No End in Sight

No End in Sight (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Charles Ferguson
viewed: 01/30/08

“I don’t do quagmires” — Donald Rumsfeld

Iraq is not a quagmire.  Iraq is a disaster of mammoth proportions.  Charles Ferguson’s documentary No End in Sight details the missteps that the Bush administration made in their war against Iraq and the resulting occupation.  It’s damning.  These people have created a situation that is an utter atrocity, a complete destruction of a country under the guise of good, which is an utter lie.

Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, George W. Bush, Paul Bremer.  The asinine leadership that sought out this war with Iraq, sought to bring down Saddam Hussein, ignored the intelligence available to them from the people in their organization who had experience in occupation, in the Middle East, in rebuilding, in arming and preparing the military, giving direction, and lived in insane denial of the worsening reality of the situation there.  There are others in the organization, in the Bush White House, who were enmeshed in the rank idiocy of major decision-making about the post-war Iraq.  The film doesn’t even go into questioning the raw greed and corruption that led to the decision-making, it simply shows how the people who knew the right things to do were ignored.

The people that speak in the film are largely people who were directly involved in the military or are reporters who were in Iraq during a great deal of these events.  Paul Hughes, General Jay Garner, and others clearly deliniate the outrageous political decisions, as they roundly argued against the choices.

Rumsfeld looks the greatest buffoon, shown in press conferences, gabbing in denial about the worsening situation.  Bremer is not shown speaking but his decision to disband the Iraqi military was perhaps the worst decision, or at least one of the most devastating decisions made, without so much as one iota of experience behind him.  And the history of the relationship with Iraq, while not gone into in great detail, is also damning to the people in the administration.  Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowits, Colin Powell,…were all there in the elder George Bush’s administration when the first Iraq invasion happened 10 years before.  The same group of leaders, with more power, seeking…who knows?

And the relationship with Hussein in the 1980’s, there is a photo shown of Rumsfeld smilingly shaking Hussein’s hand.  That the U.S. government, under the Reagan administration, supported Iraq in opposition to Iran, even though they knew that Hussein was using chemical weapons on his own people.

Hypocrisy, stupidity, outright criminality.

I have been thinking a lot lately about how completely destructive the Bush adminstration has been, not simply in Iraq, which it has brought to its knees in their inept handling of the “rebuilding” of Iraq, but across in so much of the rest of the world, not to mention the internal damage their management of the United States.  The long term damage, the cultivation of Islamic extremists and well-founded hatred for the United States, the country that destroyed their nation.  It’s brutal.  What are we going to do?  Why aren’t we rioting in the streets and calling for their heads on posts?

This film tries to stick to the facts about the failures and about the resulting situation.  It is no quagmire.  It’s a grandiose disaster, one still ongoing, one whose effects will be felt for decades to come.

Fantastic Planet

Fantastic Planet (1973) movie poster

(1973) dir. René Laloux
viewed: 01/27/08

René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet is a wonderful anomaly in feature length cinema, from an animation perspective, from a science fiction perspective, from a surrealist perspective,…heck from any perspective.  Released in 1973, it is Laloux’s first feature length film (the DVD includes three of his earlier shorts which are also amazing), it is an adaptation of a Czechoslovakian allegorical science fiction novel referring to the Russian control of Czechoslovakia.

The animation style is unusual, limited, but the design style is what is much more radical.  The designs are highly “drawn”, showing ink lines in figures both foreground and background, the style is highly illustrative, something one my more commonly see in a book, rather than animated in a film.  The figures and design flow from early Surrealist designs, but tempered into a fluidity that speaks as well of the time of the film’s creation, the late 1960’s to early 1970’s, that psychedelica influence of design.

An adventure tale, if you boil down the narrative, of a repressed race of small human-like people, the Om’s, and their oppressors, the giant, blue, vaguely robotic Draags.  But, like the style of the drawings, the narrative is limited, not overwhelming with description, open enough to feel less “explained” all the time, a sensebility that I think seemed to exist for a while in science fiction that left more questions and a lack of clarity that expanded the genre.

