The Aristocrats

The Aristocrats (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Paul Provenza
viewed: 01/27/06

A 90 minute documentary about a joke that when told succinctly, only takes a minute to convey. Though comedians brag about stretching the joke out for hours and riffing on it like jazz musicians, it really is a pretty straightforward joke. There is something here about comedians riffing and making stuff up, but for the most part, all they are doing is trying to make the joke about as disgusting as possible. And while at the beginning of the film, one senses a lot of variability, ultimately it’s just varying expletives, sexual and scatalogical references, incest, bestiality, and whatnot to the extent that in the end, it just seems entirely tedius.

Through the film, you only hear one or two comedians deliver the joke in natural time. Most are interspersed, chopped up and edited together, even edited down for time, taking away timing and other things one might think would be significant to delivering the joke. (Though, I am not suggesting that anyone would want to actually hear 100 versions of the same joke in 90 minutes anyways). Even the Gilbert Gottfried version from the Hugh Hefner Friars’ Roast, which many of the comedians in the film point to as a totally classic telling of the joke, is only given in spurts and pieces.

There is a plethora of talented folks interviewed here, but the film is poorly chopped together and really unsatisfying. What interesting things could be gleaned are closer to the core material than to the way that it is presented or the commentary there put upon it. Pretty lame, actually.

Flightplan

Flightplan (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Robert Schwentke
viewed: 01/29/06

This is the second “airplane thriller” subgenre flick that I have seen in the span of a week. And it’s another toothless PG-13 thriller, too. Also, this could perhaps also be filed under “mother-loses-child-and-no one-believes-that-her-child-was-there”, which was maybe done to the nines in the 2004 Julianne Moore film, The Forgotten. While The Forgotten was not great by any means, it was more psychological and surreal. Flightplan is a much more straightforward thriller, with the twist of questioned sanity being foisted upon Jodie Foster’s character, who is a logical and rational type.

Maybe this could have been more interesting if they challenged her world view more. In a sense, that is what the story does, but only for so long as is convenient along the narrative arc. She has to gather herself and fight back with her rationality. She’s an engineer who designed the airplane in which the drama takes place and she always seems not really thrown off too far.

The real problem with the film is it’s gaping plot holes. I mean, that is an easy criticism of most films, and not something that I try to resort to in critiquing a film, but there are so many things that ring so false and wrong. Like getting on an airplane when no one is around, no one seeing a child get on board, sending millions of dollars into a Swiss bank account without negotiating with the terrorist. There is too much and it’s too tedious to list here. Let’s just say that there is more than you can shake a stick at.

All that said, it’s not terrible or anything. It’s just not very good or exciting. It’s fine. It’s there. I’ll soon, no doubt, have trouble remembering if I saw it or not.

Hoodwinked

Hoodwinked (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Cory Edwards, Todd Edwards, Tony Leech
viewed: 01/21/06 at the Loews Metreon Theatres, SF, CA

I was really surprised by Hoodwinked. When I saw the trailer for it, the cheap-looking computer animation really put me off. I honestly thought, that while I am ending up seeing more and more kid-oriented animation with my son, that this was one that I would pretty much miss. And I have seen a couple that really sucked, namely Chicken Little (2005) and Valiant (2005). I figure that at least those films had the Disney production values and were a little more aesthetically pleasing than this one.

But then came another rainy Saturday, and this was the only kid-friendly fare at the Cineplex, and there we were, heading down there for the afternoon.

The character design and execution look like the level of stuff that appears on the Acadamy of Art television commercials, produced by students with low-rent or passe technology. Designed by people who can draw, but don’t really know how to make things look cool or interesting. Namely, Red Riding Hood looks like she is made of plastic as do some of the other characters. It doesn’t feel like “design”, like a purposeful thing, but rather ineptitude or lack of technical capability.

But the film flourishes in it’s writing, I guess. It takes a Rashômon (1950) narrative approach, deconstructing the story by telling it three times, working toward solving a mystery, as well. It’s not nearly as ribald and wild as Tex Avery, but it’s more Tex Avery than anything else, in a sense. Lots of wacky jokes and less stereotyped story points make for a more fun ride than I had expected. There is this tedious “heart of the story” portion about how Red is a repressed adventuress and longs to live a more exciting life. I could have very well done without that.

But it’s hard to fault a movie that is better than one expected. Lowered expectations always help. And in the end, it was better than several kid-oriented animated fare that I had seen recently.

