Willard

Willard (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. Glen Morgan
viewed: 10/25/03

As I stuck this DVD into my machine at home and settled back on the couch to watch this, I began to wonder exactly why I had even put this film on my list of films to watch. As a youth, I’d seen the 1971 original from which this film was adapted/”re-made.” I never found it to be anything special. So, why did I rent this?

There is a potentially subversive core here, in a love triangle between a man (Willard) and two rats (Socarates and Ben). Friendless Willard finds a soulmate in a rat, which has a weird perversity about it in itself. The relationship verges on the sexual, though maybe it’s a Michael Jackson type of sexuality in which the friends merely “share a bed” nightly. Ben, the big, evil-looking rat, the leader of the rats, seeks a similar relationship with Willard, but is spurned. And like a cinematic jealous lover, Ben seeks Willard’s demise and downfall.

Willard’s character is cast as vaguely homosexual, as Ben and Socrates are both clearly male, and Willard’s one human pursuer, a female co-worker, is spurned with utter ambivalence. I don’t know if this casts some negativity on the portrayal, or if this is just pure “over-read” on my part. This notion did come to mind.

Willard was not bad. It might have been more interesting in the hands of someone like David Lynch or someone with his proclivities. In the end, the character of Willard was so sympathetic and his boss was so unlikeable, that you’re not sure how you are supposed to feel as Willard turns against the rats.

Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle

Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. McG
viewed: 10/26/03

Subtlety, thy name is not “McG”.

When I saw the “original” Charlie’s Angels (2000) in the theaters, I found it pretty fun despite its absolute crapness. I think the attitude that they were shooting for was something along the lines of, “It’s stupid, but it’s fun. If you want to critique this, then you really need to loosen up, Dude!” And, for me, it was pretty entertaining.

Round 2, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, is even more ridiculous, less adherent to most conventions of plot and narrative, and even more shamelessly empty than the first one. If the first one was fun for those reasons, then this one will be even more so.

But, this time, it just felt all the more cheap. I mean, how hard is it to pack pop culture references into scenes of motorcycle racing, surfing, and fighting, infused with low comedy and celebrity cameos. If you don’t really have to rely on a coherent narrative, all you need is different wigs and get-ups, a couple dance numbers, and a retro-infused soundtrack, filmmaking really is a snap.

When Drew Barrymore’s character tries to muster up some poorly conceived pathos over her dark past and the uncertain future of the Angels as a team, this film really shows how bad it is. It’s straight out of late Saturday afternoon syndicated comedies whose creators should perhaps be sued for war crimes.

Oh yeah, the movie’s special effects. The campy over-the-top ridiculous quality of the action, so hilariously stupid and impossible (intentionally) are played out with digital touch-ups that are so bad that they look like some first-year undergrad at State University did the stuff after hours in the lab. This is so bad that it’s insulting. Maybe there are some out there who find the cheesiness of the effects funny and campy.

Enough.

All the Real Girls

(2003) dir. David Gordon Green
viewed: 10/20/03

Was this movie bad or was it just me? I had read a number of glowing things about this film, and I don’t know what I was expecting, maybe something along the lines of Terrence Malick or something (though I know that is shooting pretty high).

Not 20 minutes into it, I was wondering if I should go any further. I have a pretty high threshold with bad films, but not usually romance genre stuff. This film attempted to have a naturalistic character, showing young love and the way simple relationships can fail. Certain parts of it worked better than others. Zooey Deschanel, the female lead, I thought pulled off her material pretty well. But Paul Schneider, the male lead who also co-wrote the script with director David Gordon Green, was almost laugh out loud bad at times. I couldn’t really place my finger on what it was that annoyed me about him and his character. He looked a little old to be acting so young and seemed like his character was just supposed to be stupid. When he spoke some of the lines that were sort of nonsense non-sequiturs, it felt really put on. As did some of the heartfelt sentimental stuff that other characters got to tell to one another.

I really don’t know what kept me with this film, other than I felt like I had to try and figure out if it was going to come together a little more. I will admit that it had moments that felt quite real, but I kept surfacing to finding this a pretentious piece of shit.

I also can’t say what really annoyed me so much about it. Just that it was bad.

Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. Sofia Coppola
viewed: 10/06/03 at Loews Theatre at the Metreon, SF, CA

Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, I thought, was excellent. Having seen her previous film, The Virgin Suicides (1999), I wasn’t necessarily thinking that I would like this film so well. The Virgin Suicides seemed like it was reaching to capture a time and place and feeling, a vibe or something. To some extent, it succeeded at that. But it also had this unconvincing, uninvolving plot line about the titular event that just seemed ridiculous and pretentious to me. I remember loathing the film’s denouement considerably.

