Lars and the Real Girl

Lars and the Real Girl (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Craig Gillespie
viewed: 04/28/08

Who would think that a comedy about a man and his sex doll would be a chick flick?

Actually, this comedy/dramedy, though featuring a sex doll, is the kind of movie my mom would have loved.  It’s a sweet-natured film about a gentle, troubled small town man and his emotional delusion (his belief that his internet-ordered sex doll is a real person with a significant backstory) and how the town supports him, sees him through this situation and ultimately “heals” him.

It’s cute.  It’s sweet.  But, like Juno (2007) which I also just recently saw, the world that these quirks inhabit is a complete fantasy, perhaps far more so here in Lars and the Real Girl, a small town America where all the community (co-workers, friends, churchmembers, family, the entire freaking community) all supports Lars’ delusion of a sex doll girlfriend as a real human being.  In fact they imbue her with further and further life, creating a life for an individual who has no consciousness.  There is never a real moment of challenge to this delusion.  It’s a fantasy of America that may be what Americans would love to imagine, good-heartedness, support, love, all around.  Mental illness is not ugly, just goofy, and curable with love and support.

There is probably even more here to consider, with a figure of the sex doll.  What does this say about the American community?  Is she an individual in her physical existence?  She gets a funeral.  Is she like a Pinocchio who just doesn’t actually come to life?  Does it take nothing but presence to maintain existence?  Is there some deeper metaphysical question raised by the film?

I don’t know.  The film was cute enough, but I found it delusional itself that such a world exists in which such a situation could ever happen.  It’s a fantasy of a world with no real challenges, no genuine pain or turmoil, no blood, no bodily fluids at all.  I mean, this is one to watch with the in-laws, it doesn’t get creepy.  It gets cute and sweet.  I think that is fine in a lot of ways, but I also am finding that I am troubled by its false simplicity.

The Golem: How He Came into the World

The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920) movie poster

(1920) dir. Carl Boese, Paul Wegener
viewed: 04/25/08 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

Believe it or not, this is a film that I had been wanting to see for years and years, almost all of my life.  As I have often noted, I grew up loving “monster movies” as I called them at the time and read what books I could find (in the children’s sections) about monster movies and the occasional copy I found of Famous Monsters of Hollywood.  I longed to see the original films, particularly the early Lon Chaney films, which my mother took me to see on the University of Florida campus back in those days and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) (referred to as “the first ever horror film”) and Nosferatu (1922) (referred to as “the first ever vampire film”) and director Paul Wegener’s The Golem.  I did manage to see the other two films on video in the late 1980’s and was introduced in my first film class to the terminology of German Expressionism and Film Noir, and thus developed a new context for these long-lived interests.

For some reason, I never managed to see The Golem, which I now understand to have been a series of films by Wegener, with which this one, his third and a bit of a prequel, The Golem: How He Came into the World, is apparently the best known.  So when the San Francisco International Film Festival hit this year, with a showing of the film with a new live score performed by Black Francis of the Pixies, I knew the time had finally come.

The film does indeed feature some wonderful set designs, echoing of Dr. Caligari, though less spartan and more lush.  The most fascinating thing about the film is its specificity with the world of the Jews, set in the ghetto of Prague, a walled off section of the city and a people who are oppressed by society and the government.  It’s largely sympathetic, though of course, the rabbi summons a demon to bring to life a monster, the clay-built superhuman, the golem himself.

Based on a Yiddish(?) legend, the golem and Judaism, though sympathetically depicted as oppressed and restricted, also reeks of mysticism and black magic.  Oddly, the violence that the golem enacts is at random against many people, assumingly both Jews and gentiles, though most dramatically in the throwing of the would be suitor, the knight who comes from the oppressive kingdom, from the top of a tower.

And coming from Weimar Germany, at a peak of cultural explosion in many arts, the positioning of such a story only two decades before the Hollocaust seems interesting.  I don’t doubt that much has been written on both the mythologies and this film in academic and even popular literature.  My quick web research hasn’t offered me enough to go deeper here other than to point out that this is the most interesting of aspects of the film, that and its design.

Compared to the films of Robert Wiene and especially of F.W. Murnau, The Golem is very good, but nowhere as striking and iconic, so it is not so surprising that it is less known and less available than the others.  It is still a brilliant film and I am very glad to have seen it.

