Rescue Dawn

Rescue Dawn (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Werner Herzog
viewed: 12/21/07

Rescue Dawn is a dramatization of the story of Dieter Dengler, the only American GI to escape from a Vietnamese/Laotian prison camp (so the film says).  Director Werner Herzog had already tackled the material in a documentary (that I haven’t yet seen) called Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), referencing a statement that Dengler had said about himself in reference to his passion and desire to fly airplanes.

Born in Germany during WWII, Dengler moved to the United States and joined the military with the desire to fly planes.  However, on his first assignment, a covert operation prior to the “official” start of the Vietnam conflict, Dengler is shot down and eventually captured by the Viet Cong.  His prison camp in Laos is a fairly brutal place.  I only modify that statement because of the intensity of depiction that one has become familiar with cinematically, going back to Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) and John Woo’s briliant Bullet in the Head (1990) which seemed to rework The Deer Hunter from a totally different perspective or the almost ubiquitous though anomolous epic Apocalypse Now (1979).  It’s all a very head-trippy, monstrous approach to understanding the psychosis of war.  A modern approach to the most modern of wars (til recently perhaps).

Rescue Dawn is utterly earnest, with decent moments, decent performances, and decent cinematography.  I say this all knowing that the levels of intensity have been brought before by other films, other films from the performers, other films from the director.  The whole thing is a modestly entertaining, clearly PG-13 version of a very interesting story.

I’ve got a guess that the documentary is much better.  But I don’t know.  Herzog is an interesting guy.  But this is not by any means his most interesting film.

The Simpsons Movie

The Simpsons Movie (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. David Silverman
viewed: 12/21/07

I’ve liked The Simpsons since it started, or at least when I first came across it in 1989 or 1990.  I think it hit its peak in the early 1990’s, a theory that I won’t go into here, other than to say that at one point I did consider it one of the greatest television shows ever made, even when everyone else was saying the same thing about Seinfeld (which I like and appreciate).  But The Simpsons Movie, to me, was by this point, sort of a “why?” other than an obvious way to make some extra dough for the producers.

I won’t belabor the point here.  The film does feature a lot of more 3-D (obviously) computer animated backgrounds and shots than the show does.  But the story is no more important or enthralling than most episodes of the modern show.  When Homer, while watching the “Itchy and Scratchy Movie” at the beginning of the film wonders aloud as to why people paid money to watch something that they get at home for free on their tv, I think I was far from alone in wondering the same thing.

God pity the fools that paid to see this on the big screen.  As a rental, it’s totally fine.  Nothing special, just a long episode of a now spotty television show.

I Am Legend

I Am Legend (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Francis Lawrence
viewed: 12/21/07 at AMC Loews Metreon 16 with IMAX

Going to see I Am Legend, this latest, most literal from a title perspective though not from a narrative perspective, adaptation of Richard Matheson’s science fiction/horror novel from the 1950’s was the cap on a little series of films that I’d been seeing leading up to this film’s release.  As I’d mentioned before in other posts, I recently read Matheson’s novel, having always liked his work on The Twilight Zone, and having been developing an appreciation for short horror fiction.  And I had recently viewed both The Last Man on Earth (1964), the Vincent Price version (still the most true to the novel) and The Omega Man (1971), the Charleton Heston vehicle with its strange contemporary spin on the topic (probably more of an influence here than either the Price film or the novel itself).  So, I had to close the circle.  I had to see this film.  For my own silly reasons.

Will Smith was at one time an actor that I admired.  This was coming off Men in Black (1997) when his charm and panache seemed quite appropriate for becoming the leading African American film star.  That appreciation started to diminish right after, especially with the tiresome Wild Wild West (1999) that seemed to show what a great waste of energy most Hollywood mega-movies really are.  And somehow, by now, I would actually choose actively not to see anything he was in.  All that and one’s natural capriciousness, I’d say.

Well, anyways, I went.

The story is relocated from LA to NYC, which one can sort of understand.  Taking our country’s most populace city and depopulating it should be impactful.  And Hollywood loves to destroy New York.  How many of these modern disaster films take place there?

But this is one of the film’s problems.  It’s sort of been done before.  28 Days Later… (2002) was sort of the rebirth of these types of films and in many ways is a bit more like the way that they interperated the narrative here than from the original text.  It’s all modernized and changed, which one would expect.  The vampire/zombies are more like the monsters in Neil Marshall’s The Descent (2005) than the lucid, vocal creatures that Matheson dreampt up.

