The Magnificent Seven

The Magnificent Seven (1960) movie poster

(1960) dir. John Sturges
viewed: 03/25/03 at Castro Theater, SF, CA

Well, I can scratch another cinema classic off of my list of films that I have never seen. And for The Magnificent Seven, I was able to scratch it off in style, seeing it on the big screen in a beautiful 70mm print, in its true glory.

This is one of those movies that plays on television with great regularity, yet somehow I had never seen it. The musical score is iconic and utterly familiar, as are some of the film’s images, though I know that I have never seen the film as much of it was fresh to my eyes. And here is a shocking confession: I have also never seen Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samuarai (1954), the film from which The Magnificent Seven was adapted, another peak in the cinema landscape. I have actually come close to seeing it, but have wanted to catch it on the big screen, too. Anyways, though these films are greatly known and respected, I hadn’t seen them.

I had seen A Bug’s Life (1998), which also played off the same premise, however. Though with digitally animated insects.

The film itself is pretty magnificent. It’s an excellent popcorn Western from the tail end of the period of the classic Westerns from Hollywood. Highly slick and entertaining, with excellent performances by Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson, among many others.

Brynner is particularly striking. With his sort of ambiguous ethnicity, inflected in his appearance and his accent, he is the embodiment of cool, sexy and somewhat exotic. This is a thought that ran through my head a lot during the film, that you could tell who the good guys were because they were so damn cool. Brynner would have to be their leader, handsomely dressed in all black, he is the coolest of the cool. However, it must be said that he seems preposterously unlikely a real world cowboy. If only the real wild west were to have contained such cool, stand-up guys. Or maybe it did? Who knows?

The Ring

 

The Ring (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Gore Verbinski
viewed: 03/15/03

I had seen the Japanese original of this film, Ringu (1998), a couple of years ago on video, not knowing a whole lot about it. The new American version, The Ring, takes the original story pretty much to the letter. An eerie video (film) turns up that exacts the death of its viewers seven days after they have seen it. The film’s conceit is highly self-reflexive, mortal terror arising from watching a scary movie. In some ways, perhaps watching the film on video has the most compelling effect with the implied positioning of the viewer in the literal experience as the characters in the film.

It seemed as though there was more explication in the American adaptation. I can’t say that I remember a lot of specifics about the narrative from Ringu, so I may have just forgotten or lost it in the translation. I did find the ending on the original more effective. The fact that the only way that the woman can save her child is by essentially condemning someone else to death was more implied than explicit in the original. The final image from Ringu of the car driving fast up a long, isolated road represented the characters metaphoically and was more striking than the explanatory conversation that Naomi Watts has with her son in the editing room at the end of The Ring, for instance. This same sensibility is true for much of the narrative, between original and re-make.

The one big thing that the original has over the re-make is simply that…it is original. The story and set-up are what makes these films strong, not just the execution.

Spider

Spider (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. David Cronenberg
viewed: 03/17/03 at Lumiere Theatre, SF, CA

David Cronenberg’s new film Spider reminded me a good deal of another film that I had seen a couple of years back, Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy (1997), so much so, that I began to wonder if they were both adapted from the same author. This turned out not to be the case. The Butcher Boy was adapted from a novel of the same name written by Patrick McCabe, and Spider was adpated from a novel by Patrick McGrath. In both cases, the novels were adapted for the screen by the original authors, though Neil Jordan shared a screenwriting credit on his film.

These items are more pure coincidence really. The parallels, if there really are any, are in the narrative’s plot lines. (I will warn you that I am getting into spoiler territory here, so if you don’t want to read the film’s plot twists, turn back while you still can.) The films linked in my mind by depicting the interior world of two mentally ill boys who end up becmoing murderers as their psychoses dominate their personalities.

In both movies, the world of the film is aligned very much with the mind of the protagonist, offering a something of a first-person perspective/interpretation while seeming initially as objective. Not explicitly “narrated” by the protagonists (there is no voice-over in either film, I believe), each film begins with a more naturalistic representation of the narrative, giving the viewer the impression that the world of the film is objective and believable. Eventually, though, the viewer is forced back to realize that the narratives have not been reliable, that at some point one is forced to recognize the delusional state of some of the content and that this confusion lies within the protangonists’ understanding of reality. This break, arguably, shifts the narrative back into a more traditional third-person omniscient perspective, seeing more than what is viewable by the protagonist, knowing more than is possible for the protagonist to know.

