Control

Control (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Anton Corbijn
viewed: 11/27/07 at Opera Plaza Cinemas, SF, CA

Shot in black-and-white, though I have read that it was shot in color and transferred black-and-white, here is the story of Ian Curtis, singer of the band, Joy Division.  Black-and-white is an odd issue for me with the film, actually.  I mean, I’ve been a fan of the music for years and am pretty well familiar with the basics of the story…I mean, we all know how it’s going to end, and we all know that it’s not going to be very upbeat, telling the tale of a depressive epileptic who commited suicide at age 23 just before his band was to go on its first tour of America.  And there is a part of me, and I assume others familiar with the music and the band, that think “black-and-white,…of course”.

Most of the images that I’ve seen of Curtis have been black-and-white.  It’s stuff that nears iconography.  I guess that is the trouble with legends made in their untimely deaths.

Still, I feel that this film’s visual aesthetic as a black-and-white film was kind of weak.  It lacks character, even if it seems right.  And ultimately, did it really need to be in black-and-white?

I don’t know why this bugged me.  But it did.

The film itself is decent.  The actors all do their parts, and Sam Riley, who plays Curtis, manages to navigate the character without overburdoning him.  This film could easily have been a dirge.  Given short shrift in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People (2002), it’s interesting to see the story played out, a deeper inspection of life story of a very significant band and musician.  And it is sad.  Not overwhelmingly so, but it resonated for me at times, and I left feeling moderately depressed.  Imagine that.

Manufactured Landscapes

Manufactured Landscapes (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Jennifer Baichwal
viewed: 11/26/07

Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary about Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky rises above the standard for the form, instilling her camera and approach to adhere to yet supplement Burtynsky’s own aesthetics, social criticism (overt or covert), and the landscapes and peoples that his work addresses.  Not that Thomas Riedelsheimer’ documentary about the work of artist Andy Goldsworthy, Rivers and Tides (2001), is really any major comparison point, it’s probably the only other documentary that I’ve seen in recent years that follows an artist through the production of their work and while allowing them to discourse on their approach and perspectives.

Baichwal takes most of Burtynsky’s voiceover comments from a lecture that he gave, which we are shown a few snippets of, but also lets the images and moments speak for themselves, which is much how Burtynsky approaches his photography.

Inspired originally as a photographer of natural landscapes, Burtynsky became more and more interested in the landscapes that have been altered by humans, especially the grander and grander in scale.  Scale is one of the stunning aspects of his work as the images themselves are large, but the scope of the content of a single image often demonstrates the immensity of the landscapes or images that he shoots.  These landscapes include massive factories, strip-mined hills, massive piles of recycling and construction, and a significant shot of an enormous, sprawling coal mine output.  His work addresses globalization, focused intently on China, who as he describes, strive to become the world’s manufacturer and recycler of resources.  He shoots the drastic change in centralizing China’s workforce and the dramatic landscape changes brought about by the Three Gorges Dam.

It’s amazingly provocative while lacking hardcore polemics.  Baichwal, who shares an appreciation for Burtynsky’s style and aesthetics, adds layers upon his work with her roving camera, starting with a drawn-out tracking shot of a sprawling manufacturing plant, row by endless row of workstations and curious workers.  She draws together the production and the recycling of the raw materials from the small to the vast, microchips to the enormous cargo vessels that ship these things across the planet.  The film moves with a logical progression through the breadth of Burtynsky’s subject matters, into the stunning enormity of the Three Gorges Dam project.

This is an excellent, well-produced documentary, both appealing regarding Burtynsky’s work, which also achieves great beauty in it’s arrangement and artistry, but also it’s depth of analysis of the world, its people, its vastness, the pure vastness of the impact of the human footprint, almost the finiteness of an individual.  This is one of the better documentaries that I have seen recently.  I’d encourage all to check it out.

The Darwin Awards

The Darwin Awards (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Finn Taylor
viewed: 11/24/07

This hackneyed, horribly written, piece of garbage of a romantic comedy…how did it get made?  How did director Finn Taylor manage to get so many rather uncanny celebrity cameos in this completely lame-ass film?