Lost in Translation has some similar airs about it. It creates a feeling of place and a recognizable feeling of dislocation. The story is an almost platonic love story, quite thin if described. What’s amazing about it, though, is how well it communicates the sensations that its characters are supposed to be experiencing. It’s also a vibe, an experience with a lot less narrative (comparatively), and it just plain works.

It made me really want to go to Japan, despite the fact that the film depicts characters that are utterly lost and confused there, seeing it broadly and specifically as outsiders, amused but lonely, in a country very different from their homeland. In this sense, it reminded me vaguely of Wim Wenders’ Tokyo-Ga (1985), which was a strange documentary that more or less documented Wenders’ outsider’s fascination with Tokyo. That’s probably a pretty weird comparison, but it came to mind. Coppola’s perspective is that of a visitor/tourist, who is trying to understand the culture, the people, and the place without a translator, without a guide. It’s sort of an impossible situation. The perception is one of bemusement, but acknowledged as utterly incomplete and yet very personal.

Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray are both excellent. This is probably my favorite new movie that I have seen in the theater this year. Any other oozing and praise that I could do for it will sound like a million other things that you would read elsewhere, so I will leave it at that.

The Italian Job

The Italian Job (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. F. Gary Gray
viewed: 10/18/03

Many years ago, I was writing magazine and music reviews for a notable punk rock fanzine. Being a junior member of the staff, I was given a lot of cheap, unexciting music to review and was giving it my genuine personal criticism. The editor/publishers thought that I was being too harsh and moved me off of the music reviews, replacing me with someone more positive and less critical (I guess).

The reason that I bring this up is that lately, writing about the films that I have seen on DVD, I find that I am more and more just writing my personal reaction, since I am not finding the time to try and think up more interesting stuff to write about the films. And my reactions have been largely tepid to fairly critical. I’ve seen some decent films on DVD recently, but nothing that really excited me. I am beginning to feel that I am in a bit of a grouchy rut or something, reminding me of my demotion in the world of punk rock music.

Anyways, I bring this up because The Italian Job, while a decent PG-13 rated action-comedy, was also fairly soulless and forgettable. Perhaps these polished chase sequences and explosions played better on the big screen (as they almost always do). A film usually has to have a little bit more going for it to play well on a television.

The violence in the film, the killing, is all acted out by the film’s villain. The heroes of the film do not carry guns and keep the film to its PG-13 audience by keeping the blood flow and retribution to a minimum. This works both as a marketing device (more kids can go see a PG-13 film than an R-rated film) and also probably plays out an anti-violence undertone that probably appeals to some politically correct and pseudo-pacifist film producers.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1

(2003) dir. Quentin Tarantino
viewed: 10/13/03 at Loews Theatre at the Metreon, SF, CA

In the San Francisco Chronicle (a terrible source for critical reviews but is the newspaper that I read regularly), critic Mick LaSalle totally lambasted Quentin Tarantino and Kill Bill: Vol. 1 for the violence of the film. My understanding is that this reaction, as extreme as it is (reported not only in the initial review, but in a follow-up article later the week that the film was released), is in tune with a number of other critics of the film.

While I have mixed feelings about the way violence is portrayed in media (probably only more mixed as I now have a small child and begin to be more concerned with the world that he sees), I also have an affection for a number of types of action genres that are among the most violent in cinema. And if there is anything that this film is trying to do, it is trying to emulate and pay homage to a number of those films and their genres. I have to wonder how long has it been since these people, if at all, have seen some of the types of films to which Tarantino is referencing? I can only think that people who are reacting like this have spent too much time watching the latest (more typical) Miramax releases and mainstream “art house” films and have completely elided kung fu, the revenge film, and exploitation films from their worlds.

I found Kill Bill to be pretty damn entertaining, sashaying between moments of almost campy comedy (the dialogue was sort of intentionally bad, I am guessing) to stunningly pleasureablely choreographed action set-pieces with lots of dismemberment and geysers of blood.

Because the film was “chopped” in two, this being the first of two parts, it’s hard to draw a lot of conclusions about this film and what it is really about. It’s largely a visual spectacle, and it’s also sincerely steeped in homage. The film opens with a Shaw Bros. logo, which is followed by retro placeholder intertitle that reeks of the 1970’s. Tarantino doesn’t isn’t all too subtle with his referencing and tribute-paying. That aspect is seriously foregrounded in this film.