The only films that came to mind at all were a couple of other European animated films from the near time vicinity, George Dunning’s Yellow Submarine (1968) and Bruno Bozzetto’s Allegro non troppo (1977) and director Ralph Bakshi’s work to an extent.  But, this film is completely unlike anything else.  I’d seen only part of it back in the 1980’s at a friend’s house and had been meaning to see it again all these years.  It’s certainly the stuff of cult filmgoers and acid heads.

It’s only real downside is the soundtrack which comes and goes into the same sort of music one might expect from a porn film of the same period.

French illustrator, Roland Topor, worked with Laloux on this film, offering a large part of the design and aesthetics.  He and Laloux worked together on some of Laloux’s previous short films, which, if you do see this film on DVD, I recommend watching if you enjoyed this feature.  It’s a brilliant, amazing film.  Vive les anomalies!

Shoot ‘Em Up

Shoot 'Em Up (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Michael Davis
viewed: 01/26/08

This is the worst film that I’ve seen in a hugely long time and if I can stop anyone from considering watching it, I will feel that my humanitarian requirements for the year have been met.  Instead, watch I Know Who Killed Me (2007) which is also awful, but a lot more entertaining in the way that bad films can be.  This film lacks anything at all to recommend it, seriously.  It’s bad from the first couple of shots and stays that way all the way to the end.

Essentially, both a send up and a literal “shoot ’em up” film, it tries to play the arched eyebrow camp of its comedy on top of its over-the-top action.  Whatever Clive Owen or Paul Giamatti’s agents were thinking…I don’t know.  It’s completely a waste of time, energy, and to prove that point, I shall say nothing more.

Helvetica

Helvetica (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Gary Hustwit
viewed: 01/23/08

Ubiquitous.

That is the word for helvetica.

Not much.

That is the phrase for how much I knew about this typeface prior to seeing this documentary.

It’s got to be said, a documentary about a typeface is not the sexiest marketability for a film.  I’d read in several places that this was, in fact, an interesting documentary, and so I gave it a spin.  And it is.  For those of us, like myself, who didn’t attend college for design or don’t work so directly with design and typefaces and fonts (though I also do), it’s interesting to hear about the development of this font, to realize how embedded it is culturally, and to hear the typeface designers and other designers, both purely modernist and radically post-modernist or whatever generation we are in now speak about Helvetica.  To realize its place in design, culture, and our lives.

The film starts with the people that loved Helvetica when it came on the scene, a modern, 20th century typeface, balanced and clean, neutral, and able to communicate.  The passion it inspired and its ultimate overuse culturally, picked up by innumerable corporate logo designers, becoming the face of so many things that it is pretty invisible to the average person.

Then the film moves toward Helvetica’s critics, the people who find it too ubiquitous, too representing of corporate blandness, and all that seems to represent.  We are shown constantly throughout the film a multitude of signage in many European languages how common and often it is used.

But then the film moves into the contemporary designers, the younger set, 20-30 year olds, who have come back to embrace the typeface and utilize it in new and different ways.  The perceptions and aesthetics and discourses are fascinating for some of the passion that they evoke.  To look at a letter “h” in the sort of detail that designers do is something radical for me.  I think it’s a fascinating thing to stop to recognize and analyze the simple structures around us, the invisible ones to the uninitiated or the unrealized.  I am curious how my friends who are designers would take this film.  And for the designers interviewed, I have no idea how important or well-known they are within the industry.  It’s quite something, really.  Perhaps not a brilliant film in itself, though quite well-done.  It’s the ideas that resonate.

