Bandits

Bandits (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Barry Levinson
viewed: 08/24/02

I don’t have a lot to offer on this film.

I tend to think of Barry Levinson as one of the potentially interesting directors working in Hollywood over the past 20+ years, though it has to be said that, when looking at the body of his work, there is a lot more junk there than quality. However, in saying that, I don’t think that this film falls into either of those two categories specifically.

It’s an entertaining film that seems to try to ride the line between a more naturalistic, character-driven movie and a more broadly comedic one. Not to say that those two characteristics are mutually exclusive,…but in this film they seem to clash more than mesh. It winds up offering an odd tone to it, though it certainly has some pretty amusing parts to it.

Levinson is interested in genre (the heist film) and character, though I am hard-pressed to pinpoint what it is the characters are meant to represent. They are clearly folk hero-style “bandits,” wanted by the law but admired by the masses since they are non-violent and generally nice guys. They end up accepting unconventional lifestyles pretty readily…

I don’t know. I won’t press it.

My favorite thing was the wig-changing motif, which was a simple and funny running sight-gag.

Monsoon Wedding

Monsoon Wedding (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Mira Nair
viewed: 08/29/02 at Balboa Theater, SF, CA

I’d been sort of intending to see this film for some time, but circumstance led me to think it would eventually be showing up in the DVD section of the film diary rather than here in “theatrical”. But circumstance took another little turn, a most-conveniently-timed showing of a movie on a Friday night with a baby-sitter in place, and Presto! We were there.

Mira Nair’s film is a comedic melodrama. Centered on a fairly wealthy middle class family, the film attempts a broader glimpse of Indian life, following out the narratives of some of the less well-to-do characters and occasionally capturing the hubbub of New Delhi, the city outside of which most of the action takes place.

Unlike Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también, however, Monsoon Wedding is not nearly as interested in the landscape that describes the “place,” but focuses instead on the trials and tribulations of one extended family in true ensemble cast fashion. It’s a reasonably well-drawn group portrait, though not overly dynamic. The cliches of the melodrama tend to make a lot of plot points come along in ways that one can easily envision. The fleeting images of the crowded, bustling city center are a stark contrast to the posh family home that is the center of the film both as a set location and as a theme.

I guess that one of the reasons that this film has found its reasonable success in the U.S. is the recognizability of the melodramatic scenarios at the heart of the narrative. It’s quite well within the tradition of the genre.

There is a lot going on in this film, and a lot that one could glom onto. One of the most prominent storylines involves child-molestation and a wealthy family friend who happens to be the only non-Indian character in the film. He is an English man, whose family has helped the Verma clan to their place in society. I sense that there are many ways to read this whole situation, some of which I could hazard guesses about, others of which I feel that I lack enough knowledge of India to fully elucidate, but the colonialist history seems significant here.

There is more there, but that is all I got for the moment.

Gosford Park

Gosford Park (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Robert Altman
viewed: 08/11/02

Gosford Park is a witty, entertaining film, both as a lightly comedic take on the English drawing room mystery and as a loose study of social class in 1920’s England.

Altman, an auteur with associated with more genuinely “American” subjects, is clearly an outsider to the world that he portrays in this film. It does seem that period, setting, and character were developed with attempted accuracy, leaning, I am guessing, on screenwriter Julian Fellowes for some English authenticity. I certainly wouldn’t be able to argue any of its short-comings in that area. The humanist perspective that characterizes Altman’s films is present here, too, showing particularly in his sypathetic portrayal of the working class servants.

The character of Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban) seems a self-reflexive “apology” to the English. He is an American director/producer who has come to the stately home to witness a big dinner party as research for a Charlie Chan film that he hopes to produce, which is to be set in just such an English country manner. He is even more myopic than the police inspector (Stephen Fry) who comes to solve the crime (yet utterly ignores both clues and the servants). The American sees only caricatures and surface details, totally oblivious to the murder mystery around him. He dictates his perception of the people and surroundings via overseas phone call, unaware of the events that are taking place around him.

If Weissman’s character is literally self-reflexive, how does that comment on Altman’s “American” perception of the people and environment that he is attempting to describe? Is the character an apology? Or just an attempt at self-deprecating humility?

The film reminded me quite a bit of Jean Renoir’s La Règle du jeu (1939), so much so, that I would be shocked if it was not somewhat conscious, especially given in social class subject matter. It’s been a while since I have seen La Règle du jeu, so I can’t really say more than that on it…just that I recognized it.

Storytelling

Storytelling (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Todd Solondz
viewed: 08/22/02

Self-conscious, self-reflexive, and possibly self-loathing, Todd Solondz’s Storytelling is a cynical look at the creative process.

