Panic Room

Panic Room (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. David Fincher
viewed: 10/15/02

Panic Room is perhaps one of the slickest, best samplings of contemporary Hollywood, the latest from one of the most consistantly interesting big studio directors, David Fincher, whose previous work has included Se7en (1995) and Fight Club (1999).

Finsher utilizes digital technology in manners unlike anyone else that I can think of. In this film, which takes place (almost entirely) inside a large house in Manhattan, Fincher’s camera embodies an omniscence nearly as complete as imaginable.

The device is common enough in both theater and film, to create a set that allows a viewer to see into two (or more) environments in a single view, to see both sides of a wall that separates two separate scenes of action, for instance. It’s common enough to hardly consider how Fincher’s camera swoops through floor after floor, wall after wall, through shut doors to reveal both sites (sides) of action contemporaneously. With digital assistance, Fincher also provides swooping, “uncut” tracking shots that go through windows, air ducts, pipes, railings, even the handle of a coffee cup. The eye of the camera is made capable of being anywhere, everywhere, all at once.

These stunning visual motifs have an interesting counterpoint in the Panic Room itself. The Panic Room is a protected strongbox equipped with a number of viewing screens that can “see” into every room of the house. The cameras that supply the Panic Room‘s omniscence are, however, locked down into place, a static view from a single perspective. It’s an interesting contrast that the seat of this very powerful viewpoint is also a space of protection and entrapment.

Fincher also plays the narrative off this complex irony of space. The “cat and mouse” nature of the story flip-flops between the ways in which the home is both fortress and prison. The rules change for each side, swinging back and forth, offering differing glimpses of the stregnths and the weaknesses of their positions. There is probably a lot that can be gleaned from this aspect of the film alone.

I am not trying to suggest that this is a “perfect” film (whatever that might be), but it is an incredibly strong film and interesting. It would be easy to compare it to Hitchcock, but perhaps is a less imitative way. It has that amazing sense of control, manipulating the audience, showing its vision of the characters, locations, its point of view.

Spirited Away

Spirited Away (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 10/25/02 at Kabuki Theater, SF

Having barely seen a theatrical film a month this year (while trying to stay on top of things for my few Film Diary readers), it may seem quite surprising that I chose to see Spirited Away for a second time on the big screen, while forsaking so many films and dooming them to DVD viewing, several months behind the times.

Though that’s hardly the sole issue, it’s a strong testament to how fantastic I think that Miyazaki’s film really is. A second viewing, six months later, only reinforces my awe of this movie.

The world of Spirited Away is one of both folk/fairy tale and childhood fantasy, a deluxe nightmare/daydream that is lush in detail and classical in its themes. The young protagonist, Chihiro, loses her family and almost her identity (literally her name) to an evil witch who operates a bathhouse for “the gods.” It has the effect, like the best children’s stories, of evoking that very recognizable ambiguity of real sensate fears and emotions placed within the utterly palpable believability of the other-worldly, the dream.

The fantasy world is painted so vividly that it can be accepted at its face value, a real place, an alternate reality that is still utterly real. At the same time, the world is also highly metaphorical, representative of concepts that live outside of childhood fancy.

While the narrative intentionally steeped in Japanese folkloric traditions (yet echoes, as perhaps much folklore does, of other cultures traditions as well), the design is focused very much on Japanese landscape and architecture. In Kiki’s Delivery Service (1998), the landscapes and characters were much more Western, a mixed period pan-European vision. The only character in Spirited Away that has a particularly Western look is the evil witch Yubaba (and her good witch twin, Zeniba). However, her character doesn’t necessarily seem to be a representation of Western culture.

This film has so much in it from an analytical standpoint that I don’t really know where to start…so I won’t really. What I will do is say that this is a totally fantastic film, one that should be seen by any and everyone. It’s better than almost 100% of everything else out there. And I mean it.

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Kevin Smith
viewed: 10/18/02

It wasn’t but a few minutes into this film when I thought to myself, what was I thinking? Why did I rent this?

I also pondered the same questions about the whole film’s production. What were the producers thinking? Why did they make this? It’s a vanity project for a (former?) indie director of questionable ability. In fact, this film is so bad, that I would even suggest that it casts a negative light on everything that he has done so far.

What was I thinking, though? Upon immediate reflection, I reminded myself that I really have hated the titular character, Jay, in all of his previous appearances in all of Kevin Smith’s previous films. What made me think that a film with a ton more of him would be worth sitting through? The fact of the matter is, for me at least, the few scenes that he doesn’t appear in are the easiest to bear of all of this film. I found myself relieved to come to a point in the film when I knew that he wouldn’t appear onscreen. And unfortunately, though Silent Bob, the other titular figure shares equal screen time and billing, he (obviously) doesn’t get much diaglogue or narrative focus.

I knew that the film hadn’t gotten very good reviews. I think I had had more doubts about Smith’s last film, Dogma (1999), though it had received praise. I wound up thinking that it wasn’t great but seemed to be his strongest film; it would still qualify as such. Smith’s films seem to collectively build on one another, with each of his previous films’ characters recurring here, “in” jokes and self-reference but lacking cleverness.