As for Black Francis’ live score, it was interesting, though not ideal.  He riffed on some commentary during the performance which was kind of annoying and not so funny and the music, with lyrics, was perhaps more akin to the scoring that Queen did for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) back in the 1980’s, a “rock” approach to accompaniment.  And not to say that this couldn’t work or that it shouldn’t be done, adding lyrics to accompany a narrative isn’t exactly adding to it but more distracting.  I’d be interested to know what other people thought.

1941

1941 (1979) movie poster

(1979) dir. Steven Spielberg
viewed: 04/23/08

Oddly, this film was one of the first ones that I queued back in 2002 when I first started using Netflix.  And then it finally made it to the top when I was using it in my “numbers” movie fest, which I abandoned.  Though, I did finally get to see it.

In film school, Steven Spielberg is not seen with the laudatary rapture with which popular media views him.  I actually would say that he’s overly criticized in film school.  And by film school, I should say that I mean in theory and criticism, not production.  The reasons are many, but largely go in the direction of ideology and so forth, not to mention the overpowering scores of John Williams and Spielberg’s sappy handling of children.  Also, there is this whole thing with the Nazis.

But I had just seen his Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001) and Minority Report (2002) and was appreciating his strengths, which of all films is most crystalized in his fantastic Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and I was contemplating this film, 1941, which was considered his first commercial flop, and I also found it interesting that it was the first of his many films about WWII.  It also is apparently his only pure comedy.  It seemed interesting.  Even though I had always heard that it was considered pretty bad by pretty much everyone on every side.

And it is.  It’s a combination of an Animal House (1978) style of National Lampoon comedy mixed with Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) style satire and genuine period ardor for the 1940’s and the swing scene.  Written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, straight out of film school, the film is based on a humorous enough conceit, an overzealous paranoia in California just after the attack on Pearl Harbor and an actual Japanese submarine off the coast of California in a legitimate attack on American soil.

It’s just that the whole thing is about as unfunny and painfully so as you can imagine.  This comes early on in a self-parody in the beginning of the film in which a late night skinnydipper encounters the submarine instead of a shark.  Is it funny that Spielberg is self-referential to his iconic blockbuster Jaws (1975) of only a couple of years prior?

Obviously, if one is to do a true analysis of Spielberg’s films, this film does well fit in within several parameters.  The only thing is that it’s not really worth it.  It’s only in the strange little ways that this film foreshadows Raiders of the Lost Ark that I found it amusing, in its setting, airplanes, and even some of the visual gags.  And actually, I do think that Spielberg falls somewhere between the disdain of the intellectual and the reverence of the popular.  But I give him his credit when it’s due.

 

Wristcutters: A Love Story

Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Goran Dukic
viewed: 04/22/08

An oddball romantic comedy, pretty much made with a guaranteed cult following, Wristcutters: A Love Story came and went pretty quick, but I am willing to guess that it’ll find a following on DVD like many other such films.  Saying “other such films” is a bit of a misnomer, though.  It’s offbeat, funny, morbid, black comedy, but with a love story that will probably allow for its popular adoption.  Though it’s nothing like them, the films that come to mind in comparison are Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984) and Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (2001), films in which the off-beatness is hard to put a finger on, some parts the narrative choice, some part the tone, the humor, the elan.

It’s not that I think that Wristcutters is brilliant, but I do have to say I did like it overall.

The film starts with a suicide.  Then it turns out that all suicides end up back in a world much like the one they left, only it’s a little bit worse.  Everything sucks a little more and no one can smile.  Everyone has a story of “how they offed themselves” and everyone is a little intimidated to do it again for fear of what comes next.  And our lead, who slit his wrists over a girl, finds out that she followed him into the abyss only a little while later.  The film becomes a road movie of sorts.  A road movie with just road, no destination.  And Tom Waits.

He also falls in love with a girl.  None other than Shannyn Sossamon, one of my little favorite actresses for physical attraction and overall not-so-goodness.  Actually, this is the first film in which she’s actually not so bad.  It’s redemptive for her.  She’s very pretty and here she gets to play in a fun, weird little film, something perhaps more suited to her potential.

Adapted by writer/director Goran Dukic from a short story by Etgar Keret, it’s just the sort of thing that you wished there was a little more of, films that do actually take a different route, a different tone, try to depict a different universe, that play and have fun.  Again, it’s not that it’s brilliantly executed, but it does work, and I do like it.  And I have actually been recommending it to a few people.

You too.