Let’s Get Lost

Let's Get Lost (1988) movie poster

(1988) dir. Bruce Weber
viewed: 01/22/08 at The Castro Theatre, SF, CA

I didn’t get into jazz until I was 24, though I’d had friends who’d been trying to get me interested in it for a long time before.  One of the first discoveries I made, among John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and others, was Chet Baker.  And his name was familiar to me as this film had played at the Castro with some frequency when I first moved to San Francisco.  A friend of mine at the time had swooned over it, recommending it highly.  So, I’d been wanting to see it for some time.  But, according to the Castro’s current pamphlet, it hasn’t been screened theatrically (at least here) in 14 years and it’s not available on DVD as yet (though I imagine that will change soon).  This was one of the rare random times that I just glance that day at what is playing at the Castro and not only want to see the film that is there but can go see the film that is there.  It usually takes planning.

The film is a documentary, shot by noted photographer Bruce Weber in what turned out to be the last year of jazz great, Chet Baker’s life.  It’s a stunning portrait in many respects, contrasting the movie star good looks of the young, immensely talented Baker in the early 1950’s to the completely ravaged, yet still beautifully gifted man who failed to live to see 60.

The film has a looseness, a jazz quality, with the softness of Baker’s own voice and trumpet style, flitting over the iconic images of Baker’s young, chiseled good looks, while his music plays in the background and oral reminiscences overlap.  Even the contemporary images are filmed in a dramatic black-and-white, the contrast of Baker’s haggard face, his hair tousled in the wind, sitting in the back of a classic convertible, a girl on either side of his dreamy, sleepy face. Weber uses a style that idolates, yet allows for objective glimpses, contrasting the young, ideal with the broken down, tragic, and highly flawed man of that time.

All people in the film are drawn to Baker, his image, his visage, his talent, his style.  Throughout the years, the ups and downs, people are drawn to him like a beacon.  Weber interviews the photographer who recognized Baker’s star quality from the earliest times and shot the pictures that adorn many of his albums.  The women, the many, many women, drawn to his beauty, his needs.

But Baker’s drug addiction, he praises the speedball as the ultimate high, ravaged him.  The beating that he took in 1968, that knocked out all of his teeth, nearly destroying his career completely, is peered at from a couple of angles.  His redemptions are also not without flaws.  The women that he used and abused, his abandoned children for whom he has nothing.  The picture of Baker is that of a user, not just drugs, but of people, too.

Yet while it doesn’t try to be a complete picture of Baker’s life, its perspective is one of appreciation, attraction, and sympathy, while accepting the inherent flaws, mistakes, badnesses of his life.  There is an ethereal sensibility in its style, both of narrative, and time, criss-crossing back and forth between the “now” of 1987 and the past of Baker’s music and life.  I have to say that I found the film very beautiful, very sad, and moving.  The music is still alive in my ears.  At the end of the film, Baker, at Cannes, plays “Almost Blue”, complaining about the audience not being quiet and appreciating the music.  The performance is stunning, even in his late years, having lost the sweet lightness that his voice had achieved early on, he still, slightly slurred, yet perfectly beautiful, his enunciation and style.  Amazing.

Cloverfield

Cloverfield (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Matt Reeves
viewed: 01/22/08 at Century San Francisco Centre, SF, CA

From producer J.J. Abrams, of television’s Lost fame, we have a Godzilla-esque monster movie, shot in the same technique as The Blair Witch Project (1999), i.e., hand-held camera, as indigenous to the diegesis.  What worked for Blair Witch, doesn’t work nearly as well here.  Of course, Blair Witch relied on total no budget, smaller scale scares, with virtually no special effects.  Abrams approach is based, from what I’ve read, on the modern cell phone camera phenomenon in which people essentially carry with them at all times the basic media of recording action/events on the fly.  Of course, it would be one thing to make a movie that was all recorded on a cell phone…but the pretense of this gang of well-off 20-somethings, running and screaming around New York City while all goes to hell, yet managing to keep the camera on key moments…it’s a hard nut to swallow.

