When I was in high school, going nuts in a small rural Virginia town, my family used to watch Lonely Planet on the Travel Channel. Our favorites starred a short, gregarious Englishman named Ian, who habitually got drunk on a local beverage. In one South American country, he sat on a park bench with a ranchhand and learned how to pick up women. He would eat anything. Living in the Shenandoah Valley, a place my mother occasionally compares to Communist Russia in terms of accessibility, watching Ian wander around the world in such an infectious good mood was actually a real inspiration for me.
Some of the better aspects that made the Lonely Planet series great are present in Long Way Round. A 7-part series that originally aired on Bravo, it follows Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman as they traveled from London to New York by way of Eastern Europe, Mongolia, Russia, and across the US (i.e., the Long Way Round). It gets off to a slow start as they prepare for the trip, but once the pair starts traveling through the less-developed parts of Europe it becomes more interesting. Perhaps because they're traveling through such backwoods areas, McGregor's fame is basically irrelevant, so he and Boorman (plus their cameraman, Claudio) take part in different cultures unencumbered. One of my favorite moments is a night at a Russian gangster's house, where the host climbs down the stairs to entertain his guests with a guitar in one hand and an AK-47 in the other. They also have prairie oysters in Mongolia, and put up with constant police supervision all through Kazakhstan (quite different from Borat, obviously).
Of course, once they cross into Mongolia and Siberia, the show changes from a mostly feel-good cultural vacation into a harsh slog (for the travelers, not for the viewers), as the motorcycles become bogged down into increasingly boggy and punishing terrain. At points the team has to stop completely as the bikes break, or as the rivers are simply too high to keep going--and at one point on the Road of Bones, even the support team's 4x4s have to be towed across a river crossing by enormous Soviet trucks. Perhaps the best take on this comes from a Russian doctor hired for the trip. "These men, they have families, children," he repeats over and over. "What are you doing this for? Why?"
It's not a question I can answer, because I probably would have given up after the second week. But it makes for pretty good television.
To indicate exactly how bad High Tension is will require what we now call "spoilers," although as one critic noted, the movie itself is already beyond spoiled in the traditional sense of the word. It is, in fact, rotten.
A French slasher flick walking a fine line between incompetent homage and lazy theft of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, High Tension centers on a law student named Marie, who takes a trip with her friend Alexia out to the friend's family farm in rural france, where they'll study for what I assume is the French equivalent of the bar exam. It becomes obvious fairly early on that Marie has an unrequited crush on Alexia, and that Alexia is completely oblivious.
But first: what's this, as the girls arrive at the farmhouse? Why, it's a filthy, heavyset figure in an old rusty truck, having some sort of sexual congress with a severed female head, which he dumps out the window when the task at hand reaches completion!
Subtle. I'm guessing a lot of people are going to stop the disc right there, but I've watched Audition. I've seen worse.
Before long, of course, the killer breaks into the house for no apparent reason, butchers Alexia's family, and kidnaps her. Marie narrowly escapes detection and sets off to rescue her friend. At this point, High Tension is derivative and a little strained, but not beyond the horror films it so obviously apes. Director Alexandre Aja knows his way around a camera, even if he doesn't have a lot of original ideas--there's the obligatory gas station scene, the unhelpful phone call to the police, and a power tool straight out of Chainsaw.
Where the movie goes horrifically wrong, and where I will be spoiling what little narrative creativity that High Tension boasts, is in its "twist ending." See, once Marie manages to catch up with the killer, gruesomely dispatch him, and rescue her would-be romantic interest, it is revealed that she was the killer all along. What had appeared to be a flawed but sympathetic description of a strong lesbian protagonist turns out to be a sociopathic sexual deviant.
Even ignoring the gay-bashing incongruity of this Fight Club ripoff, it's just incredibly poor writing. Although the "Keyser Soze" reveal has been around for decades, it still manages to work in films that use it as the final piece of a puzzle, causing viewers to say "ah-hah! now it all makes sense!" Whereas High Tension's twist actually destroys what little narrative coherency that it had left. If she's the killer, then where did that big, rusty truck come from? How does she drive two cars at once? Why did the gas station attendant (and indeed, every other character) treat the killer as an entirely different person? Who called the cops? And why did the psycho spend so much time hunting through the house for her, when there wasn't anyone else to hunt for?