AVPR: Aliens vs Predator – Requiem

AVPR: Aliens vs Predator: Requiem (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Colin Stause, Greg Strause
viewed: 04/21/08

The two top monsters of the 1980’s, the Alien (1979) and the Predator (1987), were long fantasized about battling it out.  Apparently, they first found their battleground in comic books and later in AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004).  I remember the discussions as well that eventually found their filmic conception in Freddy vs. Jason (2003), the meeting of Freddy Krueger of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and its sequels against Jason Voorhees of Friday the 13th (1980) and its spawn.  The dawning of a new era in this millennium, in which such filmic fantasies are realized.

And then sequelized.

I did see the “original” AVP: Alien vs. Predator back when I wasn’t updating the film diary.  It was pretty misbegotten, as I recall, set in an isolated polar outpost.  The new one takes place in middle America, smalltownville.  It’s funny, but I remember as a kid, sitting with friends, thinking about what would happen if the Alien, made it to Earth (not in real life but you know)?  Here we go.  It’s a disaster.  Everyone gets killed.  Who knew?

The original two Alien films, Alien, and Aliens (1986) were both very influential and excellent in their time.  The original Predator film wasn’t up to their snuff, but it was probably the best Arnold Schwarzenegger B-movie of the 1980’s next to his iconic The Terminator (1984).  Couldn’t he come by and fight the aliens and predators?  Arnold made a lot of B-movies before he broke through in comedy, but Predator for some reason, maybe its mixture of humor and outsized masculinity, just plain kicked ass.  At least I have always thought so.  It’s been some time since I saw most of these films.

That said, AVPR: Aliens vs Predator – Requiem, the most current of these films, isn’t as terrible as it might be.  I think it’s actually an improvement on its predecessor, and it certainly leaves the doors open for more sequels.  Directed by “The Brothers Strause” as it says on the film, two guys whose background seems to be special effects, there are characteristics that have promise (though largely squandered) and some nice cinematography.  But let’s face it, when you have aliens popping out of chests every five minutes, it loses some of its effect.  The original “alien popping out of the chest” scene in Alien was totally shocking and has become a short-hand, cultural reference.  What was once originary and jaw-dropping, is now commonplace.

The real evolutionary thing in this film is the “Predalien” as its called, the alien that pops out of a Predator’s stomach as the end of the prior film.  It was probably the most fun for the designers.  Oddly, I was reminded of an Alien mixed with Whoopi Goldberg.  Still, it’s the big bad-ass of the film, impregnating at a faster rate by pumping babies into people’s throats for multiple births in the stomach explosions.  Which actually adds to the film’s other most creepy point: the maternity ward turned into an “alien” maternity ward.  There is something creepy and interesting about it.

I certainly don’t recommend this film to anyone who bears no interest in this franchise.  But it’s far from the worst thing I’ve seen.  It’s worst points are the squandered backstories of the humans (who cares anyways, right?  They’re just there for impregnation and decapitation).  They even have a Sigourney Weaver wannabe gal in there, tough ass broad in a wife-beater-style t-shirt.

I doubt we’ve seen the last of these fellows.

My Blueberry Nights

My Blueberry Nights (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Wong Kar-Wai
viewed: 04/20/08 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

I used to really like Wong Kar-Wai films.  I still have great fondness for Days of Being Wild (1991), Ashes of Time (1994), and Fallen Angels (1995).  And though Wong Kar-Wai has not been as much a part of the Hong Kong film industry as much as kind of a maverick in that and most worlds, his work has taken a change with the change of that industry.  Somehow, though he typically mines similar emotional territory: longing, unrequited love, loneliness, urban isolation, he has been finding new ways of rediscovering it.

Though I’ve still never seen his 2000 film In the Mood for Love, I did see his pseudo-sequel, 2046 (2004), it started to seem that he was in somewhat of a rut.

So, when he decided to do his first English-language film in with non-actress, singer Norah Jones in the lead and several other name Hollywood actors: Jude Law, Natalie Portman, and Rachel Weisz, it was sort of like “what?”  And his next film is a re-make of Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1947)…so who knows?  His early work is his early work.

In My Blueberry Nights, Wong Kar-Wai co-scripted with crime writer Lawrence Block, channelling the worlds of Sam Shepard, as Jones, a spurned lover, hits middle America in search of…I don’t even know if she knows what she’s in search of.  She modifies her name Elizabeth in each situation she is in, playing, trying new personas, while really being much more of a cipher than a character as she plays witness to human dramas in Nashville and Las Vegas.

Though Wong Kar-Wai has always had some affection or interest in people in the food service (it’s true — go back and see), his characters of Jude Law’s cafe owner and Norah Jones, waitress to the world, are the kind of characters out of a first year film student’s notebook.  Their worlds are all a little too poetic and their issues seem detached from a world that they never seem to inhabit.  The camera stays in or around Law’s cafe, spying on them.  But outside of shots of passing streetcars, we could be anywhere.

