The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. Stephen Norrington
viewed: 12/27/03

There is an amusing notion here at the core of this film, though it really stems from the idea as it originated in the comic book by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill that this film was derived from (or so I am assuming, since I haven’t read it.) The idea of “turn of the century” (need to find a new phrase for this), meaning 1900 AD, adventure fiction characters envisioned as precursors of modern “super heroes.” It’s not such a radical notion, and in fact it may have been the source of a fun dissertaion or two, in which the idea is actually analyzed, drawing out this popular genre as an evolutionary process.

The characters evolve from popular authors of the period: H. Rider Haggard, Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Interestingly, I read a short fiction collection that was compiled by Italo Calvino, looking at the “fantastic literature” of the 19th century, which actually introduced me to actually reading a number of these authors and even some of the original texts that the characters (all notably part of the public domain) all originate. It is an interesting era and the characters and novels are all fun.

While that is all well and good and could have made for some pretty good comics, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the film, is pretty damn bad. The digital effects look intensely cheap on the small screen, flat and fake. I have always had a soft spot for the old matte paintings that were used for fantastic backdrops. The digital versions of these ambitious sets are just too much, so unreal and unconvincing that I actually thought to myself it might all be more palatable if the whole film was animated.

The film isn’t really interested in any of the characteristics of the era that it depicts or any of the clever ideas that might be investigated in compiling literary figures and re-envisioning them. It’s just summer popcorn fare that lacks soul and depth and might well make one feel like they’d squandered $10 if they had seen this in the theater (though it might have been slightly better on the big screen). At home, as a rental, it is what it is: moderately amusing, but generally lame.

Solaris

Solaris (1972) movie poster

(1972) dir. Andrei Tarkovsky
viewed: 12/25/03

This film made me feel like a narcoleptic.

I’d sat down to watch it twice before and moved about 45 minutes forward each time before dozing my way to incomprehension. So, getting the kid to bed early, I made a fresh cup of tea and sallied my way through it from the beginning. About 1am, after suffering a few flashes of unconsciouness, I had made it through.

I am not being coy in referring to my sleepiness, because I had every intention to make it through this film. It is slow. It is long. I am not my once youthful self anymore.

Adapted from the Polish writer, Stanislaw Lem’s novel about a space station floating above a planet that seems to have a living ocean that can tap into visitors’ psyches and create living beings from their memories, this is the 1972 Russian adaptation by noted filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovsky, whose work I am unfamiliar with. Another version of this story was directed in 2002 by Steven Soderbergh.

The film is visually interesting, flashing between black and white and color photography. For its Earth scenes, it doesn’t seem like any “futuristic” art design was concocted. Things are naturalistic, particularly at the farmhouse where the film begins. There is a mesmerizing shot from the perspective of a vehicle as it enters the big city (Moscow, perhaps?), winding through concrete mazes and down tunnels, peacefully gliding into the heart of a metropolis. It’s vivid and striking, and is the world of its time representing something of the future.

The film is a “thinking man’s” version of science fiction, very metaphysical and introspective. There were points at which the discourse seemed heavily focused on memory. Solaris, the planet, tapped into people’s minds to create interactions that became incredibly dream-like. It resurrects the lead character’s long dead wife but with varying actresses, which I found a bit confusing. I think it was that he couldn’t remember her face correctly and was seeing someone vaguely right, but not right. And her knowledge of herself was limited to what he knew. I don’t doubt that with more sustained consciousness and a Derrida text in hand, there is some interesting material here about the apparatus of memory.

Ultimately, despite the fact that I found it really interesting in many ways, I also found it more challenging than my consciousness could bear. I did stay awake through the film, but didn’t feel like I really got as much out of it despite multiple viewings of the first half. I am still curious about Andrei Tarkovsky’s films and would see another. I suppose that I have some modicum of interest in the Soderbergh version (if only to glean more storyline to confirm my understanding).

Morvern Callar

Morvern Callar (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Lynne Ramsay
viewed: 12/16/03

I had been quite keen to see this film when it came through the theaters, but it’s short stay side-stepped my efforts and then I can’t remember what happened the day that it was playing at the Red Vic and was on the Monday Night Movie Club schedule, but that fell through, too. So, I had to await its DVD release, which I did rather eagerly.

I had really liked director Lynne Ramsay’s only previous feature, Ratcatcher (1999) and hearing positive things about Morvern Callar was quite enthused about seeing it.

Ramsay’s cinematic style developed from her experience as a still photographer, and her approach is very visual. The opening sequence of Morvern Callar has no dialogue as does much of the film. While there isn’t a massive amount of complex narrative to communicate, there is a heavy emphasis on mood and mental state, emotion and psyche, a lot of which focuses on the demeanor and visage of the titular character, played by the compelling Samantha Morton.

The film has been described by some to be quite like a “drug trip”, probably partially because the characters pop ecstacy and listen to ambient music and attend raves and the film is presented in a particularly subjective perspective, more stream-of-consciousness than not. Ratcatcher was so much of a downer, that I had serious concerns about what a bummer this film could be as it starts with the suicide of Morvern’s boyfriend on Christmas morning. Not exactly what most consider the “feel good holiday” film of the year material.

Ramsay’s work is constantly interesting and her visual style is aestheticly pleasing and unique. The closest parallels that I can think of would be Terence Malick or something more avant-garde than traditional feature film making. It’s art house fare, but genuine art house fare and good cinema, something far more stimulating and challenging than 99% of the films that generally run in such theaters. And while I wasn’t as overwhelmed by it as I had hoped to be, I still would highly recommend it to most, and I will await her next film as eagerly as I had awaited this one (and will hopefully see on of them on the big screen for a change.)