We could try to come up with psychological explanations for these glaring plot holes, but it hardly seems worth it. Clearly, the filmmakers didn't make the effort. I'd recommend you do the same, and leave this one unwatched.
The Triplets of Belleville
It is not a trick: the English audio track on the DVD for The Triplets of Belleville is almost completely in French. I think there's some English at the start and the end, but it was muffled and it might have just been my imagination. But the charm of this movie is that it doesn't matter. There's almost no dialogue in The Triplets. Instead, it merges an art style that's reminiscent of 1930's caricatures with the attention to movement detail of Miyazaki. The story is ostensibly about an old woman and her dog, who set off to the distant city of Belleville to find her grandson, who was kidnapped while riding in the Tour de France. It's a surprisingly dark little story, with moments that are strange but not surreal. By the end, you haven't really learned any profound lessons, but you weren't really meant to. The old woman is charming, the sense of humor is sly and understated, and the sound design is exceptional.
You have probably heard good things about Brick. It's a throwback to film noir, but set in a rough suburban high school, complete with drama club femme fatales and a kingpin who runs drugs from his mother's basement. I watched it twice--partially because I enjoyed it very much, and partially because I couldn't catch it all the first time. It helps very much to be familiar with the conventions of noir, because Brick doesn't go out of its way to explain the plot, which is complicated and filled with doublecrosses. Almost every character is lying about something, and the hard-boiled mumbling can be hard to follow. But if you don't sweat the plot too much and crank the volume, some real gems can make it through the marble-mouthed dialogue, like when the main character tells the manipulative gangster's moll "I can't trust you. If I got your help, I'd have to tie up one eye to watch both your hands, and I can't spare it." Like any neo-noir after Memento and The Usual Suspects, Brick can be too complex across acts for its own good, but scene by scene it's razor sharp.
This is a movie about the last days of Hitler's life, stretching about two and a half hours. I couldn't make it through. It's not that it's badly done. It's more that we are already aware, I hope, that Hitler was an insane jackass. No matter how cunningly acted and shot, there is no real sense of discovery here, unless you are realizing that you are really glad you weren't in a bunker with Hitler. Again, that shouldn't be a kind of revelation.
Wong Kar Wai has a style of framing a scene that I have honestly never seen from anyone else. He constantly uses negative space, shooting around walls and through small windows. There's an awareness of space in Wong's movies, emphasizing how people move through them, and how our man-made environments bring us together, or pull us apart.
2046 takes those elements, as well as most of the principle actors, from In the Mood for Love and Chung King Express. But where those movies were more focused, and their characters more distinctive, 2046 drifts from place to place. It does so beautifully--the cinematography lingers on the rich surroundings, and its color palette is saturated without being garish--but it doesn't really satisfy.
Theoretically, this is a follow-up to In the Mood for Love, taking place after Chow (Tony Leung) has moved on from his affair with a next-door neighbor in the previous film. He's now a playboy, sleeping around with a number of women. The scenes are shuffled, and interspersed with a sci-fi story Chow has been writing, about a man on a train to "2046" who falls in love with a broken android. Somehow, this story is meant to be tied to Chow's various flings, as he becomes involved with his new neighbor (Zhang Ziyi), remembers a past relationship with a professional gambler (Li Gong), and flirts (though without much heat) with his landlord's daughter (Faye Wong).
All of these are fine actors--Faye Wong in particular stole the show from Chung King Express, and Leung is usually convincing for both his comic and dramatic roles. But Wong Kar Wai seems to have locked almost everyone down into themselves for 2046, as if he's less interested in them as characters than as static elements for his composition. Zhang Ziyi is allowed the occasional character quirk, and Chow's editor Ping (a phenomenally ugly man) lends energy to the few minutes he has on screen. But the rest of the time, these characters are too bottled up for anyone to care--there are no cracks in Leung's debonair mask, and as such it's hard not to feel a little repulsed by him, if you feel anything at all. In the end, we're left without much character, much plot, or much spark.