Based on a concept/website/book about people who do such stupid things that they take themselves out of the gene pool, which is fine enough, another version of “World’s Stupidest Criminals”.  But Taylor turns this into a story about a forensic investigator, gunning for a job with an insurance agency to prove that these people shouldn’t have their claims paid out because of their stupidity.

Okay, and the real reason I watched it is because Winona Ryder was in it.  I don’t think she is good or overly bad, but she’s just pretty.  She’s still pretty.  Those large dark eyes harbor an inherent brightness, and she’s still nice to imagine dating all these years later.  I know she’s kinda lame.  But we are all allowed these little whatever-you-call-thems.  I still like her.  I’d still have dinner with her.

Even after this movie.

And the movie has a couple extra points for a few local shots of Tosca’s and a couple of North Beach places.  And the real weird thing is the number of notable cameos that make up this film: Juliette Lewis, Lukas Haas, Chris Penn (maybe his last film), Tim Blake Nelson, Josh Kornbluth, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, John Doe, Jerry Harrison, Robin Tunney, and Metallica.  It’s so many actually, that it’s kind of weird.

But the movie is hugely unfunny.  The romance is unbelievably unbelievable…it’s just rotten.

But, I will see more Winona Ryder films.  Just warning you.

The Mist

The Mist (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Frank Darabont
viewed: 11/23/07 at AMC Van Ness 14, SF, CA

The Mist wasn’t on my list.  The Mist could have been missed.  But circumstances changed all that.  A day on my own, opportunistic timing, and a movie that I only had mild interest in became my latest cinematic experience.

Adapted from Stephen King, as apparantly almost all Frank Darabont films must be (note: The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Green Mile (1999)).  He’s one of the few people who have elevated King on the silver screen to something more  redeemable and notable (I haven’t seen The Green Mile, but I thought that The Shawshank Redemption was pretty good).  Others include Brian DePalma’s Carrie (1976), Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), and Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986).  Sure, there are others of note, but there are a huge number of ridiculously bad movies, too.

The problem with The Mist (and it’s interesting how it’s always “mist” and never “fog” — big difference from a copyright infringement perspective, I guess) is that Darabont spends a huge amount of time on character development and attempting to give the actors space to “act” and do that thing that actors are supposed to do.  Darabont’s previous works with King are not of the pulpiest variety of his work, and the reason that this film interested me at all was that it was pure pulp.  There is not real deeper significance.  This is a quick-scare potboiler.  I guess that Darabont either didn’t get the message or somehow thought he could “heighten” the material.  It makes for lots of dead time in what should be a seat-of-your-pants thriller.

Also, the fog,…sorry…mist is inhabited by your average everyday digitally animated and designed monsters and bugs.  It’s ultimately nothing so primordially frightening.  In fact, by the time the creatures show themselves, it’s a lot less interesting.  It is notable that there does seem some homage to H.P. Lovecraft with these creatures and beasties, what with this rift between dimensions and some “inconceivable” horrors…no offence to Mr. Lovecraft intended.

The film’s largest problem is Marcia Gay Harden, who plays the born-again Chrisitian psycho who whips up the locals into hysteria a la Jim Jones (even directly noted in dialogue at one point).  Harden chews scenery at a rate so amazingly ravenous that it’s amazing they were able to have a set at all.  It’s the most over-the-top performance that I’ve seen in ages.  But it totally bogs down the film and keeps the action to a limited pace.

There are some “liberal”/”democratic” asides made by a few characters, and Harden’s ranting occasionally rings of criticism of the internal U.S. propaganda from the government to support the wars in the Middle East.  While I am sure that is intended, it’s heavy-handed and guileless.  And even though politically I agree, I think it sinks this movie further from its path of making a real thriller.

There are no real joys here.  No real fun.  And despite being big-budgeted and entertaining enough, I think it was also pretty darn crappy.  Though the ironic ending (which should have had more impact than it did) redeemed it by a small degree.

Pessimism and irony.  We all need a little more of that.

