Army of Shadows

Army of Shadows (1969) movie poster

(1969) dir. Jean-Pierre Melville
viewed: 06/27/06 at Balboa Theater, San Francisco, CA

The Balboa Theater has become a great repertory cinema of late and is starting to get the buzz. There have been more and more films playing there that I have wanted to go and see, but hadn’t been able to pull off. It felt great to get over to that little Outer Richmond District neighborhood and get to see a recently released print of Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 film about the French Resistance during WWII.

Melville made a number of significant cinematic works, Bob le flambeur (1955), Le Cercle rouge (1970), Le Samouraï (1967), and many feel that Army of Shadows ranks right up there with them. It’s hard to argue with, in that it is an excellent film, much more earnest and poignant in many ways than the others which fall into more flamboyant genres.

It’s an interesting war film, a perspective that I have never seen, that of the ordinary French underground, populated by regular people in suits and trench coats, rather than stiff, uniformed soldiers or other types of the War genre. The film never speaks of nationalism per se either, which is very interesting. No moments of “We must fight to save France from the Occupation or from the Germans!” No pandering asides. In fact, the protagonist’s alliance is to the leader of the resistance, a somber math theorist turned resistance leader.

They operate in the shadows, in the underground, but in the actuality of France, in Paris, in Lyon, in Marseilles. In their trench coats and hats they have an air of noirish figures in a Kafka-esque world that is filled with real danger and ruthlessness.

There are some great scenes: the parachute jump, the barbershop, the run from the firing squad, but this is not an action film, and the violence and deaths that come are tough and realistic.

Melville served in the war and one could imagine that this film had a personal significance perhaps, though there is this very “French” indifference or lack of sentimentality or existentialism or something hard to pin down that gives this film much of its tone and character.

There is a lot here to work with, and it’s an excellent film.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Shane Black
viewed: 06/26/06

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is pretty darn funny and enjoyable. Ultimately, I think it’s due more to a good script and good performances by Robert Downey, Jr., Val Kilmer, and Michelle Monaghan. I say this because I think the direction is pretty awful and clutters what could have been potentially a great film with over-stylized visuals and cluttered sequences that are often also poorly lit. Not everyone can be Christopher Doyle.

The film is a riff on the pulp detective genre and adapted (one guesses loosely) from a Brett Halliday novel. It pays significant homage to the genre and potentially directly to Halliday and his protagonist Mike Shayne by featuring a trope with a fictional version of the same thing.

Ultimately, it’s about Los Angeles, too, and Hollywood, and it references Raymond Chandler significantly by titling each “day” of the film with a title of one of Chandler’s novels. Not subtle if you are familiar with his work.

The film works because of the acting performances and some genuinely funny moments. It could be frustrating because it really had the potential to be a better film in the right hands, but because I wasn’t expecting much, the whole thing grew and grew on me in the duration. It’s a fun piece.

The Constant Gardener

The Constant Gardener (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Fernando Meirelles
viewed: 06/24/06

Based on a novel by spy author John le Carré (whom I have never read), The Constant Gardener is meant to be a political thriller with serious and real relevance for the contemporary political world. Directed by Fernando Meirelles, whose City of God (2002) caught a wave of positive reviews for its similar basis in the tough real slums of Brazil, the film shoots for a gritty, realistic depiction of the hard world of Africa and the exploitation of its people by Western companies and governments. Meirelles over-employs hand-held techniques to the point of distraction, but otherwise guides a somewhat traditional narrative through moderately compelling turns of events.

It reminded me, thematically with The Interpreter (2005) which was similarly set around political intrigue over the exploitation of Africa. But it’s actually a better film, with Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, both of whom I find tolerable as actors. I actually thought that Fiennes was pretty good in this film. Ultimately, it’s a thriller with a social conscience, but how much of a social conscience can a thriller have?