The film is broken into two parts, “Fiction” & “Non-fiction,” though Solondz certainly attempts to blur the lines between definitive notions or each. In the first section, set in a creative writing workshop, Solondz suggests that the process of “telling” a story, even one based on actual events, fictionalizes it. In the second, longer section, he turns his critical eye on a documentarian, a character that he depicts as an utter sham of a person from the very first scene. The film-maker projects his feelings onto his documentary subjects, skewing their “realistic” portrayal into one of his own vision. He is completely lacking in genuine understanding or empathy for them, and Solondz clearly paints him as the bad guy.

The self-reflexivity of the first segment is so self-conscious that it is hard to read how “honest” it is meant to be. At times, it just seems persistently ironic. Oddly enough, the professor (Leo Fitzpatrick) seems to be the voice of reason, making the comments that are harsh, but with which, the films ultimately seems to agree.

The professor, like all of the characters, seems a stereotypical archetype, and Solondz even comments on the nature of such a portrayal. The class session acts like a quick-read analysis of the events that play out in preceding pieces of narrative.

The protagonists of both sections seem filled with self-loathing. Selma Blair’s character in the first section is a perpetual “victim,” with whom one might sympathize until the viewer realizes that all of the other characters’ criticisms of her are valid. Paul Giamatti’s documentary film-maker, on the other hand, is just entirely pathetic.

The most sympathetic character in the film is Scooby (Mark Webber), the subject of the documentary. He is simply a teenager who has yet to become self-aware. He is simple and naive, possibly to the degree of stupidity. Giamatti’s Toby Oxman stumbles onto him, realizing that he has found someone whom he can exploit. He shoots footage of Scooby and his family under the pretense of making a film about “the typical high school experience” (a notion that evolves constantly, as Oxman’s inability to focus his ideas keeps them reaching). However, his film is turns out to be a comedy at everyone’s expense but his own.

There are two interesting sites of particular critique in the film. In the documentary, which is titled “American Scooby,” Oxman comments in voiceover on the unique beauty of a straw wrapper blowing in the wind, which seems an explicit reference to American Beauty, in which a similar description occurs in what is meant to be a sincere epiphany. Of course, for Solondz, Oxman is a hypocrite and a sham of an artist. It’s a clear dig at that film.

More obscure, perhaps, but much more significant for me, is the use of Mike Schank, who plays Oxman’s roommate and cameraman. Mike Schank was a co-subject of the hilarious documentary American Movie (1999) by Chris Smith. That film was also about the film-making process, though Schank & Mark Borchardt, the subjects of that film, ended up becoming unconsciously funny “real” subjects rather than portrayed in the way that they thought that they were being seen. Putting Schank, a non-professional actor, so close to the documentarian in this film, plus the titular reference again, seems to be a significant dig at that film, too.

I am curious of how “personal” of a film this is for Solondz. The opening segment’s interest in fictionalizing “true stories,” and the fact that the second section is titled “Non-fiction,” makes me wonder if this image of teen lethargy and alienation amidst suburbia has some autobiographical nuance to it, especially as it seems the sole site of sympathetic portrayal in the film,…though still populated with stereotypes.

The lack of closure and definition of Solondz’s critiques leaves a lot of questions as to the ultimate meaning of Storytelling. That openness seems appropriate to two forms that clearly overlap, intermingle, and blur.

Frankenhooker

Frankenhooker (1990) movie poster

(1990) dir. Frank Henenlotter
viewed: 08/17/02

Though I had a friend who really who was really into this movie around the time of its original release, I somehow never managed to catch it. I guess that is what these little mini-marathons are all about.

Frankenhooker is a pretty entertaining piece of campy perversity, from Frank Henenlotter, the director/writer of Basket Case (1982) & Brain Damage (1988), both notable trash horror films in their own right — I believe. I will add both are films to my list of movies that I should see again soon, since I don’t remember them well enough at the moment.

The opening shot offers all one would need to know about the film’s tone. James Lorinz, who is pretty funny as the muttering amateur mad scientist/electrician Jeffrey Franken, is busily working at the kitchen table during a family picnic on a big brain with one eye in a jar while his family hardly bats an eye, trying to get it to focus on his finger. The special effects are comically over-the-top, not at all naturalistic. It’s clearly a world of grotesque absurdity.

When one of Jeffrey’s inventions dismembers his girlfriend, he decides to recreate her a la Frankenstein. In this version of the tale, though, he decides to get his body parts from NYC prostitutes, figuring that they already are in the practice of “selling their bodies.”

When she finally emerges, the Frankenhooker herself isn’t by any means the funniest part of the film. I guess it’s a little funnier in concept than in execution.

The funniest part of the film is the “super crack” and its effect on living organisms.

This movie is sick. But sick being a perverse and genuine pleasure.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) movie poster

(1986) dir. Tobe Hooper
viewed: 08/17/02

Thirteen years after the original, Tobe Hooper did what most people should never do: messed with a classic. Even if it was his classic.