There is a campy quality to the violence as well. Anytime that a limb or head is severed, blood spurts from the wound in a comical stream, spurting and spurting, a couple beats longer than seems logical. The bursts are quite similar and so numerous that it quickly feels absurd. The absurdity is intentional, as it is a part of the camp and humor of the genres that Tarantino plays with. What the film’s attitude toward violence is I can’t say. But from an initial viewing, I would suggest that it’s almost like something from Monty Python, though it certainly veers toward drama to an extent.

As pure spectacle and entertainment, I liked it.

Bend It Like Beckham

Bend It Like Beckham (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Gurinder Chadha
viewed: 10/11/03

Question: What kind of a humorless sourpuss wouldn’t enjoy this upbeat, English, “grrrl power” film about a young Sikh girl’s dream of playing professional football (soccer, for you Americans who don’t know better)?

Answer: Me.

While it’s positive, upbeat, and cheerful, the film is also amazingly naff. At many points it is as badly acted and written as a poor Australian soap opera. It’s obvious, beyond recognition…meaning that I felt like I had ESP, as I could see plot twists rounding corners long before they left the door. Lots of plot points evolve from simple misunderstandings, which are about as grounded in reality as most of the plot scenarios in television’s Three’s Company

Also, I have some doubts about these self-perpetuated (self-conceived) cultural stereotypes (akin to the ones in Joel Zwick’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)), in which immigrant cultures are quite literally stereotyped in supposed positive, though self-deprecating ways. This is not a politically correct comment that I am trying to make here, but rather just saying that there is something that makes me feel squeamish about these portrayals, though they are not inherently “objectionable”. It’s just a pet peeve, I guess.

See, I told you that I was humorless.

Identity

Identity (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. James Mangold
viewed: 09/21/03

This movie was surprisingly bad. The film is intended to be a clever psychological thriller with a unusual plot “twist.” And to some extent that aspect of it is okay. In reality, it plays out more like a cheap “slasher” film or something, with characters killed off one by one with more of a bent toward the horror genre than the “thriller,” per se.

I don’t want to give away the plot twist, in case it happens to really work for anyone else. I will say though, that one could argue that the shallow stereotypes that stand in for characters in this film can theoretically be explained away by some of the film’s conceits.

All I can say is that after having seen this film and America’s Sweethearts (2001) (which I caught on a plane flight in pieces) is that John Cusack may be one of the more appealing and “cool” actors in Hollywood, but he doesn’t at all make very good choices with his roles.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. George Clooney
viewed: 10/03/03

This movie was also surprisingly bad. Well, bad might be a little rough. I had higher hopes for it, that’s for sure.

When I saw that Clooney was directing it, though, my hopes weren’t quite so strong. It may be that, as an actor, Clooney chooses some of Hollywood’s best scripts/productions of the past couple of years (Clooney or Johnny Depp, though Clooney is far more ensconsed in the mainstream). But, rather unsurprisingly, he doesn’t seem to know how to work material cleverly when he’s the one behind the camera, so to speak.

While any given sequence of this film has a polished, yet funky (read: Soderbergh-like) sense of composition, rhythm, and editing, the film as a whole seems simply like a lot of such sequences strung together without a great sense of an overall concept. The film’s narrative is pretty hilarious, the (pseudo-?)autobiographical story of Game Show producer and host, Chuck Barris as both entertainment industry phenom and hired assassin for the CIA. The level of absurdity is so implicit to the story that the film just takes it seriously throughout…which is maybe the intent anyways — I haven’t read the original text to know that.

The screenplay is by Charlie Kaufman, of Adaptation. (2002) and Being John Malkovich (1999) notariety, and it shows his penchant for unlikeable protagonists who are full of self-loathing. In a sense it’s refreshing to see films that have this sort of subversive misanthropy at their heart, but it’s also kind of depressing.

It’s a great notion for a film, but just pretty mediocre as it turned out.

Das Experiment

Das Experiment (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel
viewed: 09/14/03

This is yet another in a string of films that I caught recently that had at their base a really clever concept but only yielded rather middling returns.

Very loosely based on a real incident, the film tells the story of a psychological experiment gone wrong in which a number of men are brought into a mock prison facility with half of them cast as guards and the other half cast as prisoners. They quickly take to their roles and violence and intimidation and humiliation rule the day. Of course, the film excites the story to more sordid heights with rape and murder as some of the ultimate results with science playing god. It makes me wonder, could this be classified as science fiction?

Actually, this film was pretty good. Not necessarily enjoyable-good, but not bad. I kept thinking of Shock Corridor (1963), though this film was a world away from the nuttiness of Samuel Fuller. It was the reporter undercover in some correctional facility-thing, I guess.