The Long Riders

The Long Riders (1980) movie poster

(1980) dir. Walter Hill
viewed: 11/19/07

This was meant to be the last of my little Jesse James cycle, Walter Hill’s 1980 take on the James gang.  However, I stumbled on a couple others, so I may write about a couple more.  Still, for the goal of looking at the Jesse James story as told by four interesting directors in four wholly different decades, this completes the cycle.  Not that this was comprehensive by any means.

I’d seen The Long Riders back in England years ago and had enjoyed it.  Walter Hill is one of those not-so-well-known but yet pretty darn good directors from the late 1970’s through the 1980’s, whose star has diminished in more recent times.  I’d seen his film The Driver (1978) a couple of years back, which was also quite good.

The best things about The Long Riders are the shootouts and action sequences, the musical score by Ry Cooder, and some of the familial interactions between the actors.  This film was notable because four groups of brothers played the gangs and siblings: James and Stacey Keach play Jesse and Frank James respectively, the Carradine brothers play the Youngers, the Quaids play the Millers, and the Guests (including Christopher Guest) play the Fords.  The film focuses, unsurprisingly on the fraternity of brothers and criminals, but also quite a bit on their romantic interests, loves, girls, whores, and wives.  That is an unfortunate aspect of the film.  Those parts drag significantly and lack charm.

The film is nicely shot, truly a post-Peckinpah Western, with lots of slow-motion bodies flying through the air.  Anyone that gets shot down from a rooftop falls in slow-motion (note: it seems obligitory that anyone shot from a rooftop or high window in any Western has to fall to the ground.)  The film focuses more on the Youngers, it seems, than the James’.  I only note this oddity since the Keach brothers co-produced the film and might have given their characters more intensive screen time.

James Keach as Jesse James is about the most-deadfaced of the portrayals I’ve seen.  Whether he is kind or cruel, his face is impassive and he bears an aspect of the inscrutable or unknowable.  The film’s attitude toward them is typical of the subject matter, sympathizing with what brought them into crime and not with the Pinkertons who ham-fistedly hunt them down, but acknowledging a crossing of the line between good and irredeemable. Also interesting how this film carries some of the era of the Western in the 1970’s but shifts toward a more “pop” sensibility that characterizes films of the 1980’s.

This film, by and far, had the best soundtrack of the bunch.

Beowulf

Beowulf (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Robert Zemeckis
viewed: 11/19/07 @ AMC Loews Metreon 16 with IMAX

This film has gotten a lot of press in regards to its production and presentation, fully animated via motion-capture, with hyper-realism as its goal, the film is also presented in the current height of digital 3-D presentation.  It’s the first of several films that will be hitting the screen in the next couple of years to use this new upgrade to a heightened sense of visual mesmerization.

An interesting choice, the oldest saga in Western literature, Beowulf, to get the highest of tech presentations.  I’d read it years ago, not in high school like so many, but nonetheless, there is nothing quite like seeing something visualized literally.  Not that it’s necessary, but it can be interesting.

The film experience is a vivid thrill ride of visual surprises early on.  Juxtapositions, sudden foregrounding of an image, depth of field with simple stones on a beach…digital artists showing off their stuff.  And it’s impressive,…visually.  Especially early on.  It uses a few of the classic “jabbing stuff at the audience” that the 3-D movies of the 1950’s were so campily famous for.  Maybe it’s just obligitory.

Unsurprisingly, as a film, it’s overall mediocrity eventually shows through all the shimmering visuals.  Not the the visuals are flawless.  Some figures are as stiff as something out of a Shrek film, dull-skinned, manequin-like figures with a rigidity and robot-ness.  The battle with Grendel, the mutant monster, at times actually takes on a Harryhausen-esque flair at one point, but for the most part, the faces carry better depth than one is typically used to in such films.

Animation, effects, are always evovling.  The latest in today’s digital technology will typically look dated within a handful of years.  Usually.  This being purely animated, but with a large effort of realism, maybe that won’t be nearly so true.  Hard to say.  I never did see director Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express (2004), his previous excursion into motion-capture animation, which was more criticized for its dead-eyed figures.  I guess this has been a step-up.

