Startup.com

 

Startup.com (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Chris Hegedus, Jehane Noujaim
viewed: 07/25/02

This film had been recommended to me by a number of people. This is probably because I work in the tech industry, in the heart of the land of the startups, and had worked here during much of the boom period and its downfall — the period and world that is documented in this film.

Years ago, I had seen a previous film by directors Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim, The War Room (1993), in which they recorded the rise to power of Bill Clinton in his 1992 run for president mainly through the actions of James Carville and George Stephanopoulos. It was an interesting film, largely because of the character of the two main focal points and also the fact that they were in the right place at the right time.

Startup.com‘s protagonists are not as dynamic as those from the earlier film, but they are fairly interesting subjects. Of all of the jillions of dot-com stories, these guys seem pretty run-of-the-mill. They do burn through 60 million in venture capital in a matter of a year and a half — and maybe the fact that this was not unusual is really the scary statement. Their idea was less than half-baked, but they got a shot. And like most of the rest, they blew it.

The story really focuses on the friendship of the two “co-CEO’s,” Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman rather than the inner-workings of their company, govworks.com. The two guys come off as having a better deal of humanity than many potential other subjects, and the way that their friendship weathers the rollercoaster ride of their startup speaks to some qualities that they have that other subjects might not have been able to show.

Ironically, it might have been more interesting to see the more outlandish stories of indulgence and greed, rather than the humble decency that Tuzman and Herman ultimately show.

As well, one gets the feeling that this film will seem more meaningful perhaps in a few years, as more time passes, and once the period of the dot-com has a chance to get shifted into perspective. Oddly enough, this film was in the theaters just last year, when the dot-com corpse was still pretty warm.

Bamboozled

Bamboozled (2000) movie poster

(2000) dir. Spike Lee
viewed: 07/20/02

Spike Lee’s Bamboozled is a frustrating film.

The premise is brilliant. A frustrated African-American television writer, who is accused of being too “white” and lacking in edge, responds by creating a subversive-minded modern day minstrel show for his network. In his attempt to show the network that what it is asking for is essentially a throwback to classic stereotypes, his show ends up touching a different nerve than he was intending and winds up being a smash hit.

The idea is a harsh criticism of the corporate machine of Hollywood, as well as of the products that it creates. Lee names a number of shows in particular, so as to make sure that the viewer understands exactly who he is railing against.

Lee is nothing if not strong-handed in his delivery, execution, and message. Lee conceived of Bamboozled in the mode of classic satire, and he delivers his message right off the bat in no uncertain terms. Facing the camera and addressing the viewer, Damon Wayans’ character, Pierre Delacroix, offers a textbook definition of satire. Lee let’s the audience know, unequivocally, what he is aiming at.

Pierre Delacroix is the axis of the irony of the film. His affected speech and intellectualism poses him as a man who is criticized as being “black-on-the-outside, white-on-the-inside,” and who is seeking to work within the structures of the white media machine. His character is sympathetic though he concocts the horribly racist retro-styled entertainment. It is his intellectual background and awareness of the history of the black entertainment experience that allows him access to the ideas that spawn the show. And he creates it as an ironic statement, one that he hopes will embarrass the network and shame them. The show’s success is his downfall, as he laps up the adulation and popularity of his creation, despite its content.

Characters are archetypes in the film, representing “types” and generalities. Michael Rapaport’s corporate bad guy character, Thomas Dunwitty, represents the white American Entertainment industry, as prejudiced under the guise of understanding, and brash, myopic, and self-assured in its innate racism. Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson represent the raw talent of African-American artists that has been exploited by the machine. Dying to get a shot at using their talent, they submit to work that is demeaning. In doing so, they find employment and wealth, but have no control over how they are represented and utilized.

The film strives toward a complex portrait, representing varied African-American perspectives on the nature of the American entertainment business and the legacy of its relationship with African-Americans. At the same time, it attempts to act as history lesson for the viewer, offering context and imagery from films and genuine artifacts of past racial stereotype representation. Wayans’ character is increasingly shown surrounded by these caricatures that he has invoked.

Much of the film’s conception and rhetoric are potent. So, why did I find this film so thought-provoking, yet unsatisfying? I am not sure.

The film is pure Spike Lee, full of his strengths and short-comings as a film-maker (including more than one self-referential nod and even quoting directly from his previous work — the title Bamboozled is culled from a speech from Malcolm X (1992), with Denzel Washington delivering the line — it’s both poetic and a little ego-maniacal). In this case, I think that a couple of the problems might have been in the tone and in some of the execution of his ideas. Lee envisions the film as satire, but Bamboozled lacks the punishing wit that often characterizes great satire. Any humor the film offers lurks beneath a very serious intent, and often the seriousness outweighs the strengths of many of the films’ more striking qualities.