In Spider, the cracks in the believability of the narrative only start to show near the end, just before they are shattered in the climactic revelation at the end. It’s almost classically Freudian. Dennis “Spider” Clegg views a duality in his mother’s personality (depicted as almost a virgin/whore stereotype), which he envisions as an entirely different people. Only after succeeding in killing the “tart” does it become perfectly clear, to both “Spider” and the viewer, that both characters (each played by Miranda Richardson) are one and the same person. “Spider”‘s split is not of his own personality, but with his comprehension of the personality of his mother.

All in all, I thought that the film was pretty good, though a bit slow. I would definitely recommend Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy, though, which I thought was utterly amazing.

Talk to Her

Talk to Her (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Pedro Almodóvar

viewed: 02/28/03 at Embarcadero Center Cinema, SF, CA

I thought that this film was excellent. I have been totally stymied on trying to write about it. There is a lot of interesting stuff in it, particularly the way that care and devotion easily transposes into creepy obsession. The relationship of two men and their comatose female objects of desire. The fantastic, surreal silent film section really stood out. Talk to Her is pure Almodóvar, in the more mature, art house-friendly, Oscar-friendly stage of his career, but arguably among his best work. Well worth seeing.

Chicago

Chicago (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Rob Marshall
viewed: 03/05/03 at Loews Theatre at the Metreon, SF, CA

More fun than innovative or aesthetically pleasing, Chicago still struck me as reasonably high on entertainment, if not a particularly notable piece of “art.”

But what is “art” anyways, right? In this case, as in so many, it’s a mostly matter of opinion.

I wasn’t familiar with the original musical Chicago. Though I have somewhat of an affinity for musicals on celluloid, I haven’t seen much Theater and so am pretty uninformed about plays that have not been adapted for the screen. I understand, to some degree, that the handling of the musical numbers in the film version differ from the original stage productions in that they are envisioned as fantasies, and so staged outside of the narrative’s “world” largely. This is not a new convention in the least, and my guess is that in some ways it’s a way to perhaps make the pieces more “believeable” to a contemporary audience not as comfortable with the more typical traditions of musicals, like when suddenly an entire town bursts into a song and dance routine that magically they all know. Oddly, it’s just that surreality that appeals to me about a good musical.

I didn’t care for the general execution of the musical numbers in this film for the most part. They had a very “stage-y” quality to them, departed from the context of the general storyline, like fantastical “asides,” and very theatrical, almost like they were being performed on the Oscars stage. Largely, this was an overall aesthetic problem for me, and quite ironically, I thought that the songs themselves were very good. I also thought that the underlying story, with its eminent cynicism, and script itself were pretty good, too.

As for the performances, Catherine Zeta-Jones was excellent, all the way around. Queen Latifah’s one musical number was definitely the best single musical performance and she had some strong scenes, acting-wise. Renée Zellweger was okay, but seemed too skinny and waif-like a lot of the time. Richard Gere really shouldn’t be singing and dancing any more than I should, which is to say…at all.

My guess is that this film will top the Oscars this year, not because it is a great film (which it isn’t), but because it is entertaining. And despite the fact that the story is essentially an aptly cynical saga about media culture and fame, its buoyant, upbeat musical numbers give the film an almost escapist, “feel-good” sensation (the film literally depicts escapist fantasies in its flashiest moments), which contrasts with the other films up for top film this year. It’s been noted before that musicals were at their height of popularity during the Great Depression and WWII, and that it is easy to find such parallels in the current situation of our world. An interesting theory, though doubtful to imagine that the musical will ever regain its popularity as a form/genre in film, though it would be interesting to see.

Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams

Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Robert Rodriguez
viewed: 03/09/03

Robert Rodriguez’s campy, over-the-top, comical sensibilities seem to have found their perfect output in the Spy Kids franchise. Rodriguez has always imbued his films with a certain verve and light-heartedness, while playing with the conventions of genre, such as action/adventure or horror. Actually, I don’t know if one could characterize any of his films as having too much seriousness or pretention. In fact, that seems perfectly counterposed to his character as a writer and director.

In Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams, the conventions of multiple genres are employed, lampooned, and exploited. Essentially a “children’s” movie, something perhaps not so much a genre but as an stylistic application to various genres, the movie addresses itself to the spy film, but pays homage to other “classic” action/adventure films, including Jason and the Argonauts (1963) & Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Rodriguez tends to amp up certain motifs and conventions to outrageous extremes. In this sense, the events are not “grounded” in realistic depiction, but tend to expose the action sequences and sight gags for the entertaining eye candy that they are.

Rodriguez uses many well-known Latino and Spanish actors in all of his films, often as a pop cultural set of references as well as an aspect of character. In the Spy Kids films, the primary characters are either Latino or Spanish (I think perhaps the family is meant to be Mexican, though I am not sure if it’s specifically noted). I would suggest that this is a significant aspect of their depiction, though arguably one that doesn’t seem substantially explored outside of its general state of being.

True to his low-budget roots, Rodriguez led production design throughout the film, doing a great deal of the film in post-production with a heavy reliance on digital backgrounds and animation. I had read one comment that perhaps he relies on this too much,…which I would probably agree with. Overall, though, the film was a good deal of fun.

Russian Ark

Russian Ark (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Aleksandr Sokurov
viewed: 03/03/03 at Opera Plaza Cinemas, SF, CA

Russian Ark follows a surreal trip through time and the Hermitage museum in St. Petersberg, Russia, a dream-like meditation on Russia that documents the splendor of The Winter Palace. Narrated from a first-person perspective (the camera vantage tours the museum via steadicam), the tour also follows another displaced onlooker, the character of a 19th(?) century French marquis, played by Sergei Dontsov. The marquis critiques the museum and its objects, as well as the character of Russian culture. Numerous historical figures, spanning the four centuries of the museum’s existence, roam the galleries as well.

The narrator, who mumbles his broken thoughts, is never seen by the camera (the camera’s steady strolling gaze represents his own view). He is also never seen by most of the other characters save the Marquis, who also has a fluctuating invisibility to the events and people they are witnessing. They stroll quite like ghosts through the museum, which is filled with numerous other resurrected figures of history. There is little explication, as the intended viewer is perhaps thought to have a better grasp on Russian history than I do. Though it does seem that Sokurov envisions The Hermitage as a vessel (read: ark) to carry Russian culture and history through the centuries.

The film’s notoriety arises from its technical achievement (the film was shot in one unedited, flowing 96-minute take), a conceit that is employed at times to striking effect. The opening sequence, trailing a group of 19th(?) century revelers as the make their way into the Hermitage through back passages and narrow stairways, has a dizzying, dreamy sensibility. And at it’s best moments, the film feels much like an amusement park ride, one in which the viewer flows along a predestined track, drinking in all the spectacles but with no control over the event. That said, it is clearly not a “thrill” ride.

More a stream-of-consciousness essay than typical film narrative, Russian Ark slides between fantasy and document. Unfortunately, for one member of my party who attended this film, the stream of consciousness was not maintained…and he slept through the bulk of the film, even snoring briefly. The film is challenging in this sense, truly, which is too bad because I found it very interesting on the whole and have found myself thinking of it considerably since seeing it.

My son’s Russian day care caregiver, who didn’t like the film, told me that the translation was awful. I certainly felt that knowing more Russian/Soviet history would have helped considerably in comprehension, but I had to experience it with the faculties that I have, poor as they are. This lack of understanding probably added a lot to the induction of sleep for my companion and for me in the experience’s overall surreality.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding

My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Joel Zwick
viewed: 03/02/03

The story of this film’s success is probably far more interesting than the film itself, which is largely a pretty bland and tepid comedy, sweet-natured, but pretty weak. My mother and many other family members of her generation all loved it and had seen it months ago, just as its hype was building up steam. Yet I had also heard from sources with whom my perspective may be more closely aligned that the film really wasn’t anything special. Some have noted its essentially “sit-com” quality and so its re-birth as just that seems utterly appropriate.

Somewhere along the development of the stereotypes that star/screenwriter Nia Vardalos cultivates about her family and Greco-American culture one might find some interesting areas of discourse. Not necessarily Vardalos’ intentional discourse, but the sense of creating an image of an immigrant subculture for popular culture to easily devour and regurgitate in typical means. The television show will probably carry this along to some end.

That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if Vardalos wins an Oscar for her script, even though it’s pretty weak stuff in my opinion. That is just how those things go.