Not that anyone really expected this film to shed any light on the classic narrative, even with or maybe because writers Roger Avery and Neil Gaiman were behind the script, but it’s kind of a hard one to fathom.  There is this whole sort of anti-Christianity thing, the change over the world that Beowulf will bring greater sadness into men’s lives and less heroism.  And the man who sleeps with the witch begetting some great evil…well, that’s a little more traditional in its legacy, I guess.

Grendel is a strange thing.  Sad, pathetic, corpse-like, lonely.  Maybe if King Hrothgar had invited had invited him to all their mead-drinking parties he wouldn’t have felt so left out and angry.

There’s a little bit of Zach Snyder’s 300 (2006) here, visual spectacle.  Visual spectacle that requires spectacles, the modern 3-D kind.  But ultimately there isn’t a whole lot of depth to the myth or the myth-making, riding a line between a stab at realism and an envisioning of a fantasy and action adventure that perhaps has more to do with contemporary video games than to anything of the period from which it originally arose.

The True Story of Jesse James

The True Story of Jesse James (1957) movie poster

(1957) dir. Nicholas Ray
viewed: 11/17/07

It’s been quoted, though I can’t say how accurately, that Jean-Luc Godard once said “Nicholas Ray is cinema”.  And as I became interested in film studies as a path in graduate school, one of the first books I read was a semi-critical overview of Ray’s life and work.  Several of his films are amazing, genre-spanning, especially his first film, They Live By Night (1949), but definitely several others including In a Lonely Place (1950) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955).  And while I’ve never gotten around to seeing all of Ray’s films, they are all in essence, in my queue.

So, when traipsing down this Jesse James path of films, I quickly added Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James.

It’s strikingly disappointing.  The film suffers from a number of key problems, largest of which is the narrative structure, which includes a number of significant flashbacks, with billowing colored clouds and the strumming of a harp (which eventually became such a stereotype in film and television that it’s a hugely campy thing now).  The structure also feels sloppy and lazy, without giving good sense of the story’s main goal.  Unlike Samuel Fuller’s noirish I Shot Jesse James (1949), this film is much more cut from the cloth of Henry King’s Jesse James (1939), telling a sympathetic life-spanning scope of James’ career.

“Cut from the same cloth” as King’s film is quite the apt and clear truth.  The film actually uses the primary action sequences from King’s film directly.  I’d noted how the sequences of the horses plummeting off the cliff and the climbing onto the moving train shots were striking in King’s film.  Well, they’re striking here too.  There are three significant action sequences lifted directly from that far superior film.

Ray doesn’t do or add a lot to this story.  Robert Wagner as Jesse James is a bit of a petulant teenager, typical of Ray’s family melodrama work, and the ideal “straight” life that he seeks is very 1950’s: a home in the center of town, 2.5 kids, the nuclear family, the American dream.  Wagner’s James is the least likeable of the portrayals that I’ve seen thusfar, lacking much sympathy or even appealing for his handsome charm and leadership.

The film’s best bit might be Alan Hale, Jr. (yes, the Skipper from Gilligan’s Island) as Cole Younger, a large, wiser character who participates in their crimes.

It’s also interesting to note that the film no longer makes the railroad the enemy, as in King’s Jesse James, but rather the crimes of the Union soldiers in post-Civil War Missouri as the instigators that drew James out of farming and into a life of crime for revenge.  Is this the “True Story”?  Whatever it is, this is clearly not Ray’s best work.

I Shot Jesse James

I Shot Jesse James (1949) movie poster

(1949) dir. Samuel Fuller
viewed: 11/16/07

Director Samuel Fuller’s take on the Jesse James legend is typical of the director, a perspective more on the pathos of James’ killer, Robert Ford, than on the notorious outlaw himself.  Whereas Henry King’s film on James (Jesse James (1939) was a portrait of James’ whole career, Fuller’s film seems more of the source material that inspired Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), focusing on the psychology of Ford, following out his post-assassination career.