The Girl Next Door

The Girl Next Door (1999) movie poster

(1999) dir. Christine Fugate
viewed: 06/23/06

I’d read about this documentary several years back when it first came out and it took a long time to finally end up on DVD. The film explores a couple of years in the life of porn star, Stacy Valentine, a mid-Western young housewife who ditched a domineering husband to pursue a career in the limelight of Southern California’s sex industry.

The film follows some of the mundanities of the industry, not exploitatively critical, but also certainly not aggrandizing. Stacy undergoes some horrific plastic surgery that is also pretty run of the mill: breast enhancements, liposuction, and collagen injections (quite frankly as disgusting and freakish to watch that could actually utterly kill any sex drive at all). But it’s all part of the industry and the job.

The film is interesting because of the subject matter. The camera follows her on film shoots and personal trips back to her mom and high school friends. Stacy is naive and not particularly self-aware but has some characteristics that make her quite “the girl next door,” or someone that you could have known from high school, transformed into a standard porn bimbo, over make-up’ed and with painfully balloonish boobs. It’s an industry increasingly verging on the mainstream of culture, so robust and yet so far removed from the mainstream of America that there is much to explore. This film does that in an earnest and sincere way, but is not necessarily itself incredibly profound.

Cars

Cars (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. John Lasseter, Joe Ranft
viewed: 06/24/06 at the Century 20 Daly City, Daly City, CA

From the first time I saw a trailer for this, I thought “This is going to be the first bad film that Pixar has made.” From concept to design, this seemed like an idea for 1984 computer animation, not 2006 and not from the top of the line studio in this area. I joked that since at one point it was to be the last of the Disney contract projects (before Steve Jobs ate Disney), that maybe it was intentionally a throw-away movie with little effort in it. But it’s primarily directed by John Lasseter, Pixar’s BMOC, and it’s got a marketing campaign to beat the band. So who knows?

From my perspective, my first sensations proved themselves out. This is the first weak film that Pixar has offered up. It pushes Finding Nemo (2003) out by a long shot from that criticism.

The characters are stock: cool but egotistical hero, sweet-hearted girl, curmudgeonly old guy, goofy hick, type after type after type. No one original character in the bunch. The narrative is paint-by-numbers as it gets. From the opening sequence in the small town, I could have rushed outside and written the rest of it myself. So, I think that from a creative standpoint, this film is dull to the max.

But it’s Pixar so the execution is primo. The animation details are rich and it looks very polished. But they are cars, for chrissakes. They just aren’t that interesting. From a marketing standpoint, it’s brilliant. Everyone knows that there are those NASCAR families out there who probably eat something like this right up. And they can go to McDonalds and get their AT&T Broadband and every other thing that they can get the Cars logo stuck on.

It amazes me that Lasseter, who reveres Hayao Miyazaki so much fails to get that it’s all about the creative narrative and amazing characters, breaking from conventions (or creating new ones) that makes Miyazaki so amazing. It’s not all the polish on the chrome. It’s the thing itself.

My son enjoyed it. He’s not overly discerning at this point. His favorite joke was when a one car tells Mater the goofball character to “keep an eye open” for something that Mater closes one eye and keeps the other one open. I think that almost says it all when you come to analyze the lack of originality in this flick.

Jules et Jim

Jules et Jim (1962) movie poster

(1962) dir. François Truffaut
viewed: 06/18/06

I had an interesting experience with this film. For some cockamamie reason, somewhere in my convoluted brain, I forgot that this was a Truffaut film and thought it was a Jean-Luc Godard film. Even from renting it, sticking it into the DVD player and watching the entirety of the film. It was only when the film ended and came back to the DVD menu that I realized that it was a Truffaut film. It’s a bit weird, but somehow I got it all goofed up. Let me tell you, they might take away my union card for this one. Does this further demonstrate the reason that I shouldn’t be writing about films at all?