Red Eye

Red Eye (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Wes Craven
viewed: 01/25/06

Wes Craven’s PG-13-rated Red Eye is a lean, entertaining thriller, but one with limited impact. In many ways, this is a pretty by-the-books sort of flick, nothing really surprising or challenging in it. Rather, the whole point of it, I guess, is that it’s trying to be exactly what it is, a rather well-executed genre film.

It doesn’t feel dangerous or creepy. One almost wants more perversity or something. Something that doesn’t feel overly clean. Maybe it lacks it in part because the film has to stick to a PG-13 rating. Maybe it simply lacks it because it doesn’t strive to do more than what it does.

Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy should get reasonable credit for keeping the film going with its constricted premise, limited in large parts by their dialogue.

Oldboy

Oldboy (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. Chan-wook Park
viewed: 01/20/06

I’d been reading about this film, which hit local theaters last year, and it sounded interesting. A man is picked up off the street and then imprisoned in a room, like a hotel room, for 15 years without human contact. Already a bit of a kook, he becomes more and more bizarre and dishevelled, hypnotized and drugged throughout the duration. And then he is released. And upon release he seeks revenge on his captors and understanding for what he had been put through.

The style of the film and Chan-wook Park’s direction and writing are inventive and surprising. The tone, the pacing to framing to the dialogue, was strikingly original. Min-sik Choi is excellent as the bizarre Dae-su Oh, playing crazy but sane, yet developing a character with whom one is truly engaged.

There are vivid moments throughout the film. None more so that when he eats live octopus. I am sure that animal rights activists would not be happy, but it makes such a insane moment, with Dae-su Oh’s dead eyes while the Octopus’ legs writhe on his face. It’s like Bunuel or something. I lack the words to convey it.

The narrative veers off as it seeks resolution. Some of the surprising plot twists don’t seem as satisfying as they should be, but the film manages to come to a strong conclusion, with more memorable, striking scenes and performances.

I was really pretty wow’ed by this film, to be honest. I think it’s probably the most interesting new film that I have seen in a long time. I know that Park has two other films in what is referred to as his “Vengence” trilogy. I am positive that I will seek them out.

Big Fish

Big Fish (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. Tim Burton
viewed: 01/14/04 at Loews Theatre at the Metreon, SF, CA

Tim Burton, at his worst, makes visually appealing and generally entertaining films. And, Big Fish is probably Tim Burton at his worst yet, because, while this is fairly visually appealing and mostly entertaining (or entertaining enough), it is a sappy attempt at making a more mature film, something whose subject matter is not superheroes or aliens or apes or ghosts, something that might be nominated for an Oscar or something. It’s a heavy-handed, go-for-the-heartstrings act of sentiment, which is both overdone and feels insincere.

Burton’s greatest weakness is delivering narrative and genuine emotion, and that is this film’s bread and butter. Despite an appealing cast including Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, and Billy Crudup, it just felt very false and contrived. This is a film that I could see Lasse Hallström directing and probably achieving a more effective emotional connection.

I like Tim Burton’s films and have seen almost all of them theatrically, but have felt that he’s never really made a great film. Ed Wood (1994) is my personal favorite, but I’ve been increasingly less enthusiastic about each film that has come more recently. It was always clear that he has a great eye for design, and his films used to exude that to the Nth degree. Perhaps responding to a criticism that he was all visual design and no substance, he’s seemingly cut back on such over-the-top stuff that marked in films from the 1980’s.

In more recent years, I have given up hope that Burton would ever make a great film. He has yet to prove me wrong.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds (1984) movie poster

(1984) dir. Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 01/21/06

Interestingly, I saw this film when it was initially released in the United States as Warriors of the Wind back in 1985. Japanese animation was much less pervassive back then, even virtually obscure. And though I had actually had some prior experience with Hayao Miyazaki, I had never heard of him nor knew any significance of his work. It wasn’t until My Neighbor Totoro (1988) was released in the 1990’s that I finally caught up and realized my familiarity with the best feature length animation director of all times and one of the best overall filmmakers ever.

It’s taken me still all these years to get around to seeing Nausicaä again, and of course, I had only seen the highly edited version that had been released in the U.S. previously. I personally think that it’s great that Disney has picked up the rights to these films and distributed them more widely in this country. Miyazaki is amazing and his work would be wonderful to spread more broadly in place of the junk that is produced as animation and narrative overall.