It just wasn’t as much fun to watch as it should have been…for whatever reason. And I think that is a shame. It is a conceptually rich film, articulate and perverse. It could have been stunning.

Lantana

Lantana (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Ray Lawrence
viewed: 07/14/02

The film Lantana was recommended to me by a few different people, which may have inadvertently raised my expectations above what they should have been. It’s a good film, though I would say it was a far cry from a great one.

The film is interested in the lives of its middle-aged protagonists, in the late afternoon of their lives. It focuses on marital trouble, trust, and infidelity. And a murder mystery. It’s quite like a soap opera, particularly in the way that the characters’ lives intersect and bump up against one another, though not so heavy-handed.

It’s set in Sydney, in its suburbs and probably outskirts, which makes for an interesting background for the events of the film. The Sydney of the film is not the postcard glimpses of the city with which one is familiar, but rather the more average suburban neighborhoods and homes that look very similar to various American counterparts. It is foreign but not is foreign-looking. It is interesting to glimpse a little more of the places that people actually live rather than the “sites” that all tourists know. At the same time, these places have a boring familiarity, recognizable and undistinguished.

Was the film-maker really as interested in the background as I was? Or was the narrative less interesting and was my mind wandering? The title refers to a shrub, native to the area, in which the body, central to the film’s mystery, is discovered. Maybe there is a hint of suggestion in that, but I am hard-pressed to support that theory. The characters of this film are similarly recognizable. This American/Australian blur must be purely my own, though. The film may well be commenting on the life of Australia’s middle-aged citizens, but other than the one American character, certainly is not about America in any way. Though interestingly, not much is made of Barbara Hershey’s being American in the film, which in some ways might support the absence of difference recognized there.

Again, I find myself out on some far off tangent that probably no one else who has watched this film has even begun to consider…in that there really isn’t anything to consider….maybe.

Minority Report

Minority Report (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Steven Spielberg
viewed: 07/17/02 at Kabuki Theater, SF

When I first heard that director Steven Spielberg and star Tom Cruise were working together on a film, I wasn’t too interested. Spielberg’s heavy-handed film work for the past 20 years has eroded any of the charm of his early output for me, and Cruise just simply annoys me in general. It’s one of those pairings that looks great to a Hollywood suit in terms of combined box-office draw, and maybe sounds great to the average moviegoer, but doesn’t sound too exciting to a “pseudo film snob” like myself.

But after seeing Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001) on DVD a few months ago (which I was shocked to like so well despite terrible word-of-mouth), the idea of Spielberg taking on another sci-fi adaptation started to seem more promising than I would have thought only a few months prior.

In actuality, Minority Report is another solid summer popcorn movie, with some good action and special effects. It’s pretty entertaining. I enjoyed it coming out of the theater.

Now, however, a week or so later, my head is not filled with the striking images of the film, or of anything of real power in it. This may be more of an arbiter for me of how striking it really was…or not.

Spielberg employs some weird, low-brow gross-out humor in the film that struck me as odd. The scene in which Tom Cruise chases his extracted eyeballs as they bounce down into a gutter was absurd and strangely out of tune with the tone of the film and his character. Cruise is not a comic actor, or at least that is not how he has made his money since his earliest of days.

The background characters in this film were an interesting assortment of genericky stereotypes. There is a shot in which the camera flies over a floor of a building in a poor, derelict part of town, looking into the rooms of everyone on the floor, catching the action from an “impossible” view. As though there is no ceiling, the camera looks down into the action in the rooms of various people living in this sqalid building. The shot is not so revolutionary — we have seen such a shot before — it is so full of artifice (in the inherent impossibility to really for a camera to “see” such a view of the “real” world — the shot emphasizes the fact that the camera is clearly shooting a “set”). The characters that are glimpsed in this shot are an interesting array of stereotypes, the “types” of people that live on the poor side of town, according to the film-maker, captured just momentarily in this sweeping shot. I don’t know why this stood out for me.

I have never read the Philip K. Dick short story upon which this film was based, but there were some allusions to the sort of more spiritual side to the narrative that seemed pretty under-realized in the film, though might have had more significance in the original text. The whole film is about an apparatus that utilizes a freak ability to glimpse the future (though mainly or only murders). Some characters vaguely reference a “religious” quality to the nature of foretelling and changing the future. Spielberg drops this in, but hardly analyzes it.

Spielberg does seem fascinated with advertising, though. Interestingly, he is often “credited” with having established product placement in films. In Minority Report, product placement is everywhere, but it exists mostly in the representations of the advertising of the future (as it is interpreted by the designers). For the characters, advertising is invasive and “in your face”, with retinal scans that identify and market directly to a person. As Cruise is in the midst of his noir-ish escape, he is assaulted by ads, in a clearly nightmarish fashion. In another scene, in a futuristic Gap store, the same type of assault plays humorously. Anonymity is gone, however. Spielberg certainly suggests that advertising is only going to become far more inescapable.

