For a Few Dollars More

For a Few Dollars More (1965) movie poster

(1965) dir. Sergio Leone
viewed: 07/05/03

Oddly, For a Few Dollars More, I always thought of as the lesser of the trilogy, partially because I had a bit of a hard time remembering the plot from it, compared with the other two films. As it turns out on this viewing, that it’s actually pretty cool in it’s own right.

It features one of my favorite shots from all of the films. Lee Van Cleef, as Civil War Veteran turned bounty hunter, Col. Douglas Mortimer, sees the Wanted poster for villain, El Indio. The camera flashes back and forth with greater and greater rapidity and in tighter and tighter close ups between the image of El Indio back in to Van Cleef’s glaring eyes. Each flash is punctuated with the sound of gunfire, “Pow!” “Pow!” “Pow!” “Pow!” “Pow!” “Pow!” “Pow!” “Pow!” “Pow!”

Funny, now that it’s been a month since I saw this one, again much of it has faded away. It’s definitely still great fun to watch.

Lost In La Mancha

Lost in La Mancha (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Keith Fulton, Louis Pepe
viewed: 07/03/03

Originally started as a “making of…” documentary about Terry Gilliam’s project The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Lost in La Mancha wound up documenting instead the disaster that the film’s production became. Lost in La Mancha, in the end, is a decent film about the film-making process and a sidelong biography about Gilliam himself. Gilliam, I think, is one of the more consistently interesting directors working in Hollywood, and this film might have been more interesting if it attempted to contextualize his work more, looking at the challenges of a filmmaker with very un-Hollywood ideas as he tries to cast his visions onto multi-million dollar productions. As it is, the film only gives the briefest mention of his previous films, showing no clips from them and not visiting them in depth. Still, there is a lot to enjoy in this film, amusing scenes and moderately informative glimpses into the world of movie-making.

The highlights of this film are indeed the meager footage from Don Quixote that were shot, suggesting that it could have been quite a fun movie had it seen completion. Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort were to star in Gilliam’s film and appear in many scenes as the disasters ensue. Ultimately the film production is cancelled with Rochefort develops a nasty prostate infection.

This is a small film, neither ambitious nor radical, quite unlike the work that Gilliam attempts to accomplish. It does have a good humor about it, and I enjoyed it. It was rather amusing.

The Pianist

The Pianist (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Roman Polanski
viewed: 07/01/03

Roman Polanski’s The Pianist is a simply, but elegantly filmed adaptation of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s account of his survival, hiding out in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation. It passingly reminded me of a film that I had always really liked, Agnieszka Holland’s Europa Europa (1990), as it was another remarkable tale of survival in the belly of the Nazi beast by a lone individual during the dark years of the war. Outside of this, I remember hearing another story of a family that immigrated during the war, and having commented on what an amazing true story it was, was told that every story that told of survival during these times was amazing, by its very nature. Whether that is true or not, I cannot say. But there is a power to the veracity of the tale told, that it actually happened, more or less according to the story woven in the film.

Polanski’s own life will no doubt one day be committed to film (probably after his death), as his own life story is as complex and incredible as anything filmed. Having moved to Poland at the age of three, just before the war broke out, Polanksi’s parents were both imprisoned in concentration camps and his mother perished there. He escaped the Jewish ghetto as a child and survived the war in the Polish countryside. I had read an interview with him when this film was in initial release and he seemed to heavily downplay any of his life experience being portrayed in this film. Whether or not such information adds a layer to this film or not, I don’t know, but it does cast it in a somewhat altered light.

I had this movie out from Netflix for over a month, I think, never getting around to watching it. It’s the kind of subject matter that one doesn’t really “enjoy” watching, though the film was not as brutally depressing as it could have been, I guess. Of course, Polanski is always interesting in some respect.

The star of this film, Adrien Brody, who I really liked in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam (1999), is good here; there is something imminently likeable about him. (I still think that Daniel Day-Lewis should have gotten the Oscar nod, but what-are-ya-gonna-do?)

Adaptation

Adaptation (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Spike Jonze
viewed: 06/22/03

Until Spike Jonze directs a feature from a script other than a Charlie Kaufman work, it will be hard to assess how much of his own stamp he manages to put on his films. Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze were the writer and directer pair that brought out Being John Malkovich (1999), which was very a clever and surreal film to have arisen from a Hollywood studio. Adaptation is very much a film about screenwriting, and quite specifically a film about the screenwriting of itself. The narrative includes a fictionalized character bearing the name of the screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman who is in the process of adapting Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief into this resultant film. Self-reflexivity is foregrounded to the Nth degree and definitely to a negatively narcissistic level.

The first half of the film features parallel narratives, one of the adapted version of the book and the other the screenwriter and his process of adapting the book. About half-way through the film, the book’s story ends and the movie merges the two stories into a presumably even more fictionalized projection. I recall that when this film was in its theatrical release that I had heard that a lot of people had been unhappy with the final act of the film. I, too, found it dissatisfying, but wondered about what was going on in it.