The film is one, like Blair Witch and Snakes on a Plane (2006) before it, that is almost more about the amount of pre-movie hype that can be created for a film.  Initially, trailers were shot before principal filmming, and the name, Cloverfield, which is one of the stupidest movie titles for an action/monster movie film ever, was supposedly its “code name” in this era of developing hype through secrecy, trying to keep images and snippets from hitting the internet before the film is finished.  It’s probably a more timely thing, in that it’s a commentary on the way that films are marketed, produced, and their temporary appeal basis in little attributes like these.

Also, from what I’ve read, on top of the cell phone camera culture (prevelent in the many shots of onlookers holding their cell phones to the sky to either snap a pic or get a signal amidst buildings falling down around their ears), the film also is an attempt to play off of the destruction of New York a la 9/11 or out of post 9/11 fears.  I guess you see this briefly with the people cowering in buildings to miss the plumes of ash and dust that shower down and explode as huge buildings collapse, as well in the images of the folks who are covered in that soot.  I imagine that this sort of attempt to play off of (cheaply or sincerely) these images and fears will happen for long time to come.  But, as I noted in Steven Spielberg’s much more interesting War of the Worlds (2005), this approach was already being used, to far greater and broader effect.

All I guess that I am saying here is that from a perspective of what this film adds to the genre of the “big monster attacks big city” is not a whole lot.  The image of the statue of liberty’s head smashing into the street is the film at its best.  Its signiture shot, though again, not wholly original.  Icons are targets in disaster films.  The statue of liberty was better used in the original Planet of the Apes (1968).  Didn’t that just about truly hit the mark?

Overall, it’s an entertaining enough ride, but I really think its primary conceit, that the film is left over from the hand-held, user-created content from people no longer alive (found in the place “formerly known as Central Park” — what is this Prince Land now?)  That just plain didn’t work for me.

And while there are a lot of people who will be confounded to know that the explanation of the monster’s origin are only guessed at and never delivered, I have to say that I am more cool with that conceit.  Explaining it might make for some ridiculous science.

But the name.  What a lame-ass name for a movie.

The Weather Underground

The Weather Underground (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Sam Green, Bill Siegel
viewed: 01/21/08

I’ve long had a ranging interest in the politicized and violent movement that The Weather Underground represented.  Apparently, I have a semi-distant relative who had been involved at some level in the Underground, and though it wasn’t often spoken of, it had been noted that his visits with family often wound up getting documented by the FBI.  I never met him and I don’t think that he was one of the primaries focused on in this documentary.

Looking back into the 1960’s and early 1970’s, the volatility of American culture, identity, national and personal, was literally exploding across the map.  I think, even for my generation, born in that time, has a hard time fully understanding the true zeitgeist of the era.  It makes the dismissal of pacifism that The Weathermen endorsed harder to appreciate.  Perhaps even especially now, in which such action would quickly been deemed as terrorist.  The radical movement of the time fit into the time but certainly represented a far step away from the larger liberal movements.  Even the Black Panthers issued statements that they were not aligned with the Weathermen, though the Weathermen certainly liked to believe otherwise.

This documentary interviews a lot of the primary leaders of the group, a group made up of entirely upper middle class white college students, whose passions for change became inflamed particularly in response to the Vietnam War and the apparent lack of effect of pacifism and political rallying that the SDS, from which they emerged, had endorsed as attempts for change.  Their real radicalism is the endorsement of violence to effect the change, planning riots and placing bombs, and while they never ended up killing anyone (except accidentally a couple of their own members in an accidental explosion), they certainly had originally planned to.

My reaction is an oddly mixed one.  The Vietnam War was a brutal, visceral novelty of a crisis for America, with bloody, gruesome images broadcast on television nightly.  Contextually, it’s easy to understand why reaction would be so visceral in return.  Today, America is in a War/occupation that in some ways is even more criminal and wrong, and the brutality is highly different, but still there.  There is a huge amount of apathy in comparison, perhaps borne out of the changes in culture…who knows?  Television news, of course, has become denuded of value.  Reporting on television has moved to a 24/7 model, filled with commentators, played for ratings, and manipulated by their corporate engines that fund them.  The media is amazingly lacking in integrity.  Does that add to the apathy?