But it’s not really the lack of originality or the change of story that really bothered me.  In fact, some of the action and drama, especially the film’s best sequence when Smith is drawn into a trap by the creatures, is actually quite compelling.  The reason that it bothered me was more idealogical than that.

Matheson’s novel is typical of the period, ripe with a serious ironic twist at the end that re-sets the perspective of the entire story.  One that is intended to make you think about the story and re-think it through a second lens.  In Matheson’s novel, the protagonist Robert Neville finds out in the end that he has been killing both the vampires and some moderately effected people, a group of humanity that evolved through the process of disease, but seeks to redeem itself and make society again.  He is crucified for being their nemesis and murderer.  His legend, the “I am legend” statement, is that for all time forward he will be more like the devil or Hitler, not a savior, not a survivor, but a killer.  Take it for what you will but look to this new film.

In I Am Legend, not only is the irony stripped away, which you could almost understand.  Neville, though he perishes, is a hero because he does find a cure.  And his legend is betokened at the end of the film, echoing the slightly odd title, letting the audience understand that “he’s a legend”, a hero.  Ripping the irony out is pretty demoralizing, but beyond that, the film is also quite anti-science and pro-Christian.

In one sequence, Neville states that “God didn’t do this” (meaning the man-made virus that eventually destroys humanity) but that “we did”.  Humans who tamper with genetics are bad.  And beyond that, the woman who delivers the andidote when Neville dies is led to both him and a location in Vermont by “God”.  Neville does some odd backtracking on his other statement by saying that “There is no God” to her when he strangely rants rather than appreciates and accepts other survivors or proof in opposition to his beliefs that no one else is alive on the planet.  But in the end, he acquieses.  It must be a God who led them along, who led the people from their own mistakes and allowed them to live again.

It’s weird.  Personally, I find it disturbing.  Probably there are those who find it both refreshing and/or reaffirming.  But I didn’t like it.

As an action/horror film of its genre, it deserves some points, but overall, its rejection of irony for Christian faith and anti-science ideology, I have issues with it.

Paper Moon

Paper Moon (1973) movie poster

(1973) dir. Peter Bogdanovich
viewed: 12/17/07

I had last seen this film back in 1987 while staying with some friends in Gainesville, Florida.  It had been a lifetime favorite of one friend in particular, and I remember being quite charmed by it at the time.  The way it came up in my queue just recently was that one of my daughter’s teachers had commented that my daughter resembled Tatum O’Neal from this film, and the thought of looking into it led me to popping it to the top of my Netflix queue.  As far as the resemblance goes, I think it’s mostly the hair.

Tatum and Ryan O’Neal are both excellent.  Tatum, who received an Oscar (the youngest person to ever receive one) for her performance, carries the film, the story of a small-time grifter who winds up transporting his probable though unacknowledged daughter across the Midwest in the 1930’s and through a series of comical episodes.  A close-up of her face is the opening shot of the film, and her slightly squinting frown of an expression is striking.  Her father does an excellent job as well, carrying on as the dapper scam-artist bible salesman with charm and great comic timing.  It’s an endearing film, sweet, funny, and quite beautiful.

The cinematography is stunning.  Shot in black-and-white by László Kovács, it suits the period and the locations, echoing of the films of the 1930’s.  From the striking close-ups of Tatum’s face to the broad vistas of the open country roads and empty plains, the whole film has a classic beauty to it.

Peter Bogdanovich is an interesting character, a director that I haven’t spent much time watching, though he’s sort of stayed on the periphery of my interest.  Part of the group of directors that defined American cinema for the 1970’s, he’s not one of the better-known names in comparison with Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese.  Maybe that has to do with their success carrying forward further than his did.  Clearly, though, this is a great film, at least in my opinion, and I’ll have to think about watching some of his other films.

Alvin and the Chipmunks

Alvin and the Chipmunks (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Tim Hill
viewed: 12/15/07 at Century San Francisco Centre, SF, CA

Not much to say here.  Modernizing Alvin and the Chipmunks isn’t exactly looting one of the great treasures of the world for a contemporary film.  And it’s also not exactly as awful as a lot of other films that I have seen.  I mean, this wasn’t even the worst animated feature film that I’ve seen this year.  That would go to either Bee Movie (2007) or most likely Shrek the Third (2007)…but let us not forget Arthur and the Invisibles (2006).