Long story short: 2046 is a pretty slow two hours to look at beautifully-shot hotel rooms.
Yes, it is basically a movie about Al Gore giving a slideshow. Go ahead, get the jokes out of your system ("Perhaps we could put global warming... in a lock-box.") And then once you're done snickering, go see An Inconvenient Truth. It's really very good, and it's really very important.
The most frustrating thing about the movie is knowing--knowing--that if you try to talk to someone about it (and it really does give you a drive to action, makes you want to save the planet), they're probably going to bring up the same tired objections that all ignorant people use against global warming. "I'm not convinced it's us," they'll say, or "I heard that wasn't solid decided science yet." (Right: because "teach the controversy" has turned out to be such good, ethical advice.) And all those kinds of questions are actually answered by the movie. Gore explains why it is man-made, why there is no scientific controversy, and why we have to make changes now. It is a chilling demonstration, even as he delivers it with wit and good humor.
There are really very small things we can do. Change your light-bulb for one that uses less energy (it'll last longer, too). Move your thermostat up or down by only 2 degrees. There's more good advice at the movie's supporting website, ClimateCrisis.net. You're helping the planet, and you're lowering your energy bill. You'd honestly have to be malevolent to not support this fight.
I know I'm a soft touch, but I honestly walked out of the theater fired up and looking for ways that I can help. One of them, I hope, is to encourage you to go out and see the movie--but even if you don't (and I understand, money can be tight and it's not out everywhere), just take a look at ClimateCrisis.net and see how you can help yourself and the planet at the same time.
Shorter Final Fantasy: Advent Children:
"Beautifully stylized fight scenes, physics-defying motorcycle chases, and a large cast of shallow but well-costumed characters? You know, this would make a really good video game."
A day later, I'm still not entirely sure what to make of The Happiness of the Katakuris, a musical parody directed by Takashi Miike. I'm not an expert on Miike, who is uncommonly prolific (IMDB credits him with 50 films just in the last ten years). I've seen his Gozu, which seems to aim at being a less coherent David Lynch film, and Audition, easily one of the most surreal and horrifying stalker films ever made. The temptation is to try and generalize in order to sound sophisticated and cultured ("Well, Miike's use of static angles is both a tribute to Kurosawa and a symptom of Japan's post-war film culture"). I'm going to resist that as best I can, and instead just treat Happiness as a relatively straightforward text.
To its credit, the movie lends itself well to this analysis, because it doesn't really seem terribly deep. The plot concerns the fractured Katakuri family, which has moved to a remote boarding house in order to repair their bonds. Unfortunately, it's very remote and a promised highway has yet to materialize, so business is slow. When boarders do begin to trickle in, the family is horrified to discover that they keep dying overnight. While struggling to cover up the evidence, the Katakuris are confronted with escalating absurdities, leading up to a massive (but oddly localized) volcanic eruption.
Ostensibly, this all takes place as a parody of the musical genre, with random performance numbers interrupting at regular intervals. But in my mind, a successful parody usually includes a hint of whatever made its subject worth the effort, and Happiness seems too tongue in cheek to capture that spirit. Part of this is undermined by the constantly changing aesthetic of the film: it opens with (and sometimes reverts to) elaborate claymation sequences, and the song interludes vary wildly from music-video schlock to seemingly sincere efforts of ridiculous subjects to Broadway-esque excess. It's unfocused.
You could probably try to claim that Happiness of the Katakuris is weird because Americans lack the cultural context for the jokes, but frankly I doubt that's the case--in fact, I think it's usually a copout argument. The impression I get is of a director trying for simultaneous homage and mockery of classics like The Sound of Music, but losing interest halfway through, thus requiring injections of non-sequitor weirdness to rescue the project. Too often, that weirdness feels forced and flat. Maybe Miike just doesn't love musicals as much as he thought he did. Maybe he needed to spend more time with this one. It isn't a bad movie, and at 90-odd minutes, it's not a lot of time wasted if you don't like it. With that said, I simply don't think that the few inspired moments scattered throughout are enough to elevate a quirky but ultimately unenthusiastic film.