We are also of a post-Vietnam War era.  Lessons learned include that of continuing to support the members of the armed forces whether or not one supports the goverment’s decisions to deploy them.  But we are also in a world in which a major military quagmire becomes “our generation’s Vietnam”.  The reality and history of the time, whether really understood or simply vaguely known, has influenced and changed our culture and perspective.

And the use of violence, which even back in the day of The Weather Underground was not truly embraced, is now perceived in a post-9/11 lens in which terrorism has become the brand of evil.  The Underground were terrorists, by our current definitions.  Motivated by true belief in change and pure frustration with their ability to bring it about, they started in a place of good.  Their methods, their ideological justifications, are difficult to comprehend.

The documentary, though well-praised elsewhere, somehow doesn’t feel completely right.  Its tone is one of attempted objectivity, while letting the now middle-aged, graying primary players in the group speak openly about their actions and motivations as well as their regrets.  I kind of wish that I could have watched this with my dad, who because of being in Wisconsin at the time of these events (and my birth) had an interest in this deeper than average, though with whom I never got to speak of it specifically.

Sunshine

Sunshine (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Danny Boyle
viewed: 01/20/08

Since his 1994 film Shallow Grave, which I saw in England when it was first released, I’ve wound up following the career of director Danny Boyle, throughout his spotty, yet usually interesting career.  His big hit Trainspotting (1996) almost pushed him into the mainstream, though his abysmal The Beach (2000), starring Leonardo DiCaprio, nearly killed his career, I think.  But it also started a long working relationship with author Alex Garland, with whom he also devised one of Boyle’s other successes, 28 Days Later… (2002).

Their latest, Sunshine, is sort of like a poor man’s Solaris (1972)….oh wait, Steven Soderbergh already did that, right?  Okay, it’s not purely Solaris but it’s a space film that is meant to be more heady than exciting, though, in this case, it tries to go for both.

The sun is dying and so a crew goes on a potentially suicide mission with an atomic bomb the size of Manhattan to re-ignite the star in humankind’s last ditch effort of survival.  Cillian Murphy, who’s been showing up in a lot of things lately, is the physicist on the team and the protagonist of the story.  And the story is okay, though a bit slow.  Let’s face it, not everybody is Andrei Tarkovsky, nor should they be.  But it’s gotta be said, that the whole sunlight/death/god thing is really not entirely fathomable or functional.  You can see the look of epiphany on their faces, but it’s contrived.  It doesn’t hit home, it doesn’t have depth, it doesn’t have real meaning.

While it’s not Tarkovsky, it’s also not quite Michael Bay’s Armageddon (1998) either.  It’s little wonder that this film slipped in and out of theaters so quickly and why many of you are probably going “Sunshine?”  Well, to answer your question,…no.

Pink Flamingos

Pink Flamingos (1972) movie poster

(1972) dir. John Waters
viewed: 01/13/08

After watching Divine Trash (1998), I felt compelled to go to the true John Waters source material, his epic film of “bad taste”, Pink Flamingos.

It’s actually totally hilarious and outrageous, probably as much so as it was the day it was first shown.  Actually, I take that back.  How would the world of 1972 be ready for such a film?  It’s the crassest of crass, and much like Divine herself, the filthiest movie alive.

But it goes much more beyond shock value.  So often the film is most frequently noted for the scene at the end of the film when Divine eats fresh dog feces off the sidewalk and flashes a literal shit-eating grin.  I mean, I think that still today, that would shock an even internet-savvy audience who wasn’t prepared for it.  It is a signiture moment, the ultimate statement of “how low can one go”, how disgusting, how anything, can it be.

