socially-aware) epics. This week I intend to remedy that fact, because while I love horror movies of all shapes, sizes, antagonists, and qualities, I particularly love the humble zombie.

The greatest horror movie villains have personified an aspect of the unknown, or have exaggerated the slightly creepy to excess. Silence of the Lambs puts a thin patina of rationalism over the sick uncertainty of the insane. Freddy Krueger is every bizarre, unexplainable nightmare you've ever had--and the early Nightmare on Elm Street movies play this in a way that later, campier films betrayed. Vampires have long been exposed as metaphors for libido and sexuality. Jaws stands in for bestial Nature. The recent influx of Japanese and Japan-influenced ghost stories (The Ring, The Grudge, or Dark Water) mix malevolence with a Lovecraft-like fear of What Lies Beyond.

Common to both the greats and to lesser aspirants (Darkness Falls, Wishmaster, Gigli) is a specific type of conflict. They express Man (or Woman) against Monster. Sometimes, as in slasher films, the Monster is also a Man. In Audition and Misery, it's a Woman (a whole topic for another day--or week). The exact nature of the Monster can vary, but it is almost always singular. Monsters that attack in the plural can still usually be dealt with as a distinct group--the Gremlins, Ghoulies, or Them! are still fundamentally actors within the plot. They are characters that have their motivations and react to the actions of the protagonists.

The undead are a unique creation (and they are a creation of Hollywood, as any informed person is painfully aware of the discrepancies between movie zombies and honest-to-Baron-Samedi-raised-by-a-houngan-and-set-to-work Voudoun zombies) because they don't fall into that role. I propose that zombies are not so much distinct monsters as they are an extension of a newly-dangerous environment. Whereas even automatons like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers are variables, zombies are a constant. Zombie movies, especially the good ones, don't focus on the zombies themselves as much as they focus on the people who have been placed in a zombie-fied environment.

For example, take 28 Days Later, which is not technically a zombie movie but fills the role of a condensed homage to the original Romero trilogy. At no point in the movie do we ask ourselves what the "undead" will do--they simply attack and infect anything within reach. Our attention is always focused on the human actors of the plot. Where will they go? Are the people they've met trustworthy? Are they themselves trustworthy? Who is betrayed and who is the betrayer? 28, like the best undead flicks, is really about people who are placed in a dangerous environment and not about the monsters themselves. The heart of its conflict could be expressed just as easily if the main characters were dropped into the middle of a jungle, or indeed, a war.

Romero has always played with this dynamic in his films. Night of the Living Dead is probably its purest expression, centering as it does on strangers thrown together in a farmhouse against the undead hordes. With Dawn of the Dead he added a social subtext about capitalism, and the zombies started to differentiate themselves more clearly. Day of the Dead continued that trend: both of the later movies feature walking dead that are clearly ex-members of society. Instead of simply wearing rags, there are zombie cheerleaders, businessmen, construction workers, housewives, and more. The third Dead movie also picked out a single zombie (I believe his name was "Bub") to treat as a character apart from the rest of the horde. Despite these nods to reality, the movies remained firmly focused on the living, despite their titles.

I'm curious to see what Land of the Dead will add to the mythos, because I understand that Romero has again used zombies as both environment and agent. I'm likewise interested to see the evolution of his Socialist undercurrents. Perhaps the greatest irony of zombie films is not their niche within horror movies, but that they are often smart movies about brainless subjects--both the living, and the undead.

June 28, 2005

Filed under: movies»commentary»scifi

The Power of the Darth Side

The Darth Side: Memoirs of a Monster has been passed around the Internet for a while now. It's a brilliant retelling of Star Wars IV-VI from Darth Vader's point of view, complete with Livejournal-style moods and running asphyxiation jokes. The author has collected it now into a single file, so you can read it chronologically. I don't say this for a lot of fan-fiction, but I really recommend it. At this point, the elder Star Wars trilogy has become a cultural artifact, ripe for adaptation. The Darth Side is Rozencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to its Hamlet.

Future - Present - Past