Nausicaä reckons heavily of Princess Mononoke (1997), another science fiction/fantasy world where environmental issues threaten humanity. The films have a spirituality to them and are not simply annoyingly over-the-top in their political leanings. Nausicaä, the title character is a princess of a village whose connection to the monster insects that terrorize humanity, lead her to understand that the insects are responding to the destruction of the environment. She comes to realize that the part of nature that is poisoning humans is actually at work to detoxify the planet.

The war-like states seek to resurrect some apocalyptic power of a giant robot to attack the creatures and one another. Miyazaki’s films often also lean toward anti-war themes as well.

The narrative and adventure are excellent. The animation and design are beautifully executed. It’s an excellent film. That said, I think that his work has matured since this period. This is the first of his feature-length films to really feel like a Miyazaki film, adapted, I believe from a manga of his own creation.

I think that every time I see one of Miyzaki’s films, I am energized to drink to his health and hope that he will continue to make great films. And I vow to raise my kids watching his work.

Zathura: A Space Adventure

Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Jon Favreau
viewed: 02/17/06

Zathura strives to be the kind of kid-friendly adventure stuff that seemed relatively prevalent in the 1980’s. It’s actually adapted from a story by the guy who wrote Jumanji and it’s basically similar (I guess — I never did see Jumanji), in that everything that happens is because of some obscure boardgame that must be played to its conclusion. In a sense, it’s a hyperbolic literalized metaphor of adventure in game-playing and fantasy. Which is all well and good.

It’s well-produced and moderately entertaining. I know that it was readily enjoyed by my eight-year old nephew, so maybe it works well for it’s target audience. For an adult, it’s not especially surprising or engaging and the younger brother of the film is out and out cloying and annoying. It’s really distancing when as a viewer, you feel a film change gears and tone (probably significantly notable by the score) to suddenly go for the “heartstrings” and give a feeling of connection.

Director Jon Favreau’s previous film Made (2001) was pretty funny in a low-key sense, though I never saw Elf (2003) due to some allergy I have to Will Ferrell. I don’t suppose that many people without kids or nephews in the general target audience age range for Zathura are too likely to actually see it, so there isn’t too much to warn people away from. It’s tolerable.

Inside Deep Throat

Inside Deep Throat (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato
viewed: 01/14/06

This documentary about the most famous of porn films, 1972’s Deep Throat, seemed like a pretty sure bet. The cultural effect of the film, the politics that it touched off, the human aspect of the film on its collaborators, all of this easily makes for the material of a strong cultural document and historical discourse. And the filmmakers scored some good names as talking heads, John Waters, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Camille Paglia. The material is all there and it gets addressed in moderate amounts. I don’t really know why but it just doesn’t all come together.

Narrated by Dennis Hopper, the filmmakers’ voice is somehow unsituated. Maybe it’s the fact that there is so much potential to cover in the process. I don’t know. It’s just kind of there. It’s not awful, it’s just not as interesting as it could be.

Wedding Crashers

Wedding Crashers (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. David Dobkin
viewed: 01/11/06

I don’t usually watch comedies because they make me feel like I have no sense of humor. I think it’s a genre that must be incredibly hard to do because so many comedies and utterly unfunny. I can’t really even think of too many that I like whole-heartedly and have a hard time recalling the last one that really hit me somewhere near the funny bone.

Wedding Crashers isn’t awful in this regard. It has several genuinely funny bits to it and Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn carry the film pretty well with their respectively unusual charms. It’s not bad, but it’s not great either.

More disturbing than the amount of humor or the crassness of the humor, is the film’s rather extreme homophobia. The gay introvert son is portrayed as an utter sociopath without redeeming character. As he is the only gay character, the image of him stands out quite tellingly. The fact that the protagonists have an arguably homoerotic relationship and seem to be compensating big time for something in their rash of manipulative sexual conquests almost seems to support this fascist attitude toward homosexuality. As well, there is another moment when the grandmother starts spouting a diatribe about Eleanor Roosevelt being a “dyke” and this is played for laughs as well.

Though it sounds hardly subtle here and, honestly, subtlety is not an aspect of this film, one could easily analyze the proposed sexual mores and stereotypes in the film and what they are meant to represent. There is definitely a dark core to this film that feels much less intentional or conscious. And that may be it’s truly creepy aspect, looking at the way that these stereotypes and portrayals are accepted at face value by an audience more inclined not to consider the representations and simply to laugh along with the “heroes”.