The Man Who Wasn’t There

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Joel Coen
viewed: Bridge Theater, SF

You come to expect a lot from the Coen brothers. Some of their films are among my favorites, including O Brother Where Art Thou? from the previous year.

I really don’t know what to make of The Man Who Wasn’t There. It looked great. Shot on a color negative, but deveoloped as black and white, it recreates the look of the noir period., though through a different technical means.

Period noir, to me, is like a nouveau sub-genre of modern noir. Rather than envision the noir mood in a contemporary narrative, we travel back in time to the 40’s to the period from which the noir style hit its peak. Other things I have read have even pointed out some potential reference to other specific noir films, namely Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, which, in reality, though it is a crime film, I don’t know how noir it is. It’s been a long time since I have seen it.

The reason for the comparison is the setting, which is the same for both films, the northern California town of Santa Rosa, which is envisioned in both films as “Smalltown, USA.”

Actually, this point kind of bugged me about The Man Who Wasn’t There. I don’t know if it’s merely the local press’s interest in such facts, due to our proximity to the real town of Santa Rosa, but there were common mentions of the fact that none of the film was shot in the town. Some southern California town stood in for Santa Rosa, “Everytown, USA” indeed.

The film hasn’t lingered with me, despite good performances from Billy Bob Thornton and Frances McDormand.

The film that wasn’t there? I don’t know.

Out of the blue, a film that I would have had less expectation from, I might well have found it an interesting little movie. From the Coen brothers, I expected more. So, I have been left trying to figure out what this film is about. I have been lingering on place and period, which, as my good friend and I discussed, seems to play a prevalant theme in other films by the Coen brothers. But I am still clueless.

Well, I know that all of their films, despite initial reaction, tend to flower for me in multiple viewings. I recall feeling the opposite sensation coming out of The Big Lebowski, another film that dealt with noir and california and period and place. I had initially thought that Lebowski was trying to be too eclectic and tried shoving a little of everything into itself, without a strong grounding. But as I saw it again later on video and cable, I caught a lot more of what was going on, both literally and figuratively.

So maybe it will come to me, this film.


Evolution (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Ivan Reitman

A pretty weak comedy here, with minor laughs and moderate highlights. Marketed as the next Ghostbusters, this film lacks any pizzazz that Ghostbusters had.

Ivan Reitman, of course, was the director of Ghostbusters and is clearly trying to recapture some of that film’s spirit here. It fails.

Anyways, this film was pretty lame.

Ghosts of Mars

Ghosts of Mars (2001) movie poster

(2001) John Carpenter

This film had the making of a good, contemporary B-movie. Starring Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube and Pam Grier, it had the “street cred” of some seriously lower drawer stars that have potential to have their low budget charm.

The world of the film really isn’t all that different from the types of post-apocalyptic science fiction from the 80’s, though it’s packaged a bit more slickly in costume that looks contemporary. Carpenter seems quite stuck there, in the 80’s, though. The fight sequences have this low-budget feel that also somehow has missed out on the sweeping reforms of The Matrix-influenced modern kung-fu.

The biggest detractor from the film, though, oddly enough, is the strange editing style used intermittantly throughout. The film implements a fade in and fade out of action, usually used to slow things down in a film or to “skim” time a bit, sometimes giving a “dream” feel. But this technique is used in Ghosts of Mars to show a character crossing a room, or coming down a hall. It’s an effect that seems to serve no purpose, actually breaking rather humdrum shots and making one wonder, “why?”

All in all, some pretty weak stuff.

Jeepers Creepers

Jeepers Creepers (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Victor Salva

Here is a case of something that I have been experiencing a lot lately. A film that starts very well, shows a great deal of promise, setting mood, affecting a narrative that feels more unusual, but then fails to deliver on the early minutes’ promise.

In this case, however, the ultimate package wasn’t too bad for what it was worth, though the promise still lingers as unfullfilled, the potential for a much better film squandered to a different set of cliches.

Jeepers Creepers opens with a brother and sister on a cross-country drive back from college in an old car. After a quick, yet effective few minutes of character development, the conflict begins, as they are harrassed and driven off the road by malicious driver in an old van. They are frustrated and angry, and when they pass a house on their route where they spot the vehicle that ran them off the road, they see a figure that is acting suspiciously, dumping something down an old drainage pipe. They decide to intervene, motivated by revenge and curiosity.

Up to this point, and maybe by the next scene in which the brother is dropped down the pipe through clumsiness, the story has an almost classic B-movie scenario that is based enough on common experiences to be pretty compelling. The acting is less typical contemporary Hollywood than your usual teen horror flick, less produced, more low-budget. And it works.

But then the story becomes fantastical with a non-human villain (“The Creeper”) that after eventually being revealed, turns out to be some “demon” or soemthing, doing evil for the typical “unknown” reasons that cartoonified “evil” always seems to do it. I mean, who knows?

To the film’s credit, this turn could have switched over into the cliches associated with that type of horror flick, like Puppet Master or Lepprechaun or what have you. Nonsense that no longer has any connection to reality, but is merely a fantasy of creative violence (i.e. new ways to chop up teenagers).

The film continued to remain interesting, featuring a couple more scenes in which the direction elevated the material. And ultimately with its sort of ambiguous ending, actually achieve some sense of existential pleasure that the initial sequences had suggested.

So, I had mixed feeling about this film, but found it intriguing. Definitely a cut above the typical horror film genre. But it clearly had the potential for more. It would have been a totally different kind of movie.