The experience was weird because I was watching it as a Godard film and thinking how restrained and linear it was compared to other work of his during this period. While the style has the New Wave modernism featuring plays with narrative, voice-over, editing, what have you, it seemed to lack the politicism of Godard and I was thinking that this was a much more personal and emotional of a film than I’d seen of his.

Of course, Jule et Jim, as probably most people know is a beloved Truffaut work, not his companero in the French New Wave. And really, the things that I thought about it and found odd in a Godard film are actually a lot more prevalent in Truffaut’s work, even the play with the more traditional narrative tropes and genre stuff.

I also found this film odd that it was a period film, set around WWI. There are moments of exhilaration and moments of great beauty in the film. It reminds me how I need to see more of Truffaut’s work. I have many of his films queued up in Netflix, but I have only seen a handful.

Jules et Jim is excellent. It’s a funny thing, but the more profound the film and experience of the film, I often find myself at a loss what to say. So much is happening in this film, so many moments of strange asides and odd happenings. There are moments of near-misogyny played against aspects of utter empathy. When Catherine throws herself into the river, it’s a strange, tragic, foreshadowing moment. It’s amazing stuff, really. I’ll shut up.

The Proposition

The Proposition (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. John Hillcoat
viewed: 06/06/06 at the Lumiere Theater, SF, CA

Written and scored by Nick Cave, The Proposition is a gritty and gory Western set in the wilds of Australia, a morality tale with its own morality left significantly ambiguous. Directed by Australian John Hillcoat, who also directed the other Nick Cave-written film Ghosts… of the Civil Dead (1988), which I never saw, brings a stark brutality to the landscape of the outback, coated in dirt, blood, and flies. Recalling Sam Peckinpah and Monte Hellman, the film is a dystopic Western, a harsh clash of the European settlers and the rough landscape and native people.

The titular proposition poses one brother against another brother to save a third brother from hanging. Though the narrative could theoretically be easily transposed on the American West of the same period, the story is specifically Australian and addresses the issues of the taming of the land. The Aboriginal people portrayed in the film are not as romanticized as they are in other Australian films as mystic and powerful. They are largely seen through Western eyes and there is a sensibility that seems to try to portray them somewhat through the eyes of the characters, which is mostly unenlightened. I get a sense from the disclaimer at the beginning of the film that some aspects of portrayal and depiction of dead Aboriginal people in photographs has some potential to offend. Not sure what that is all based on, but it’s there.

Why don’t they make more Westerns? Okay, I know the answer to that, it’s a dying genre. All historical genres will come and go with occasional successes, but they do not resonate presently with popular culture. But this is a very good Western, a very good film.

There are excellent performances from Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Guy Pearce, Danny Huston, and Emily Watson. It’s a brooding, yet thoughtful film, with brutal resolution but conflicted morality. And it’s artful without drifting too frequently into artiness.

Not that it’s had many true challengers, but this is the best film that I have seen in the theater this year. It will definitely be too violent for some, but for those who can stomach it, it’s great.

The Break-Up

The Break-Up (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Peyton Reed
viewed: 06/06/06 at the CineArts @ Empire Theater, SF, CA

Billed and marketed and most likely intended to be a comedy, The Break-Up is starkly unfunny. Unlike many comedies that are utterly lacking in humor, this film doesn’t crash and burn in typical terms. Ultimately, what unfolds is more like a drama, the bitterness and distance that can build in a relationship, until it explodes and takes over. It’s downright depressing. Yet, not horribly bad.

The Break-Up doesn’t perform breakthrough analysis of relationships. It merely strikes chords that probably a lot of people can relate to. That, and Vince Vaughn’s character is mostly an out and out lout, making Jennifer Anniston’s character a feckless victim in the relationship war. The events are escalated by friends with bad advice, social pressure, and tons of short-sightedness.

What should have probably been a hysterical comedy, which from trailers it seemed that it could be, rather turns out to be a downright downer of a movie, a non-polemic criticism of relationships.