I have to say that Rachel Weisz and David Strathairn and even Natalie Portman deport themselves well enough.  Norah Jones is fine, too.  Some of this carries the film.  But some of the other aspects really didn’t deliver verity, per se.  While all this maybe worked better from an outsider view of his other work, a Hong Kong, a people, a language, a culture separating me from the narrative more, perhaps.  The melodrama seemed apt enough.

I can’t tell you why I wasn’t so excited by this film.  Oddly, I think I know folks who would enjoy it.  I do wonder what other long-time followers of Wong Kar-Wai’s work think of this.

Monster Zero

Monster Zero (1965) movie poster

(1965) dir. Ishirô Honda
viewed: 04/18/08

The latest foray into the original Godzilla series with the kids was queued up with the title of Invasion of Astro Monster, but since we watched the dubbed version, the original U.S. release of the film, we saw the film that I recalled from childhood as Monster Zero, the second Godzilla film to feature Ghidorah, the three-headed monster, the king of Godzilla villains.

This film, a direct sequel to Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964), recaptures both Godzilla and Rodan to battle Ghidorah, but this time under the shennanigans of the villainous machine-controlled aliens of Planet X.  These folks seek to take over the Earth by tricking them into allowing them to bring Godzilla and Rodan to Planet X to defeat “Monster Zero” (a.k.a. Kind Ghidorah), but then using mind-control, sic Godzilla and Rodan, alongside “Monster Zero” on Earth.

All said, though, the combination of the art design (waaaaayyy 1960’s) and narrative actually make for one of the most enjoyable films of the series.  There is a lot of narrative preamble, less out and out fight scenes, but a more cohesive and fun film of the Godzilla series.  Again, one of my childhood favorites holds up.

That said, being that I end up watching all of these Godzilla films in their dubbed English versions because I am watching them with the kids, I don’t get the interesting contrast of seeing them in their original Japanese.  So, for this film, once the kids were in bed, I skimmed a good chunk of the film in comparison.  Largely, the film is pretty shot-for-shot the same, using American actor Nick Adams in an integrated way so that it creates a more consistent crossover of actors and translation.  But what is really interesting and mostly significant is the translation of the Japanese in the subtitles in comparison to the orginal English diaglogue that had been put in place in the film’s 1970 American release.  It’s more clear, less silly, and makes a lot more sense.

The silliness of the dialogue in Godzilla movies is often the camp factor that cuts down the films (that and the special effects of obvious miniatures standing in for the real world).  Oddly, had they taken a more literal translation, the film would have seemed that much more interesting.

Definitely, though, one of the better films of the original series.

Juno

Juno (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Jason Reitman
viewed: 04/16/08

Like Little Miss Sunshine (2006) the year before it, Juno was the Hollywood Indie (oxymoronic indeed), the “little” film that could.  Not exactly art house fare, these films feature “quirky” characters doing “quirky” things.  And their success depends on the feelings that they arouse in their audiences.  While not the heavy sap of the typical “feel good” movie, there is a definite line of touchy-feely soft-and-fuzziness here.  Unlike Little Miss Sunshine, I actually enjoyed Juno.

Starring Ellen Page, who I had liked in Hard Candy (2005), and Superbad‘s (2007) Michael Cera, the film is heavily populated with likeable actors playing likeable characters.  And while the film is about teen pregnancy, specifically Ellen Page’s character Juno’s pregnancy, and even while it stirred some controversy and debate outside of itself, the film doesn’t really offer any serious emotional or polemic challenges for any of its characters.  The world of Juno, meant to represent Minnesota, is one of quick-witted, nice, sweet people, far kinder and gentler than anything I can think of.

Page is charming, carries across the character in a way that is very believable.  And the entire film relies on that specific thing, that she seems somewhat real, definitely enjoyable enough to follow around.  Screenwriter Diablo Cody, for whom, like Ellen Page, established a career for herself in Hollywood with the success of this movie, doesn’t really give challenges to Juno, none that she has any real trouble with.

When Juno finds herself pregnant, she’s pragmatic, plans an abortion, talks openly with the baby’s father, heads in to get the job done.  Encountering an oddball lone anti-abortionist protestor, a friend from school, and being told that her baby “has fingernails”, this pushes Juno to decide to take the baby to term and give it away.  While Cody gives Juno some of the sassy moxie that a 16 year old girl might put on to cover her insecurity and fear, Juno hardly misses a beat.  She makes her decision, everyone respects her for it, even her parents and then hunts for a middle class family to take the child.  She could have done it all on rollerskates it goes so easy.