John Ireland plays Ford, in a role that I would say has more noir pathos to it than one might expect.  Ford takes Jesse’s life in the classic shot-in-the-back-without-his-guns pose with the intent of marrying the woman that he loves, having been given amnesty for his crime.  He is sore and chagrined at how not only she  treats his crime, but how all of society treats his crime, and his psyche is a tortured one as a result.

There is much in this film that is more directly echoed in Dominik’s film, showing how Ford wound up on stage, re-enacting his notorious deed for people to react to, and most significantly, in the film’s best scene where a traveling troubadour makes the mistake of singing the Jesse James song about the “dirty little coward to shot Mr. Howard”, even having to sweat through it when he realizes that he is singing to Bob Ford himself.  Dominik’s scene seems definitely influenced by this one, if not a portion of homage in it.

There is a definite hamminess to the dialogue and acting, a much lower budget affair, but an efficient and interesting approach to the content.  One would hardly expect less from Fuller, really.

As so often is the case in Westerns, they tend to reflect their era significantly.  And as I mentioned before, there is a definite post-war noirishness to the psychic crisis of Ford, whose rejection from his lover and the world turns him bitter and morally strangled.  It’s an interesting comparison point with Dominik’s film, perhaps because they both share that focal point of the assassination’s aftermath on Ford, but I reckon that it’s also a bit deeper.

For Fuller, however, James is nothing special.  He’s played with stiffness and a lack of canniness that none of the other films seem to see in him.  Fuller is more interested in Ford, and this is Ford’s movie.

Jesse James

Jesse James (1939) movie poster

(1939) dir. Henry King
viewed: 11/14/07

After having seen Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), I have decided to go on a little Jesse James jag.  The legend is the question in Dominik’s film, the making and construct of legend of an outlaw hero, the story that became such pop culture fodder for more than 100 years after his death.  And it’s true, there are a ton of Jesse James movies made, more toward the beginning of the 20th Century, but steadily, each decade would take a new crack at the legend.  So, I’ve queued up a bunch of Jesse James movies, from different decades and each from a significant director.

Jesse James is not the first Hollywood version of the James legend by far, but it seemed as good a starting place as any.  Directed by Henry King, not one the heavyweights of American auteurist theory, but a very solid, genre-spanning director, whose The Gunfighter (1950) was one of the first Westerns to really stand out for me, seemed like a significant enough figure to run the film.  Here, we have Tyrone Power as Jesse and Henry Fonda as Frank James, with John Carradine as Robert Ford, and even Randolph Scott thrown in as Mashall Will Wright.  A solid cast up and down.  And the movie is a pretty top-notch affair all around.

King shoots some excellent action sequences, particularly of the train robbery that got the James gang going, with Jesse racing up on horseback, jumping onto the train, peering into the windows, ultimately climbing to the top to head up to the engine.  There is a fantastic shot of Jesse James striding across the train in mostly silhuoette as the train charges forward.  There is also an apparently tragic action shot of a horse and stuntman leaping 90 feet into the water in a rugged escape from justice.  When I saw the shot, I thought that there was no way the horse survived that.  Apparently, that was true.  This film was sadly noted to be the one that brought the attention of the SPCA and the protection that animals would not be harmed in the production of movies.

The narrative is one of legend-making.  There is a newspaperman, Major Rufus Cobb, whose editiorializing makes for some amusing sequences, who drums up the public persona and public take on James.  He also eulogizes Jesse as his funeral, evoking legend and decrying his cowardly killer.  “The ‘goldarnedest’ cuss that ever…”  I wish that I could quote it directly.  The film already has a high self-awareness of the mythmaking and the mixed character of James, both as justified hero, a Robin Hood of sorts against the ruthlessness of the Transcontinental Railroad, and also as a fairly vicious killer.  King doesn’t try to show James to be that bad of a guy, though they do allude to his ruthlessness.

Still, after watching The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, seeing aspects of the narrative played out to the “T”, the disarming of Jesse and the defenseless pose he died in, straightening a picture of the wall with his back turned toward his killer, somehow is still very emotionally evocative.  Surprisingly so.