Prozac Nation

Prozac Nation (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Erik Skjoldbjærg
viewed: 06/03/06

This movie is bad.

Years ago, in an undergraduate screenwriting class, I noted that one of the most lame ideas is writing a story about a person’s first year in college. It’s often a revelatory time for people, but it’s often generic, despite seeming otherwise, and is deluded with narcissism, as frequently young people are when first released on their own recognizance from the homes of their families and into the world of “college”.

Elizabeth Wurtzel’s version of her first year in college are definitely a little more extreme, peppered with her Rolling Stone-published writing to her incredibly unlikeable selfishness. But ultimately it’s nothing more than a coming-of-age story featuring a lot of blame on her parents and ultimately mixed resolution at the hands of therapy and pharmaceuticals. But some of it is just plain commonplace. Getting laid, getting drunk/stoned, falling in love…who DIDN’T do that their first year in college?

The big question is whether Wurtzel is mentally ill or just a self-centered sociopath. Is that her personality or is that only because she is sick? I guess that the film attempts to ask this question toward the end as she feels her identity changing under the influence of Prozac and though she is a nicer person, she isn’t sure she likes not feeling “herself”.

I don’t know if this source material could have been shaped better. The movie is crap, unsophisticated direction and some intense emoting verge this into comedy territory. Are we supposed to like the protagonist?

Christina Ricci was briefly one of the more interesting young actresses with films like The Ice Storm (1997), Buffalo ’66 (1998), The Opposite of Sex (1998), and Pecker (1998). She was praised for her voluptuous figure, in opposition to the typically anorexic Hollywood actresses, but then ended up losing all her weight and looking very strange. This is not one of her better films.

X-Men: The Last Stand

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Brett Ratner
viewed: 06/02/06 at the AMC Loews Metreon 15, SF, CA

Not surprisingly, with the departure of Bryan Singer, director of the first two installments, and the insert of director Brett Ratner, whose claim to fame were the action/comedy Rush Hour series, the X-men franchise hit the rocks of mediocrity rather hard. Singer, whose work is probably above average at best, left to make the coming Superman reprise and left the super-mutant group struggling with one another for screen time.

Eh, it’s exactly what everyone else is saying about it. Too many characters and plot lines vying for the spotlight, with none of them getting proper treatment. There is an aspect of “last gasp” to this film, feeling like everybody has to get their 15 seconds of screen time since it might be the last shot.

I’ve felt that the main success of the X-men movies has been that they got a lot of the characters “right”. This simply means that they were able to bring them to the screen with casting, effects, make-up, and narrative in a way that really captures their comic book origins. Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine is the prime example of this. And this time, they bring The Beast, played by Kelsey Grammer, in bright blue, which I thought was pretty good. Grammer’s voice I think found its greatest role in Sideshow Bob on The Simpsons and I can hardly hear him speak without thinking of that character.

The comic has long portrayed the “mutant condition” as a metaphor for racism (originally) and later for homophobia and other societal fears of non-mainstream culture, non-white culture. In X-men: The Last Stand it’s a myriad of things, but the “cure” for mutantism echoes I think a bit more of historical psychological approaches to homosexuality, seeing it as an aberration that must be “fixed” rather than a variation that can be accepted. Ultimately, it’s simply “difference” that is being eradicated (and I want to say that with the French accent on difference). I don’t think that this film really has anything to say in particular on this issue, but merely rides existing rhetoric in the comic narratives to suggest a sense of something more than lots of explosions and characters with “real cool” superhuman abilities.

As a summer movie denuded of all this comic book expectation, it’s not too bad. It’s entertaining enough, hyperactive and overfull of material and characters, but enjoyable. Being a San Franciscan, I enjoyed the major set-piece with the Golden Gate Bridge being moved from Marin to Alcatraz.

Lots of characters are either killed or made powerless in this film, though the ending leaves the door open for future installments. Certainly, as many others would suggest, one hopes that they will find a more interesting director to take the helm next time.