The book from which the film was “adapted” is essentially a non-fiction account of people’s obsessions with orchids, and particularly one John Laroche, the titular character of the book. The account of the screenwriter’s adaptation process is satirical and exaggerated, one perhaps based on some modicum of reality, and then embellished considerably. But one of the points that the Nicolas Cage Charlie Kaufman states as he is trying to adapt the book is that he doesn’t want to “make it all Hollywood” and end it with sex and a drug deal and having the Susan Orlean character actually fall in love with the John Laroche character (essentially falsify the story by adding sex and violence). The Nicolas Cage Charlie Kaufman has a twin brother named Donald (also played by Nicolas Cage) who writes a ridiculous screenplay that is well-received by his brother’s agent. Charlie loathes his brother’s approach to writing, explicitly deriding it and the workshop that Donald espouses as the genius approach to writing.

Where the first part of the film seems to resemble Charlie Kaufman’s off-beat approach to screenwriting, the latter part of the film seems to take Donald’s approach. The story becomes exactly what Charlie Kaufman said that he didn’t want, with sex, drugs, and violence. As the story veers off from its initial path, this idea is never explicitly suggested, rather it just happens.

The film is quite interesting and clever, though through much of it, the self-awareness reaches levels of near-preciousness. The ending, I think, is intended to read as near-campy indulgence, with Alligator attacks and explosions, aping the worst of Hollywood embellishments in adapted material. Like Kaufman’s other scripts, there is an element of pessimism that prevades the film, underlying the humor and clever structures and ideas.

The Hulk

The Hulk (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. Ang Lee
viewed: 06/28/03 at Platinum Theaters, Dinuba, CA

When I used to live down in Reedley, CA (a small town in the San Joaquin Valley — for those of you who do not know), we would have to drive to either Fresno or Visalia to go see a movie, which would amount to a 40 minute drive each way. A couple of years ago, the town of Selma (another small San Joaquin Valley town) opened a small, six-screen cinema, which made for a 20 minute drive and despite the rather mainstream and limited fare, saved the trouble of the long haul to the bigger towns when we visited the valley and wanted to see a film.

Well, on the Wednesday before I got to Reedley this last week, the town of Dinuba (yet another small San Joaquin Valley town) opened its own six-screen movie theater, the Platinum Theaters, as they call it. They feature “stadium seating,” which I guess is a plus over the Selma Theater, and though they show virtually the exact same mainstream fare, it’s only a ten minute drive from Reedley. On Saturday afternoon, we visited the Platinum Theaters to see Ang Lee’s The Hulk, the latest Marvel comic character to get the digitally animated big screen/live action treatment.

The theater is located right in the downtown, which is pretty cool, but its parking lot was still pretty unfinished, making it look quite a bit like it was not yet opened. But it was. It had that “new theater smell,” which I can’t say that I have ever smelled before, but is full of semi-toxic artificial chemical aromas of acrylic fibers and fresh paint. The theater was none too crowded, which was nice.

The movie. Ah, yes, the movie. Well, I didn’t have such high expectations. This wasn’t a film that I would have gone out of my way to see, but I felt like seeing something and my nephew was interested and there was this chance to see the film in this new theater…so that is how I ended up at it.

Digital animation has given filmmakers the license to portray a lot more fantastic storylines and characters than were feasible in the past with more traditional special effects. The Hulk is a giant green dude, bulging repulsively with musceles beyond even the most grotesque bodybuilder on Earth, something presumably that in the past could only be rendered with the likes of Lou Ferrigno (the tv Hulk of the 1970’s) or perhaps some animatronic creature. The problem for digital animation is to create believably something that is utterly unbelievable. And despite the distance that the technology has traveled, filmmakers often try to rely too heavily on the technology to render their story. This is not to say that some of the digital animation is not impressive or engrossing, but that its shortcomings are evident throughout, distancing the viewer and at worst, showing itself for what it is…which is not convincing.

In the past, 2-D animation has been utilized in the manner, and the results were similarly stylized but not convincingly real. The heavily detailed attempted naturalism of the Hulk and other digitally animated special effects seems to clearly attempt to allow itself to “read” as truly three-dimensional and “real.” Perhaps to younger viewers who have grown up with this animation style as a staple of the language of film, this technology “reads” better. Perhaps it is a personal prejudice on my part.

The film’s character and story development, which take up the first hour of the film and set the stage for the action, is handled more successfully, I thought, than last year’s Spider-Man. That said, Spider-Man was more fun, for whatever reasons. Ang Lee tries to situate The Hulk in more emotional territory, and as much as one can with a very fantastic story, manages to do better than Sam Raimi did with his bad dialogue and hammy acting. The Hulk climaxes with an operatic finale which seemed pretty over-the-top to me and somewhat unsatisfying. The best action scene was the battle with the “hulk dogs,” I thought.

In the end, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend anyone to see this film in the cinema, but it’s not a total waste of time. If you take it for what it is…an expensive summer confection from Hollywood that is ultimately a cheap sort of thrill.