Ironically, as Cruise keeps looking at his Bvlgari wristwatch and drives his futuristic Lexus, some of the less-critiqued placements just show up as fashionable.

As a critique, the film knows that advertising is annoying but gives it a lot of screentime anyways.

There is a lot going on in this film, featuring a couple of classic Spielberg themes: children in danger (in the film, Cruise’s son has been previously abducted and presumably murdered) and evil Germans (Max von Sydow is the villan). Years ago in Film Threat Magazine, I read a joking analysis that suggested these themes to be present in all Spielberg films. And amusingly, it is often the case.

Well, there could be more, but this is all I’ve got at the moment.

Himalaya

Himalaya (1999) movie poster

(1999) dir. Eric Valli
viewed: 07/13/02

Beautiful landscapes. Interesting people. Too bad it wasn’t a documentary.

Well-meaning French director Eric Valli’s intent was to make a film about the salt-trading people of the Himalaya region to document their fading way of life, presumably one that has not changed for centuries. His narrative, I believe, was based on an actual event or story.

But the film’s narrative takes very western bent, a very traditional style of characterization and of story-telling. The cinematography is beautiful (filmed on location in the Himalayan mountains), in that the landscapes are stunning and the faces of the non-professional acting cast are fresh and interesting. With those strong subjects, good cinematography almost becomes a “point-and-shoot” situation…it is hard to go wrong.

However appealing the photography, the film feels over-directed. The camera movement seems excessive. And the handling of the non-professional cast significantly hides their lack of professionalism. While this sounds like a good thing, it seems to hide the charm that can arise from the use of untrained actors behind slightly more polished and less-interesting standard performance styles.

I am sure that this sounds nit-picky. But that is how I read it.

It almost seems that a documentary of the film’s production could be much more interesting, though the slow 20 minute featurette that accompanies the film on the DVD is so lacking in pace and action that it perhaps begs the question. Though still an interpretation, showing the people as they are, perhaps a little more literally, rather than viewing them through a foreign-born visitor’s concept of story-telling, might have offered a more honest and insightful view of their world.

The Bourne Identity

The Bourne Identity (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Doug Liman
viewed: 07/01/02 at Park Cinemas, Paso Robles, CA

The Bourne Identity is a classic type of noirish action/thriller, with fantastic European location settings, and a lean and well-paced narrative. I really enjoyed it.

The opening is great. French fishermen find a body floating in the sea that they take for a corpse. Upon pulling it aboard, they realize that the man is alive but has two bullets in his back. When he awakes, he has no memory of who he is or how he got there. The rest of the film follows him as he attempts to rediscover his identity, which turns out to be that of a highly skilled killer.

As a rule, I do not usually care for Matt Damon, but his muted performance fit the character well. I liked Franka Potente, too (she was the Lola of Run Lola Run (1999)).

The action pieces are not as showy as in many films, maybe a little more down to earth. The location shooting grounds the action in a very real and recognizable world, which I liked.

I don’t really have much else to say about this film of the top of my head. It’s certainly an interesting notion, a redemption of sorts, clearing the slate of a trained and cold-blooded hit man, finding his humanity by losing his memory, triggered by a chance humanitarian flash.

Anyways, I enjoyed it. Well worth a second viewing.

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. George Lucas
viewed: 07/02/02 at Fremont Theater, San Luis Obispo, CA

If you had told me at age 10 or so that when a new Star Wars movie would come out that it would take me over a month and a half to finally get to the cinema to see it, I would really never have been able to comprehend such a possibility.

And yet, it was so.

I was indeed a rabid Star Wars fan as a kid, but even by 1983’s Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, I was getting over it. When the first two came out, I was at prime target audience age, 8 and 11, respectively. But by 1983, the whole thing was already wearing thin. Some nearly twenty years later, when the second wave of films started coming out, I was a much more cynical film student, and the film was much, much worse.

One actual excuse that I have for waiting to see this film is that I had been hoping to catch a digital screening of it and the times that it played didn’t sync up with my schedule. I held out a while, but when the opportunity arose to see it in the beautiful Fremont Theater of downtown San Luis Obispo, I decided that that was good enough. The Fremont is a beautiful art deco single-screen cinema that I always enjoy seeing films in.

What can I say about this film. These Star Wars films are ridiculously over-analyzed, not necessarily by theorists or hardcore academics, but by far too numerous fans, etc., so much so that almost any ground I would cover would easily have been pre-tread by thousands already.

I guess that has been part of my problem with this film series as an adult (and former film student). The experience of these films for me as a child was one of genuine excitement and rapture. But this intense sensation was not unique at all. The films are so adopted by so many in such more intense and massive proportions, that my feelings seem well-diminished in comparison.