Some would say, why even take the kids to films like this?  Is there any value?

Well, the bottom line is that they actually quite enjoyed this one.  Animated chipmunks, singing their songs, Jason Lee, David Cross of all people (slumming for a paycheck one would guess).  Still, it’s less embarrassing that it could have been.

That’s not to say it’s great or even good.  Let’s not get unreal here.  It is what it is.  I’ve seen a lot worse.

Angel-A

Angel-A (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Luc Besson
viewed: 12/14/07

You know me, that is, if you read this site with any frequency.  Whether you do know me or not, though this system works somewhat like film reviews, it’s really not constrained to those requirements.  Just so, it’s not restrained to any academic requirements, reporting requirements, research or accuracy requirements.  It’s a diary.  It’s a confessional…without all that much significant confessed.  My confessions are more about why I will tolerate or even be drawn to watch movies such as Angel-A or the work of Luc Besson, or the work of Lindsay Lohan.  Or whatever other films are part of the highbrow “cinema” pantheon or canon.

Sometimes, I think I am hamstrung by writing about the things that interest me.  I notice that the films that get the most (meager still sincerely but most for me) hits are usually the latest releases with the most notability.  I mean, if I was interested in having more readers (which I am), I would dedicate myself more to purely new releases in the theater and on DVD and would only include the occasional “classic” when it got it’s latest incarnation on Criterion or something.

The fact is that this diary demonstrates the breadth and perhaps lack of depth of my personal relationship with cinema.  On a film-by-film basis.  But still, if one was to glance over my list of movies that I have seen this year, the variance would be fairly considerable.  It’s such a personal list that I think very few will ever appreciate it the way that I do it.  But…now, moving toward my 6th year, I guess I’m not about to change anything here.

Which brings us to why I even rented Angel-A.  Luc Besson once made good movies.  That ended over a decade ago, and as I noted quite blatantly in my comment on Arthur and the Invisibles (2006), earlier this year, he’s hit rock bottom.  So why then rent Angel-A?  God, if I knew that I probably would understand why I watched all those Lindsay Lohan movies.

Angel-A is sort of like Besson’s stab at a pop/comedy version of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987)…without the depth or criticality.  The story of a down-and-out Morrocan/Frenchman, in debt to his eyeballs, hunted by mobsters, comic and sensitive but also a pathological liar, who, about to leap to his death meets a gorgeous slumming angel also jumping into the Seine.  His rescue of her begins her rescue of him, and if the title didn’t give you enough hints, this slumming angel turns out to be a slumming Angel, with wings and stuff.

The comedy is hammy, but visually it’s striking.  Jamel Debbouze, short, unshaven, and shabby but with a genuine charm is a stunning contrast to the bleach-blond, six-foot, supermodel of an angel, Rie Rasmussen.  And the contrast of their figures, their banter and style is on constant show against the background of modern Paris, shot in a gorgeous black-and-white pallette that shows that something was well-executed in this film.  The bridges, the towers, the buildings, the lights, all are as beguiling as they were in Amélie (2001).

For what charms the film has, and it has some, it’s pathetically lacking in emotional, psychological, even creative depth.  For some reason, it struck me that this film could have been interesting if directed by someone with a more perverse eye.  It also continues with Besson’s childish knock-out young women who radiate goodness, toughness, and spirituality, who cure the small, childish men, who, though good-at-heart, need saving.  It’s an insipid theme that one can follow through his films, and while at first there was something charming there (some actual electric thing could happen in the film), it’s not just half-assed balderdash.

The Thing from Another World

The Thing (1951) movie poster

(1951) dir. Christian Nyby, Howard Hawks
viewed: 12/08/07

The funny thing about this film for me, one that I actually had seen several times as a kid, was that it was my dad’s favorite science fiction/horror film.  I grew up loving horror films, “monster movies” as I referred to them then.  But this was the only one that my father really liked and would watch with me.  I don’t know why.  Maybe as a 12 year old he’d seen it in the theater and it had scared him real good.  Or maybe it’s simply that The Thing is considered to be one of the best Hollywood science fiction/horror films of all time and my dad simply would have agreed.