I Vitelloni

I Vitelloni (1953) movie poster

(1953) dir. Federico Fellini
viewed: 12/15/03 at Castro Theater, SF, CA

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again, largely because I tend to repeat myself ad nauseum, but despite having been a film studies student, there are a multitude of significant directors of whom I have seen little or nothing. Of Federico Fellini’s films, I have seen one, The Clowns (1971), which was made for television, I believe and might cheapen it as an entry. I did see it in film class, though.

For the Monday Night Movie Club, this is the kind of thing that gets us out to the theater, seeing the art cinema stuff and classics and whatnot.

I Vitelloni, I don’t think, is utterly typical Fellini, though I am obviously not one to be able to say that with absoulte self-assurance. It’s an earlier film for Fellini, one that is less “fantastic” or “surreal”, but is more a sort of naturalistic tale of a group of young Italian men and their carousing misadventures. Not a great summary there, but it gets the gist across. This film, I have read, insired Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973), which potentially adds something to it.

Overall, I wasn’t overly excited about the film, though it was mostly fairly pleasing throughout. There is interesting camerawork and engaging storylines, and certain scenes are particularly nice. Some of the party scenes have a fun aesthetic. And the post-carnival scenes, with the deserted streets and all of the giant clown heads in fountains and lying on the ground make for a strange, almost post-apocalyptic world.

X2

(2003) dir. Bryan Singer
viewed: 12/11/03

I had a period in my life, like many teenage boys, in which reading and collecting comic books was one of my primary activities. And like many others, too, one of my particular favorites was The Uncanny X-men. This period for me ran between ages 13-15 or so, I think, and it petered out completely. I mean, I haven’t read one of these comics in probably 15 years. Still, I am familiar with the characters and storylines (since in some ways they don’t seem to have significantly progressed in that timeframe.

The first of these live action adaptations, X-Men (2000), also from director Bryan Singer, was a decent flick whose greatest strength was getting the characters right, and namely getting the character of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) right. And in many ways, that is more of a feat than making a good movie and is probably what won the film its positive reaction from fans.

This time around, the film isn’t that much more interesting overall, though it’s entertaining pretty much throughout. The most significant development is the addition of the character of Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) who is similarly well-cast, designed, and rendered (all except for his tail which looks like a badly animated tag-along).

The themes of the comic and the film have always been one from a culturally “outsider” perspective, dealing namely with equivalents of racism and potentially homophobia, and certainly any negative cultural fears of the “other”. The narratives side sympathetically with the good, dynamic, cool mutants and general human society is rendered as fearful, hateful, and harsh. This has been probably one of the characteristics of the series that has appealed to fans, the strength of a fairly clearly defined subtext and one that is easy to identify with.

It is interesting how in this adaptation the contemporary political landscape is shed in a harsh light. The government and military is full of fear and loathing for that which they do not understand and mobilizes against the mutants, utilizing flashpoint words like “terrorism” to justify actions for rounding up mutants and forcing them to register with a government agency so that they can be “tracked”. As I said, you don’t have to dig deep for the subtext here. It is interesting how the film strives for relevance in the contemporary world schema.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. Gore Verbinski
viewed: 12/24/03

I’d heard pretty consistantly that this movie was more fun than most people thought it would be, and in truth, it is. To say that a movie is based on a theme park ride is really a bit of a misnomer. The theme park ride is great, one of my personal favorites, as is true for many, I am sure, but it has no narrative, just a lot of little scenes. It’s just a name to sell recognition for movie tickets, a pirate movie by any other name.

Actually, the name really annoys me. I hate these movie franchise naming conventions in which the general name is used, followed by a colon and the movie’s sub(?)title? It’s long and cumbersome and annoying. Why not just call this movie, The Curse of the Black Pearl? It’s really like saying that audiences are too stupid to realize when movie sequels have come out. And so often, though not so much here, the sub(?)title is some very bad idiotic name.

Directed by Gore Verbinski, who also did the American version of The Ring (2002), the film is no great piece of artwork, but a pretty damn entertaining sort of summer movie, better than a lot of crap that will come out in the year. Johnny Depp, who has gotten a lot of praise for keeping the movie fun and interesting (which is well-due), is indeed fun and interesting. I’d have to say that his performance is sort of hammy and campy, but in the way that that works so well., not unlike his performance in Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003) in that sense.

What do I think of this film? It’s no Citizen Kane but it’s good fun.

A Mighty Wind

A Mighty Wind (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. Christopher Guest
viewed: 12/02/03

This mock-documentary format was getting tired several years ago, and by the time director Christopher Guest had created Best in Show (2000), the format of these ensemble, collaborative wacky character-driven comedies really made one wonder if he knew any other way of making a film. And the subject matter of these films has been getting increasingly focussed on cultural minutiae (dog show culture and now middle-aged folk musicians).

And as they go for more subtle turns in their comedy, the peaks and valleys of the films begin resemble one another, with high points only moderately funny than the low points. So, this is how I took A Mighty Wind. It’s passably entertaining, and where Best in Show was somewhat demeaning of its characters and a tad harsh, Guest this time finds more genuine affection for his characters and goes for a little more sentimentality than he has shown in any previous work. Whether this is a sign of his consideration for the subject matter or a reaction to his handling of characters in his previous film, I can’t say.

What it all really points to is how clever and funny and original Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap (1984), which was co-written by Guest, really was. It’s been years since I’ve seen it, but I reckon that it holds up pretty well.

One other smallish complaint about this film is that for some of its dramatic moments, the style breaks away from anything that is intrinsically documentary-like, which seems a little weird since the documentary style is such a part of these films. Perhaps it was getting somewhat constraining. I don’t know. Seemed a little lame to me.