And this feeling of cynicism is probably not uncommon either. It is probably akin to every intense experience that one has that one later realizes is not personal but universal. Maybe it’s simply tied into an evolving world view that sees the self as less of something distinct and more just a jot in the mass of humanity, not even distinguished by some of the more extreme sensations that have played out in life.

Have I digressed, or what?

This film has some terrible acting. And awful dialogue. In the more personal love scenes between Anakin and Padme, it is downright embarrassing and atrocious. It’s stunningly bad. The worst part might be the love scenes where they are frolicking in the field. It’s like a deoderant commercial. Only worse. It almost is beyond description.

That said, the whole first half of the film is pretty awful in that way. Somehow, the second half manages to redeem itself considerably. That is not to say that any of the bad things about it get any better,…the pace and narrative just pick up and the film moves more quickly. It’s a good distraction from its poorer qualities.

The funny thing is that I wound up enjoying it, seeing the storyline’s puzzle pieces click into place, tying into the whole epic story that had begun years before. So I would have to say that, yes,…despite myself, I did enjoy it.

A professor of mine many years ago pointed out that he thought that the original Star Wars trilogy was in some ways a personal representation of the locales of George Lucas’s life. Tatooine is Modesto, the desert town that was also the location of his American Graffiti (1973), also his birthplace. Later, he used the redwood forests of northern California as the edenic location for the finale, in which case the representation was quite literal.

I can’t recall all of the details of this analysis, hokey as it is, but Lucas does use real landscapes for location shooting that he transforms and envisions as unique planets. Each planet in the films has a corresponding place on Earth that it both “is” (was literally the location for the shoot) and “represents”, commenting on each location by what type of action takes place there or what type of characters inhabit it.

So maybe my professor wasn’t too far off in looking for the more personal story told behind the big epic.

Anyway, it was better than I thought it was going to be. And worse, too.

After Hours

After Hours (1985) movie poster

(1985) dir. Martin Scorsese
viewed: 07/06/02

After Hours was made to be a cult film, one would think.

I certainly adopted it as such as a teenager when I first saw it. I remember going to watch it in the theater and, liking it so much, I coerced some friends to watch it again. Even back in my teenage years, repeat viewing in a theater was a pretty rare thing for a film.

For me, it was an oddly pivotal film, as it initiated my very first interests in contemporary directors and got me thinking about films from an auteurial perspective, I guess you could say.

It is perhaps a little ironic that this film, which got me interested in Scorsese, in many ways is somewhat a-typical of Scorsese’s main body of work. It’s not altogether a-typical, in that Scorsese has been continually interested in genre film and has tried his hand at a number of genres: musicals (New York, New York (1977)), biblical epics (Last Temptation of Christ, The (1988)), period literary adaptations (The Age of Innocence (1993)), and his bread and butter, the modern “gangster” films, (Goodfellas (1990)).

So, somehow, this contemporary (it was contemporary in its day) comedy seems another stab at playing the genre fields as many of the more “classic” American auteurs were known to do, like Howard Hawks or Frank Capra.

Another of Scorsese’s trademarks is his employment of 20th Century music as ambient commentary, and the film does contain some great use of music, including Bad Brains’ “Pay to Cum” and Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?”

After Hours is a film about anxiety, a particularly urban anxiety, a fear of the nighttime denizen of New York City — circa 1985 — (Please see Whodini’s 1984 track “The Freaks Come Out at Night” — a more obvious version of this film would have certainly included this song as a constant refrain), which nowadays looks like a very dated vision of underground life. Griffin Dunne is Paul Hackett, a lonely “word processor” who finds himself lost in SoHo with not enough money to make it home again (an interestingly pre-ATM era predicament), confronted with a bizarre assortment of New York’s “after hours” crowd. It’s a paranoid and hysterical universe full of obsessive characters who would be outsiders in Hackett’s daily world of the office, but among whom, in their element, Dunne is the outsider.

The fears and paranoias are often sexualized. Hackett embodies a very straight heterosexual male perspective, a fear of anything that is other. Sexual images are portrayed almost as archetypes, and though the film does find its sympathies in his character, Hackett also reads as very unhip and middle-class. In a world that he perceives as filled with as cartoonish sexual “deviance”, his deviance is his own dullness.

His trip throught the city’s “after hours” subculture an absurdist nightmare, with a distinct nod to Kafka. It’s still a very funny film, if now also an artifact of the 80’s, informed very much by its then-contemporary period.

I watched this on cable in a pan-and-scan format, which I think detracted from it somewhat. As a result, it lost some of its cinematic style, which maybe even letterboxing would have brought back somewhat. It actually made me yearn to see it on the big screen again, the way that I originally encountered it and was intrigued by it.