I recall seeing this film on video, probably not long after its initial release. I remembered that it wasn’t very good. Apparently, I remembered correctly.

This film seems to be a response to the midnight movie culture that grew up around the original. All the characters are more hyperbolic, more purely comical, reinterpreted, if you will. Things seem to be played much more for laughs. In fact, it struck me that the cannibal family began to resemble the Marx Brothers, with the mute Harpo-like Leatherface, the manic Zeppo-like “Chop Top”, the mile-a-minute verbalizer and ringmaster “Cook” is almost Groucho-like. Of course, with a lot of gruesome perversity thrown in.

The film is shot mostly on sets, very unlike the original which used its rural Texas landscape to add an amount of “realism” to its happenings. The detachment from any natural, recognizable location suggests that this film is far more pure fantasy than the first, another significant departure in intent.

There is also much more explicit gore and “special effects”, which the original didn’t rely on as much.

Though there are many departures from the original, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 drifts into a similar narrative finale, a culminating “dinner” scene, which seems more an homage to the original than anything.

Dennis Hopper shows up as a ranting “hero”, clearly as crazy as the cannibals that he hopes to slaughter, toting his own set of chainsaws in holsters like a wild west sheriff. This film was interestingly released in 1986, the same year that Hopper appeared in Blue Velvet and The River’s Edge, which were both a part of a big resurgence for his career, I believe.

Tobe Hooper never has regained the “magic” of his original film, though he did produce a few other interesting films such as Poltergeist (1982) and Lifeforce (1985), though Poltergeist is far more a Steven Spielberg film than a Tobe Hooper film, one might say.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is not a good film, especially when compared with its predecessor. But it is not totally lacking in entertainment value. It’s probably best watched as a black comedy.

Halloween

Halloween (1978) movie poster

(1978) dir. John Carpenter
viewed: 08/17/02

For those of you familiar with the film diary, you will realize that I have seen more John Carpenter films this year than from any other director. It’s part coincidence and part intentional look at a pretty interesting horror auteur.

This film was my pick for my nephew Jordan and my second mini-horror movie fest of the summer.

We had the misfortune of picking up the “extended edition” of Halloween which added in eleven minutes of extraneous footage, shot to pad out its initial television airing. Though the footage was apparantly shot during the filming of Halloween II (1981) and looks relatively in sync with the film, the padding only tended to “fatten” the film, which unfortunately took away from its leaner original form.

The narrative and backstory are filled out, which slows down the pace of the film and offers more “explanation” about the “origin” of Michael Myers, the film’s undying killer. For me, this lessened the film in two ways, slowing it down considerably, and offering unnecessary and contradictory explication.

The opening sequence is largely wordless. Seen through the eyes of the eight year old Michael Myers, the only conversations are overheard whispers. It’s never really explained as to why Myers decides to take a butcher knife to his sister, though he does witness her engaging in a sex act, an potentially explicit Freudian site of trauma. While this sequence maybe doesn’t explicitly quote Hitchcock’s Psycho, it echoes it both visually and thematically.

What does Myers represent in the film? The hand of an angry, vengeful “god”, punishing horny teenagers for their “sins”? Certainly there is that undercurrent to his initial murder and the murder of a few of the later characters, each either engaging in sex or planning to. That undercurrent is never explicitly examined by the film and no overt religious references populate it as a text. It is interesting to note that Jamie Lee Curtis, the protagonist and main stalking victim of the film, is virginal, yet motherly (baby-sitting sans boyfriend on a Saturday night while all of her friends are out looking for action), a bookwormy wallflower who is not sexually active. She, of course, manages to escape his murderous advances.

Donald Pleasance, who plays Myers’s utterly unsympathetic psychiatrist, touts Myers as the personification of evil. He explicitly describes him as less than human and seeks him out with a cold societal “vengence,” not unlike my above suggested reading of Myers himself. Pleasance represents a system that desires to hold an eight-year old boy for a murder until he is old enough to be tried as an adult. His monolithical protrayal of Myers as “evil” and “non-human” attempt to rip Myers’s humanity away.

Myers has little humanity depicted in the film. His face is shown twice, very briefly, both times in a literal “unmasking.” The first time, Myers is the little boy behind the clown mask and the carving knife, looking dazed and vacant, having just murdered his sister. He is later unmasked by Curtis as he fights her in the film’s striking finale. This time he wears a second mask beneath his largely featureless white “mime” mask that is his and the film series’ signature, he wears a prosthetic piece on his face where his eye had been gouged out. In this brief flash, there is also little expression on his face.

Myers is, of course, not human in other ways. He is super-human, unstoppable, ubiquitous.