Six String Samurai isn't a hard movie to describe, technically. The idea is that America got nuked at the beginning of the cold war. Forty years later, the resulting wasteland is populated by strange gangs like the bowling-themed Pin Pals and cannibalistic nuclear families (pardon the pun). Out of this setting walks the nameless samurai of the title, wearing Buddy Holly glasses and a tuxedo, carrying a katana and a beautiful hollowbody '57 Gibson. Death follows him (literally, Death is portrayed as three Cowboys from Hell led by a Slash lookalike), as does a fearsome reputation.
The samurai is trying to get to Lost Vegas, which was previously ruled by the King--but Elvis has now terminally left the building, and the samurai wants to take his place. In an homage to Lone Wolf and Cub, he's joined early on by a young orphan boy (also nameless), with whom he has a contentious relationship. Together, they travel across the satirical landscape, forming a father-son bond despite themselves.
It's not a hard movie to describe, but that doesn't mean it necessarily makes any sense. By the time that the pair finishes their trip, they've defied Death, wandered the desert, stolen cars, and singlehandedly defeated a sword-wielding Soviet army. If you stop to think about any of the plot twists for too long, you'll miss the point. From its overdubbed voices, to its blatant abuse of slow motion, to its stoic protagonist, this is a loving--if twisted--sendup of the samurai genre, with Rock replacing the Bushido code as its center.
The cinematography is gorgeous, and the sound direction, once you get used to it, is perfectly fitting. Particularly noteworthy is the score, much of which was written and performed by the Red Elvises, a Russian rock band with a cameo during the first ten minutes. If I had to say it resembles anything, I'd compare it to Robert Rodriguez's work with Desparado and Once Upon A Time in Mexico: it's a glorious mess of spaghetti western and surf rock.
Not everything in Six String Samurai flows smoothly. Some of the fight scenes are overly long, and the ending is a little bit of a cheat (although it's a pretty cute cheat--let's just say it twists the movie's references on their head). You'll need to be the kind of person who enjoys this kind of bizarre, anything-goes filmmaking, and it helps to have a background in the classics of the genre. With those caveats, this is the most fun I've had from a Netflix rental in a while.
Compared to Outfoxed, another documentary that covers modern media and propaganda, Control Room is reserved and traditional. It lacks the pop music, open politics, and Powerpoint presentation. For this reason--because Control Room concerns itself with real journalists as they moved through real events--it's a much more persuasive and humanizing effort.
Which is beside the point, really, although it makes a nice introduction. Outfoxed set out to highlight the bias and manipulation of the Fox news network, and used a similarly over-the-top presentation to make its point. It had a nice, blunt thesis statement. In contrast, it's harder to isolate the thesis of Control Room, assuming it has one. The documentary follows producers and reporters from Al Jazeera, the world's most controversial Arab news network, through the first months of the Iraq war.
The title of Control Room could refer to the actual booth where much of the footage takes place, as the producers splice together footage from the war, talk shows, and press conferences to create the channel's coverage. I have a feeling, however, that it actually refers to the power relationships that take place on and off camera through the news. Al Jazeera is introduced as a network that isn't completely objective, but attempts to spread journalism and freedom of speech through the Middle East. Because of those efforts, it was banned from several countries for criticizing their regimes.
When the war breaks out, however, Control Room follows several staff members to US Central Command. Simultaneously, we watch the Al Jazeera command room staff coordinate their coverage from correspondents in Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra (they were not embedded with the US military). The relationship between the network and the military staff is contentious and wary. The Arab reporters are obviously critical of US actions, while the military's relationship with all the media makes their intentions clear: ranging somewhere between controlled information to outright propaganda.
This could be reduced to a shouting match and press clippings, like a culturally-charged Odd Couple. Indeed, the first meeting of reporter Hassan Ibrahim and Marine Corps Lt. Josh Rushing indicates it might be headed in that direction, as they try to sort out where the bias lies and whether America's aggression is justified. Fortunately, the documentary quickly moves past the justification for war and instead concentrates on the difficult work of warzone reporting.