This film really is a discredit to Smith, whose writing is supposed to be his strength. I found all of the characters to speak in nearly the same voice, with the same types of “hip” slang idioms and “colorful” dialogue. One can almost see Smith putting the words into each of the characters’ mouths.

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back has the element of reflexivity that seemed as though it might offer some decent material for Smith, who as I mentioned, is touted more for his writing than for his direction. But the “behind the scenes Hollywood” amount to lots of one-off jokes and hackneyed slapstick, rather than anything more incisive. There are a couple moments in which the Smith’s characters collectively look into the camera, directly at the audience, with hammy knowing looks and in an ironically accusatory suggestion that the viewer should know better than paying to see something so stupid.

Perhaps the greatest irony here, is how true that suggestion is.

Brotherhood of the Wolf

Brotherhood of the Wolf (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Christophe Gans
viewed: 10/17/02

The French kick-boxing/martial arts historical period werewolf movie. A truly freakish yet unique mixture of genres that have very probably never before merged in a single film. It’s so bizarre that I was compelled to see it (on DVD, of course).

Sometimes bringing together disparate ideas can create something altogether new and fresh. Sometimes, it’s just plain bizarre. In this case, it’s a little more of the latter.

The film’s faults, in my opinion, stem mostly from the execution of this film. It’s put together with all the charm and style of a straight-to-cable soft-core porn film (and don’t ask me how I know this). In the action sequences, for instance, the use of slow motion and still shots just read as tacky rather than stylish. A lot of the film plays out in numerous cinematic cliches. It struck me as funny the lack of irony and humor the film had about its blatant absurdity.

I found the narrative a little muddled toward the end, not fully understanding exactly what was going on. It makes for a tough time on sorting out any analysis of its discourse, as the resolution never fully made sense to me. The film’s hero, Grégoire de Fronsac, is a well-traveled man of science, a naturalist. He represents the Enlightenment, particularly as he is opposed to the country folk who harbor many prejudices and superstitious beliefs. Interestingly, Fronsac travels with Mani, a Iroquois native American, whose mystic beliefs are less-disparaged.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, so if please skip this paragraph if you are concerned about me “spoiling” the ending for you. That said, I don’t fully know what happened, so I don’t know if I am spoiling anything. The locals seem to be connected to the secret of the “beast,” which I think isn’t even a werewolf, nor supposed to be a mystic creature at all, though they never say what it is supposed to be. It’s like a weirdly-armored giant hyena or something (and why is it armored?) which was supposed to have been brought in from Africa. There is some connection about how the Roman-Catholic church is tied to the monster, though it is protected by the towns poorest inhabitants, who start the film sympathetically but later evolve into Road Warrior-like semi-human fighting machines who kill Mani. The film seems to indict the church, the government, and the peasants. There does seem to be some science vs. superstition. thing. And then the whore that turns out to be working for the church like some secret agent? Did I get that right?

Clearly, I was muddled on some major plot points.

Any way you slice it, however, this film is a sprawling, weird and pretty unsatisfying mess. Still, I will give it points for being confoundingly strange and unlike any other film that I can really bring to mind.

Time and Tide

Time and Tide (2000) movie poster

(2000) dir. Tsui Hark
viewed: 10/03/02

This film was strongly recommended to me by several people, one even remarked: “Best everything ever.”

I am a big Tsui Hark fan. I have been since the early 90’s, and I have often cited his Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) as one of the films that convinced me to study cinema.

But I have to say that when I saw this trailer in the cinema about a year or so ago, I wasn’t sure if it looked all that good. Cynically, I thought that it looked like Tsui Hark’s interpretation of Wong Kar-Wai’s visual style and storytelling. And as to the result, it wasn’t clear from the trailer what that would be.

After having seen it, though, I am hard pressed to know what to say. I don’t know much about the film’s background. I listened to some of the audio commentary by Tsui Hark on the DVD, but didn’t get enough information to know much about it. I would still say that the film is perhaps influenced by the work of Wong Kar-Wai, maybe in its narrative style and subject matter. The film, however, has so much going on in it that it is hardly a stylistic knock-off, or for that matter even really all that similar in the end. It has a truly unique character.

Whatever the impetus for having made this movie, it seems clear that Tsui Hark has rediscovered cinema. After a two movie tour in Hollywood helming Jean Claude Van Damme films (Double Team (1997) & Knock Off (1998), respectively), Time and Tide is amazingly more complex and ambitious than anything that he had done in almost a decade.

The film is all over the place, employing all kinds of visual effects and narrative devices to tell its story in a complex, sprawling manner.

As a result, unfortunately, I don’t know where to start with it. It really requires another viewing at least to get a proper foothold on it. I will hold back for now.

The Straight Story

The Straight Story (1999) movie poster

(1999) dir. David Lynch
viewed: 10/05/02

G-Rated David Lynch. It is an interesting proposition. It’s even a Disney production. The result is an interesting mixture of Disney family-friendly entertainment and a clearly Lynch-ian interpretation of America.