Part two of my Howard Hawks double feature, and a part of my ongoing look at 1950’s science fiction films, The Thing is good quality stuff.  It’s one of the few films that actually had an excellent re-make, too, John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) might well be Carpenter’s high point as well.  I don’t know if it’s because I watched it right after the stunning Scarface (1932) but while the film was very good, I wasn’t as riveted or as impressed as I had been by the earlier gangster film.  Hawks’ name doesn’t appear as director, rather as producer, but it is commonly thought that he had a significant hand in directing the film.

It’s a great scenario for a horror film.  Following a crash near the North Pole, a team of military men and scientists uncover a spaceship (which they manage to blow-up) and the titular “thing”, an alien being, thought to be of greater intelligence despite the fact that he developed from vegetable matter rather than fauna.  He’s a big, scary guy, seen almost entirely in long shots, particularly the compelling image of him strangling the dogs as they leap and fight him.  It’s not the clearest of images, shrouded in a snowstorm and silhouette, but the savagery of the action has the power of an E.C. Comics cover.

The film retains the classic 1950’s xenophobia.  The alien represents the unknown, the viscious outsider.  It also is cynical about science, featuring a ruthlessly committed scientist who would sacrifice the entire outpost to save their visitor.  The action is slick and intensely well-handled.  When the “Thing” attacks the room and is set on fire, the whole sequence has the action and power of any film perhaps ever shot.

Hawks well deserves his place in the cinema hierarchy.   He made some amazing films.

 

Scarface

Scarface (1932) movie poster

(1932) dir. Howard Hawks, Richard Rosson
viewed: 12/08/07

As I often like to do little movie theme nights, tonight was director Howard Hawks.  Scarface is one of those Hollywood legends, the great films of its time and template for so many films to follow.  I’d seen the Brian De Palma remake of Scarface (1983) last year, another notorious film that I had never gotten around to seeing.  Unsurprisingly, it would have been more interesting to see the latter film after seeing the original, seeing how they re-interpreted things, carried aspects over, and overall handled the process of the “re-make”.

Hawks is one of the true auteurs.  And by that, I mean that he was one of the directors singled out by Cahiers du cinema in their analysis and appreciation for American film-making that had somehow gone unappreciated in the United States.  Auteur is a word I use with some frequency here, though authorship in films is something of both accepted and yet debatable perspectives.  I stick with it because it’s handy.  Directors get a lot of the credit.  Hawks, of all, is certainly worth looking at in this light.  He worked in almost every genre, made notable dramas and sharp and brilliant comedies.  He is in some ways the consummate auteur.

Scarface is brilliant.  From the opening tracking shot, starting with a street sign, traveling across the street, into a restaurant, following through to the shadows of an assassin and the gunning down of the mob boss, even following through to discovery of the body.  It’s an impressive start to a fast-paced and lucid film.  Paul Muni is brilliant as the titular gangster, loosely based on the real “Scarface”, Al Capone.  The usage of the “X” symbol through the killings is really quite funny and clever, showing the “X” marking the bowling strike rolled by Boris Karloff as he’s shot down, the rafters lined up as “X’s” above the silhouettes of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre crowd, and the “X” on the door and on the shadow behind George Raft as he gets his.

Like Hawks’ best films, it’s all meat, no fat.  A tight, quick-paced, quick-witted film.  Top of the line of Hollywood in the early days of sound.  This films is totally brilliant.  Top-notch all the way.

I Know Who Killed Me

I Know Who Killed Me (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Chris Sivertson
viewed: 12/06/07

This is the last Lindsay Lohan movie that I will watch for a while.  You know, never say never.

She is really a pretty rotten actress and not an overly compelling screen presence.  One of the things that I’ve been noting about her in the previous films that I’ve watched is that she is typically a petulant, annoying, precocious teen whose likeability is meant to come across despite her self-centered selfishness.  It’s odd, but it’s almost like she is playing out her own personality and development in these films.

In this case, she takes the next step in this direction, playing a dual role of the “good girl”, the “talented” pianist/writer Aubrey, but also her alternate, Dakota, the stripper, the “bad girl”.  In this case, bad girls say “fuck” a lot and also like to fuck, the other, while not virginal, is still more so.  She’s selfish and unfriendly, but we are meant to sympathize with her because she’s had a rough life.  Both characters believe that they are two parts of a missing whole.  And in the end, which I am about to give away here, they turn out to be twins separated at birth.