So is Pleasance’s character meant to be espousing “truth”? Does Carpenter boil down Michael Myers as simply the personification of “evil”? Pleasance’s Dr. Samuel Loomis is ineffectual, ignored by his peers (though he appears to have been someone that they “should” have listened to), and ultimately impotent to stop Myers (his bullets only temporarilly fell the stalker).

The more I think about it, the less likely I think that Carpenter would have intended this “humanist” reading of his film that I am working towards, in which the system, represented by his heartless doctor ends up “creating” him, his inhuman superhuman, personification of evil.

Maybe my bleeding-heart liberal reading of this film is a personal “balk” at the notion of some simplified image of evil. But perhaps even that is some societal projection in the film?

Whatever the film’s meaning or significance, I would like to say that the opening sequence is excellent visual story-telling and the finale is both visceral and astounding, even now. Jamie Lee Curtis, huddled in the closet, seeing the shadow moving through the slats of the door is an Expressionistic image right out of 1920’s German cinema.

Birthday Girl

Birthday Girl (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Jez Butterworth
viewed: 08/15/02

Nicole Kidman as a Russian mail-order bride. With a pretty bad Russian accent.

That was enough to interest me in this film enough to see it.

It turns out that this film is English,…which I didn’t know. It also turns out that Ben Chaplain, the male lead in this film, is also English,…which I also didn’t know. It also turns out that this film is more of a black comedy than an out-and-out thriller,…which…you guessed it…I also didn’t know.

The American marketing of a film is not always the best way to find out about a film.

Anyways, it’s not bad. It’s moderately fun, in fact. I think I would have liked it to have been a little more dark and spooky. But that may well just be the lingering after-effects of expectation.

For a romantic comedy, it’s quite dark. For a noir-ish thriller, it’s quite light. It all depends on your, or in this case, my perspective.

The portrayal of Russians in the film is a little stereotypical, though I do suppose that the film tries to find the characters’ humanity, and as a result, isn’t quite as bleak as it tends towards in their depiction. It was rather amusing to note that the only Russians on the set were the voice and language coaches. The rest of the Russians were played by French actors.

Maybe the Russian that they speak is very flawless,…I wouldn’t know.

Resident Evil

Resident Evil (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Paul W.S. Anderson
viewed: 08/14/02

Unsurprisingly, this movie wasn’t very good.

Based on a video game that I have never played, I certainly didn’t bring any preconceptions to this film…other than that I would have been impressed if it had an interesting narrative.

It didn’t.

The film is more like a scenario, with a lot of action thrown in. The scenario: in an underground facility, a chemical is released, turning all of the people into flesh-eating zombies, the team that goes in to investigate gets trapped, and has to fight their way out. The action: lots of videogame-inspired set-pieces, with zombies, zombie Dobermans, and a digitally-animated monster.

The scenario hit a couple of hot button issues: giant, evil corporations and chemical warfare, but not to any interesting extent. I think a version of this film with a lot less explication could have been more startling. To set some unnamed characters down in a scenario that just simply “is” a certain way would have some more visceral reading, like a dream that makes no sense.

Ah, but this film was just too shallow and empty to offer much. The commentary track, which I gave a brief listen to, turned out to be one of the most amazingly stupid that I have ever heard, with Milla Jovovich describing her favorite tv shows and talking about passing gas. While Michelle Rodriguez proved that though she had shot an entire film with Milla, she had failed to learn to pronounce her name correctly. This was all in the first ten minutes!

The film lacked anything dynamic. There was a lot of suggested gore, but a distinct lack of desire to show it. It almost made me yearn for the over-the-top period of gross-out low-budget horror films. I mean, these were zombies after all. The whole thing was really uninteresting.

Michelle Rodriguez sure can scowl, though. I will give her that.

Oh well, like you were going to see this film anyways.

The Devil’s Backbone

(2001) dir. Guillermo del Toro
viewed: 08/03/02

The Devil’s Backbone is an elegant nightmare of a children’s story set against the historical backdrop of the Spanish-American war. Beautifully produced and consistantly interesting, it is a very good film.

Set in an orphanage in the middle of the desert, the narrative tends toward the gothic, with ghosts, a hidden stash of gold bricks, and an old headmistress with a wooden leg. The orphanage is a haunted place, both literally and figuratively. All of the characters seem to have a good deal of melodramatic history hanging about them. There is a defused bomb standing in the center of the courtyard, a looming reminder of the threat of death that lurks so close to all of the characters.

It’s almost downright classical, like Henry James or Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden turned evil. It’s a children’s story in many ways, told mostly from the perspective of Carlos, the recently orphaned protagonist. The fears of abandonment, ostracism, and death are keenly aligned with Carlos’s perception. However, the point-of-view is not utterly attached to the singular third person character of Carlos.

And really, if this was truly a children’s film, it would give serious nightmares to under-aged viewers.