This film presents a longer, more soulful look at the same small town America that Lynch portrayed as the surface world of his classic Blue Velvet (1986). Wherein Blue Velvet Lynch focused on the “other side” of the homey Americana of an Everytown, USA, and in which the small town world was a facade, his image of small town life that he offers in The Straight Story is a bit more “naturalistic” and is certainly a lot more “Straight”-forward than the narratives of many of his more recent films.

The title of the film, of course, implies this more uncomplicated (read: “straight”) narrative, as well as it’s fact-based origin, the true (read: “straight”) story of a 73 year old Iowa man, Alvin Straight (read: “straight” again), who drives his John Deere riding lawnmower across a couple of states to reach his elderly, infirm and long-estranged brother. For anyone who has most recently seen Mullholland Drive (2001) of Lynch’s films, would easily attest that this style, subject matter, and narrative approach is far less disjointed (read: “not straight”) than his other contemporary films.

The America of The Straight Story is not without its Lynch-ian weirdnesses. I mean, it’s about a man who drives his lawnmower across the country. There is the sort of trippy “mentally-challenged” speak of Sissy Spacek’s character and the “hidden” trauma of the WWII stories that Alvin trades with the other old timer that seem to offer at least hints of the darkness behind the simple facades.

Ultimately, though, this film is not about the weird, dark evils that usually fascinate Lynch. It’s actually quite the almost dewey-eyed tribute to the simple beauty of small town people and rather loving image of the Mid-West’s people and landscapes. At times, it’s almost sickly sweet…but for the most part it feels genuine and believable. Richard Farnsworth is excellent as Alvin Straight. Knowing how ill he was as he filmed this movie, his troubled walking and frailty are all but literal perhaps (I don’t know this for a fact).

Still, it’s a very interesting film, particularly from an autuerial perspective, one that places this film within the broader perspective of Lynch’s world view as played out in his collective work.

Croupier

Croupier (1998) movie poster

(1998) dir. Mike Hodges
viewed: 10/04/02

Croupier is a pretentious yarn about a writer/croupier who merges his “real” self with his fictional “self” while toiling in the casinos of London and researching his brilliant novel. The film attmepts some noir-ish street cred with its details of the seedy backside of the casinos.

It’s low-budget English film-making, for what it’s worth. Clive Owen is a poor man’s Jude Law almost.

I would compare this rather unfavorably with Christopher Nolan’s Following (1998), another semi-pretentious English Noir from the same year, only a more successful version of the researching writer slumming it into darkness.

To the film’s credit, I think its amorality could have given it its needed edginess. I think it would have been better if the protagonist hadn’t been a writer. The reflexive commentary feels like the seed of its pretention.

Instead of repeating myself, ad nauseum, here, I will say no more.

The Transporter

The Transporter (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Corey Yuen
viewed: 10/12/02 at Selma Theater, Selma, CA

The Transporter is a slick, relatively lean action flick with car chases, explosions, and Hong Kong-influenced fight sequences.

The film seems a sort of a re-envisioning of the fight-heavy action films of the 80’s (e.g. Chuck Norris, early Arnold Schwarzenegger, etc.), with a more suave (read: English/European) hero with a slightly more noir-ish character (the hero is a top-notch criminal with a sense of right and wrong).

It’s not an entirely bad idea. Since The Matrix (1999) integrated HK-style kung fu into Hollywood action films, it seems that all films or genres that incorporate any “mano y mano” fight sequences also must now have the new “look and feel” of the Kung Fu-influenced contemporary style.

The Transporter was co-written and produced by Luc Besson, who once had a sense of action film zeitgeist (La Femme Nikita (1990) & The Professional (1994)), and directed by Corey Yuen, who has helmed a number of HK films (of which I have seen a few). And it stars Jason Statham (of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch fame) as its muscular, stylish tough guy. There is a sense of multi-nationalism to the project, but one might attribute that more to marketing angles (selling the film in many of these locations) more than to some coherent message behind the film.

The film seems to try to be a love story at the heart of a lot of fighting, explosions and car chases. And while this love story doesn’t seem to work particularly, the portrayal of the characters reads simply enough. Unfortunately it is one rife with sexual stereotypes, so it seems. After being rescued by her terse, manly Transporter, the “transported” Qi Shu heads to the kitchen to ingratiate herself, baking her rescuer some Madelines. She seems a very unenligtened female character. I would posit that one of the current hallmarks of an action film allows that female characters should be allowed to “kick ass” as much as their male counterparts, and even if not, certainly not play roles of pure damsels in distress, homemaking, etc.

I guess that this was my biggest problem with this film, that though it had a slick and modern look and while the action was entertainingly shot, it lacked the depth or spirit or character of something that should feel so “contemporary”. It truly made me think of the action films of the 80’s and of how we have not come very far obviouly.

All this said, it was not a totally unsatisfying piece of escapism, just not a particularly interesting one.