This actually makes for the film’s few quality elements.  Aubrey is abducted by a serial killer and has her right arm and right leg cut off near the central joint.  It turns out that Dakota, being Aubrey’s twin, suffers the same fate via a twin-related stigmata.  The film’s nicest, cheesy shot shows Dakota’s hand slipping down the strippers pole, leaving long streaks of blood running down it.  And actually, the way that Dakota suffers the sudden bizarre loss of her fingers and limbs could have been quite compelling.  It’s bizarre and gruesome, but it’s contextualized in a flashback and loses its mystery and power that it could have had.

This situation also leads to the other really camp, bizarre thing about this movie.  Lohan runs around most of the movie as a double amputee.  She even has amputee sex with her boyfriend.  This weirdness actually doesn’t come across as bizarre and shocking as it could.  I found myself wishing that Robert Rodriguez had shot this movie.  It would have worked great with his Planet Terror from earlier this year.  This could have been the year of the amputee.

For all of this film’s potential (I liked the title — it had some noirish bent), it’s terribly executed.  The direction and writing are awful.  And the (I’m giving away the big ending here now) fact that the serial killer is a spurned piano teacher…well, that lacks a lot of satisfaction.  And the weird obsession with blue, which is emphasized throughout in inconsistent and incomprehensible ways, makes you realize that the director was trying to do something.  Which is perhaps even more pathetic.

The Return of Frank James

 

The Return of Frank James (1940) movie poster

(1940) dir. Fritz Lang
viewed: 12/03/07

Hollywood has been in the sequel business for a long time.  If it works once, it can work again.  Take for instance, The Return of Frank James, the sequel to the excellent Henry King film, Jesse James (1939), bringing back most of the principal actors and sets, even.  I queued this out of curiosity, since I had seen that it was directed by cinema maestro Fritz Lang, whose Metropolis (1927) and M (1931) are two of cinema’s great films.  Actually, I’ve always meant to but have never followed Lang’s work in Hollywood.  So, this seemed like a good starting place.

The narrative of this film diverges significantly from the reality of the post-Jesse story, recounted many a time with many a variation as I have been noting.  In this one, Henry Fonda, reprising his role as Frank, seeks to hunt down and kill the Ford brothers when they escape execution with the governor’s pardon for Jesse’s murder.  Frank has settled down to be a farmer, living a life as he had before the railroad had railroaded them into becoming vengeful outlaws.  And again, Frank only seeks to kill the Fords and get revenge when the system of justice fails.  This is a strong theme in the film.  Frank is a straight-shooter and has never killed anyone (except perhaps in the Civil War).

And through the machinations of the plot, Frank never ends up having to kill anyone either.  His sidekick, a teenage boy who has taken up with him, Clem (played by Jackie Cooper), is a rambunctious kid who wants to make a name for himself.  Frank, on the other hand, wants to settle down.  The law picks up Pinky, his negro pal, and plans to hang him for the crimes that he had nothing to do with, Frank decides to forgo the revenge and put himself at risk to save Pinky.  And it all works out in the end, of course.

The film has an odd attitude toward racism.  The narrative is quite pro-South in that both Frank, the judge, Frank’s lawyer Major Rufus Cobb (the irrascible Henry Hull reprising his role), and even the jury are all Southerners whose perspective on the War was the it was a fight for the Confederacy,…and while not outright politicized, it’s got a subtext of support.  And while the heroic deed that Frank does, of turning himself in to save his negro friend, the African Americans in the film are far more stereotypical in their roles, especially this one scene of an African American maid being scared out of a hotel room when she hears some mysterious “bumping” noises.  There are also a few references to them as “darkies”, which may have still been a commonality at the time, but still does ring on the negative side.  It’s a weird issue with the film.

As for Lang, the film has a few moments of striking shadows and dark compositions (I understand that this was his first color film), but for the most part, and maybe this is due to the goofy script, but this is a pretty standard Western in many respects, featuring characteristics of the genre, while not really lifting above it greatly.  I suspect this is not the best of his American films, and perhaps not his best genre in which to work.