Jesse James is indeed a solid Western, with excellent comedic bit parts, striking action, and a lively and solid cast.  I have to say that it was even better than I was expecting on a number of levels.  The poignancy of the mythologizing eulogy reads the grave marker for James in Kearney, MO, “Devoted Husband and Father, Jesse Woodson James, Sept. 5, 1847, Murdered Apr. 8, 1882, by a traitor and coward whose name is not worthy to appear here.”  This is the irony of Robert Ford that Dominik ponders in his film.  The legend is well-established already.

No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
viewed: 11/13/07 at Century San Francisco Centre, SF, CA

The Coen brothers have long been favorites of mine.  I am pretty sure that I saw Blood Simple (1984) back in the day, but my frist awareness of them came probably with Raising Arizona (1987) and on and on it’s been.  And it’s been great.  Their films are among the best American films in the past 20 years and up until a couple years back what had been their weakest film, The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), was still entertaining.  But then WHAM!!!! Something happened around 2001 after one of their best films, O Brother, Whereart Thou? (2000), they suddenly hit not merely a slump but actually rolled down into actually making bad films.

2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There was interesting enough but not overly special.  But that was followed up by 2003’s Intolerable Cruelty, which, while entertaining, lacked some of the visual strengths and narrative strenghts that their films are so well known for.  And then came The Ladykillers (2004), which I saw when I wasn’t updating this blog, so I will simply recap by saying that it was fucking awful.  It would have been awful by anyone who had made it, but for the Coen brothers to have worked on it, it was downright shocking and terrible.  I won’t belabor the point, but I would say that The Ladykillers is among the worst films that I have seen in the past five years.

So, I was wondering what they were up to.

No Country for Old Men is certainly a return to form for them.  Adapted from a Corman McCarthy novel, it’s a world of 1980’s small town Texas and crimes and criminals of gothic proportions.  It has some Blood Simple to it, a bit of Fargo (1996), and probably a couple of others.  Among the genres that the Coen brothers have spent much of their time, differring types of crime films, some more noir than others, some more situational.

As in Fargo, the narrative follows a small town sheriff (this time, the aged Texan Tommy Lee Jones as opposed the the unflappable and pregnant Dakotan Frances McDormand) and his trek on the trail of a series of brutal and senselessly violent crimes and criminals.  This is an interesting point because McDormand’s character, Marge, took in the brutality with a certain lack of awe yet simple humanism which was played out in her twangy ability to handle the violence (which was brutal too — the woodchipper and Steve Buscemi come to mind) and yet be able to go home to her postage stamp painting husband and her unborn child.

Jones is a much more beaten down perception on crime and violence, and the criminal(s) in No Country for Old Men are not the bumbling and forsaken losers, but rather the most intelligent, well-spoken perfectionist killers embodied in Javier Bardem’s unflinching Anton Chigurh, whose capacity for brutality and ruthlessness is only mitigated by his warped sense of idealism and humor.  Jones’ character has seen it all.  He doesn’t need to return to crime scenes unnecessarily.  And he actively tries to fathom “the evil that men do”, reading newspaper accounts and questioning the breadth of visciousness in the world that he inhabits.  It pushes him so far, a dedicated third generation West Texas sheriff who has taken pride in his work and his family’s history with law enforcement, that he quits his job.

He also doesn’t get his man.  Unlike Fargo, the criminals are not brought to justice, and the innocent victims continue to die. It’s a more pessimistic film, I suppose.  It’s hard to read the Coen’s films sometimes for such depth of theme.  They are often criticized for a distance of character and emotion in their films.  I don’t know that is so much the case here, especially as Tommy Lee Jones fully evokes the state of world-weariness that perhaps is the film’s true heart.  I don’t know exactly what to say there.

The film is excellent as are Jones, Javier Bardem, and Josh Brolin.  Some great beauty is evoked from the shots of the barren West Texas desert and the hotels and small town spaces in which the action unfolds.  There is also the classic humor and unusual, strange dialogue that the Coens are also so noted for.  To be honest, this is one of the best new films that I have seen this year.  It’s still settling in on me, I guess.  But I like it.  And I am thankful that the Coens have made another excellent film, one far more in their style and character.