Al Jazeera draws a lot of flack from the US government for its stance on war reporting--showing the gory details as well as the policy side. Clips of Donald Rumsfeld accusing the network of lies and manipulation rank high on the irony meter, while the producers argue that they are trying to portray war's "human cost." One of the most compelling figures is Rushing, who begins the movie as a PR flack but quickly begins to empathize with Al Jazeera's choices. After the video of captured and executed Marines is shown on Arab television, Rushing is first upset, but then compares those casualties with the Iraqi casualties that were typically broadcast. He's disturbed by his own lack of empathy for "the enemy," and it's a painful moment for soldier and viewer alike.
It's startling to see the war's narrative documented so clearly as the Pentagon feeds it to the waiting reporters at CentCom--and it's not just Al Jazeera's reporters that are upset by it. CNN correspondent Tom Mintier is astonished by the audacity of the military at spinning the Jessica Lynch story as opposed to the storming of Baghdad. Although the documentary doesn't hammer the point home, it's disturbing to remember just how prominent that story was, even over the skepticism of the reporters themselves. Dissatisfaction between the media and the military is palpable--however, you can't help but feel frustrated as the US journalists refuse to challenge the government story. Al Jazeera has its own problems finding good coverage, as producer Samir Khader is shown rejecting crackpots that his own well-meaning but ethically-inexperienced staff has cued up for interviews. Although Al Jazeera is extremely skeptical of the US war narrative (like the demolition of Saddam's statue), they struggle to find a balance between that skepticism and good reporting.
The real emotional center of the movie is the bombing of several Arab news correspondents who were stationed in Baghdad. The US military claims it was accidental, but the network staff are clearly shaken and not convinced. The insinuations of Donald Rumsfeld begin to seem more sinister, and the excuses offered are shaky. Khader is most visibly affected, as he considers the station's options. "We're just a little tiny network," he says. What can they do?
In the end, Control Room should give both journalists and ordinary citizens a lot to think about. Unlike Outfoxed or Farenheit 9/11, it doesn't shout a message, but it is no less incendiary. Its focus on an Arab news network also contains real implications for US networks, where they are getting their stories, and what we should believe. It's a bleak picture of war and freedom of press that I can highly recommend. Control Room makes me wonder about the bubble that our media have created for us, and hope that eventually it will be popped.
I'm convinced that Roger Ebert must have more fun at his job than anyone else on earth. It's not that he has a great job, although watching movies for a living is kinda spiffy, but the way he so obviously enjoys writing about them is amazing--Ebert does not get enough credit for his gentle, conversational writing style. Check out a few lines from this review of the Australian zombie film, Undead:
But I digress. Rene hits a traffic jam on the road out of town, and meets a bush pilot named Wayne (Rob Jenkins) and his girlfriend Sallyanne (Lisa Cunningham), who was runner-up to Miss Catch of the Day, which means, I guess, you throw her back in. Sallyanne is preggers, so that she can do what all pregnant women in the movies and few pregnant women in life do, and hold her stomach with both hands most of the time. There is also a cop named Harrison (Dirk Hunter), who if you ask me should be named Dirk and played by Harrison Hunter, as Dirk is a better name than Harrison for a cop whose vocabulary consists of four-letter words and linking words.
They wander off the road and into the company of a local gun nut and survivalist named Marion (Mungo McKay), who if you ask me should be named Mungo and played by Marion McKay, as Mungo is a better name than Marion for a guy who has three shotguns yoked together so he can blast a zombie in two and leave its hips and legs lurching around with its bare spine sticking up in the air. For him, every shot is a trick shot; he'll throw two handguns into the air, kill a couple of zombies with a shotgun, and drop the shotgun in time to catch the handguns on the way down and kill some more.
Marion/Mungo hustles them all into his concrete-and-steel underground safe room, where their problems seem to be over until Marion announces, "There is no food or water." He didn't think of everything. Meanwhile, on the surface, the nature of the attack has changed, and some actual aliens appear. Who they are and what they want is a little unclear; I am not even absolutely certain if they were responsible for the meteorite attack that turned people into zombies, or have arrived shortly afterward by coincidence, making this the busiest day in local history, especially if you include the Miss Catch of the Day pageant.
I alternate between being dumbfounded by the comfortable, meandering cleverness of that review, and wondering how Ebert ever got the job in the first place with a writing style like that.