— on a separate note, after seeing the film I was curious about the director, whose work seemed far more polished and interesting than the typical hack. I had seen his Italian family name and wondered if he was an import. To my surprise, he was Victor Salva, the director of the movie Powder, which I hadn’t really cared for, but again recalled that my friend was telling me that he was a pedophile.

Further research, by which I mean, a handful of minutes on the internet, brought up some news articles about said controversy and that the fact of the matter was that he was a convicted child molester that had “served his time”. A lot of controversy had arisen when he had directed Powder back in 1996 for Disney, especially since Disney was the production company and the subject matter was teenagers. And there had been some public outcry when this film, Jeepers Creepers had been shot.

One of the sites that I got my information from, was Andrew Vacchs’. He, if you don’t know, is an attorney turned crime novelist, who also commits a huge portion of his life defending children from child abuse. His site has a plethora of information on it, and is kind of interesting. I don’t really know what to make of him, personally. Having only read one of his novels, Blue Belle which wasn’t very good. He seems quite vindictive. He also had information about Roman Polanski, who is also wanted for molesting a child. And interesting subgenre of directors starts to emerge…

The Mummy Returns

The Mummy Returns (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Stephen Sommers

So, yes, I was catching up on all of the summer flicks that I missed in 2001. None of these had managed to inspire me to get out to see them theatrically (though I think that these types of action flicks tend to fare better on the big screen, being special effects shows that for some reason work better in the big and loud than on the small screen).

Eleanor had enjoyed the first Mummy film quite a bit, seeing it as picking up its mantle from Raiders of the Lost Ark and taking off into action/fantasy — which is totally clear. I appreciated the reinvention of a classic “monster” movie, the like of which I lived for as a small child, though in reality, The Mummy was far more Indiana Jones than it was Boris Karloff.

The sequel wound up reckoning a bit too much of Temple of Doom, what with its precocious and annoying child added to the mix of actors that reprised their roles from the initial film.

The whole film was imagined on a grander scale and with more fantasy elements, including some pretty amusingly over-the-top designs. Some of which was pretty interesting. Other parts less so.

All in all it lacked any genuine fun that the first film generated — for whatever reason. Like going through the motions makes for good adventure fun.

I did like the pygmy cannibals, though.

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) movie poster

(2001) Hironobu Sakaguchi, Moto Sakakibara

This film is all about photorealistic animation. Marketed as the first film to have totally digital actors (a real misnomer, but there you go), the naturalism of the digital characters is supposed to be so stunning that you “believe.”

And in many ways the photorealism is amazing.

There are definitely shots, if not scenes, that once involved in the narrative, it is easy to forget that the image that you are looking at is totally digital and that the charactes were designed on computers, rather the acted on a soundstage and photographed.

But this, in and of itself, would be a moderately cheap thrill.

I have often noted that “special effects”, particularly digital effects, tend to look dated very quickly. Almost all of their power resides in the initial view, when they are first released, and the “effect” is new. Because digital effects become cheaper and more accessible, these same effects get proliferated in other films (maybe less effectively, but very prevalently) as well as on television, in things as pedestrian and oft-repeated as commercials. The power of their ability to “wow” an audience becomes neutralized and technological advances become commonplace.

Final Fantasy opens up with a great deal of promise.

The lead character is introduced in a dream sequence and is not elucidated through the first piece of action, a search for a lone flower in a deserted post-apocalyptic New York City while hunted by faceless military folk and spectral monsters. It called to mind a more detatched narrative style and character development in which less is known and more must be inferred. A colder style of storytelling, that was more common in some 70’s and 80’s science fiction, maybe really left over from the French New Wave.

Ironically, right after this sequence, it becomes clear that this is by no means the intention of this film to connect its unique visual style to its narrative style, to try and give more separation between character and audience. It does quite the opposite. It turns out that all of the faceless “police” were actually the main set of characters, stock stereotypes really, though voice acted by good actors like Steve Buschemi, Ving Rhames, James Woods, and Donald Sutherland, of all people. The idea is far from the one that initially jumped to my mind about the “coolness” of the narrative, the film wants to create the same types of characters that we, as and audience, are very used to in contemporary science fiction films. It wants to prove, I guess, that the digital characters can be “just like” flesh and blood actors.

This is probably the big weakness of the film. These types of stock characters could easily be played by flesh and blood actors (they are, after all, voiced by them). But this uninteresting character development is as generic as the next film and really plays against the unique qualities available to a film with such striking visual potential. The narrative, too, is essentially pretty standard Hollywood style. The whole thing becomes more and more about the ability to have done this film in digital, looking as photorealistic as possible.

Added irony to this is that in a film like The Mummy Returns (discussed above), human actors play cliche characters with stilted dialog. And even in those films, the action is almost entirely digital. In those films, not only do some “creatures” have to be acted out digitally, but landscapes and sets must also “mesh” with the “real” sets in which the live actors do their parts. Essentially, even in a live-action film, the big sequences are digital anyways, striving to be as photorealistic as possible while actually sharing screen time with actual photographed people and environments.

I guess the thing about this film then is that as a movie, a standard issue Hollywood Sci-fi movie from the early 2000’s, it’s pretty run of the mill, nothing to write home about. Better than some, but not especially interesting and definitely not profound.

It’s the potential that is squandered. The visual sense of this film is stunning at times, and I felt that within this style something is lurking that is quite unlike anything that has come before, or at least to this degree.

On a totally separate note, I liked the idea of ghosts from outer space, a notion, I guess that is echoed in Ghosts of Mars as well, but to a less interesting degree.