But that is in essence exactly what the film plays with.  Divine is in competition for the local title of “the filthiest woman alive”, trying to out-filthy her gruesome competitors, Connie and Raymond Marble, who speak in the posh tones of an upper middle class family, living in a swank house in a well-to-do neighborhood, but who keep pregnant girls caged in their basement to sell the babies to lesbians (oddly, one aspect of shock value that has lost its teeth).  While Divine is living in a decrepit trailer, with her mother in a play pen, whining for eggs.  While the competition and sabotage lead to further and further humorous, outlandish actions, the play is satire, on contemporary culture, the haves vs. the have nots, but instead of trying for Better Homes and Gardens, they are completely anti-everything that culture typically desires.

Also quite interesting is Waters’ use of music.  Nowadays when someone uses music that is from a prior period, there is an intent of setting period or playing something of a “retro” style.  Even Waters’ more recent films use great obscure music which make for good soundtrack listening.  But his use of the glam-sounding late 1950’s and early 1960’s pop rock’n’roll adds flair to the glam hilarity that is Divine.  I am sure that there have been many theses written on Divine around gender, queer culture, and who knows what, but Waters uses her as some sublime skewing of sexuality, femininity, and female beauty.  In her physicality, her walk, her tight flashy outfits, the make-up and the hair, she is a complete icon of cinema, one that in essence reckons and comments in her own physicality on the examples of female beauty and heterosexuality that classical cinema had developed.

The film is pretty much punk rock.  Punk as fuck, really.  It’s a total and complete spectacle.  A work of perverse genius.

Bad Taste

Bad Taste (1987) movie poster

(1987) dir. Peter Jackson
viewed: 01/13/08

For some time, I’d intended on watching Peter Jackson’s first feature film, Bad Taste.  More noted for his Lord of the Rings films, Jackson first came to my attention when his film Dead-Alive (1992) became the cult video rental of its day.  I’d always considered it a bit of Aussie Evil Dead II (1987), possibly the originator of the combination of horror gore films and slap-stick comedy.  Whereas I found and still find Evil Dead II a pretty amazing film, I’ve been meaning to revisit Dead-Alive to see what I’d think of it now.  Clearly, Jackson has moved on, no more goofy horror films for him.

Bad Taste, at least from the poster/DVD cover, featuring an ugly alien giving the finger, really…I don’t know, I guess I sort of assumed that the aliens would be all over the film.  But as it turns out, this low-low budget film, which apparently Jackson shot over a few years on 16mm, really started out a bit more like a zombie film, or at least a cannibal film.

In a small village in New Zealand, a goofy team of government researchers (who seem a lot more like the drinking buddies of Jackson’s who probably the actors were), uncover a group of ferocious semi-zombie people who seem to be cannibals.  The team crashes the house to find out that the zombies are actually aliens in human form there to reap a human harvest for feeding fast food in outer space.  Hey, it’s a funny enough concept.

There is a lot of goofy action, comical though gory violence, with lots of red Karo syrup-spewing wounds.  The characters are all pretty silly, in a variety of ways.  The whole thing is comic and goofy.

And it’s pretty good fun.  It’s not incredibly amazing, but for the type of low-budget, DIY horror feature film making, it’s a decent accomplishment.  It actually made me think of a film made locally in Gainesville, FL back in the late 1980’s, Charles Pinion’s Twisted Issues (1988) which I think I tended to take for granted at the time, but realize that it was, even on video, walking a line of DIY filmmaking that really had some merits.  Also, bloody and silly, it’s not incredibly far off of this in its way.  Though, I would say, Jackson was very ambitious with effects, pulling off stuff that while not brilliant, was clearly clever because of the budget constraints.

I don’t think that Jackson is one of the great directors of our time.  I do think he did a good job with the Lord of the Rings series and I’ve liked some of his other films.  This, his earliest work, has character, which is more than one can say about a lot of things.