It’s even her first couple she encounters that she gives the child to.  Her dad accompanies her and she gives the kid up without much thought, without wanting anything in return, and is supported and accepted.  Even when the slight challenge of the husband of the couple (Jason Bateman – who I have always liked) decides to ditch the marriage, partially inspired by his attraction to Juno, her funky character and love for music is in stark contrast to his waspy, uptight wife (Jennifer Garner), nothing really happens.  Bateman comes right out and says he’s leaving, there are no tears, no screaming…he even gets the divorce papers together without a hitch.

Clearly there is a point at which his character could have made a move on Juno.  Their intimate movie watching and guitar playing, even her potential attraction to him could have made things more complicated.  But no.  It’s all on the up-and-up and everything turns out hunky-dory.  What a wonderful world!  With a cutesy, easy soundtrack of simple vocal and guitar songs about cutesy love.

It is likeable.  I liked it.  But it’s such fantasy.  So Juno’s choices (no abortion, give away the baby in a “closed” adoption) are not challenged, though there is somewhat of a message given in this film even if it tries to avoid such things.  Even working things out with Cera’s character…is life ever really like that?

Why question it, I guess.  Kind of like why question the science in a bad science fiction film. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Leatherheads

Leatherheads (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. George Clooney
viewed: 04/15/08 at the Vogue Theater, SF, CA

George Clooney’s attempt at making a classically styled screwball comedy certainly has its heart in the right place and seems to have a ripe setting for a crack-up comedy, that of the pre-corporatized, barely legitimate “professional” football of the 1920’s.  I thought that the trailers looked cute.  Clooney had starred in a Coen Brothers attempt at a similar caprice, Intolerable Cruelty (2003), which though set in present times, somehow caught more of the feeling more of the time.  The problem with Leatherheads is simply that it only hits brief patches of the back-and-forth dialogue for little stints, enough to pepper a trailer, but not a full-length movie.

It’s affable.  Just not laughable.  Kind of like that cheap attempt at using two words that sound alike in contrast to one another.

Certainly, it’s enjoyable.  Clooney carries his charm well and co-star Renée Zellweger does a decent job with the character of the liberated, fast-talking female reporter who is out to land the big story by exposing a fraudulent war hero cum football hero.  Zellweger looks good in the clothes of this period, particularly the hats.  Maybe that’s why she makes so many films set in that time period.

Clooney sets himself as an aging football guy, casting himself close to his age and making jokes that even Zellweger is too young for him.  But there is a heavy sentimentalism in the film, for his quickly departing heyday, for the loss of a time when football was “fun”, for the period itself, and perhaps even for the screwball comedy in general.  Clooney’s direction lingers on things like the singing of “Over There” by a group of drunken football players and servicemen.  Even the ending, with him riding into the sunset, taking a changed way of life, jerks for the softer tears.

Not that that is so annoying.  I’ve seen worse.  It’s just that I had hoped for more.  The idea of this rough and rowdy day when men played pro football more for fun than money and glory, the sharp-witted dialogue, the whole package looked good.  What does it mean that when football got all the rules added and the commissioner came in that it all became “no fun”?  Is that a message that the NFL would like to portray?

I did have the thought that the film might have been better served by a different writer and director.  Maybe Clooney should play producer?  He seems attracted to interesting material.  Maybe the screwball comedy is simply one for the history books and the repertory houses.  No one who has tried it has really been able to capture the je ne sais qua of the early talkies.  Or am I wrong?

Southland Tales

Southland Tales (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Richard Kelly
viewed: 04/14/08

Man, this movie really was bad!

Director Richard Kelly, whose 2001 film Donnie Darko became a cult fixture, decided to go for the grandiose in his first follow up film, Southland Tales.  It’s apocalypse again, a strangely 1980’s brand of nuclear apocalypse, with nuclear bombs laying waste to Texas and other parts of the globe.  But then it’s heavily peppered with a blitz of current issues of terrorism and alternative energy and is set in what was the film’s present day of 2006.  The science fiction is of a near future, now passed, quickly less relevant.  It’s sprawling in scope and the number of characters that it tries to manage.  It’s a complete mess.

The number of B-list or lower celebrities who appear in the film is almost mind-numbing and a bit jarring as they appear.  The film stars Dwayne Johnson (nee “The Rock”), Sarah Michelle Gellar, and features a bunch of former Saturday Night Live cast members including John Lovitz, Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler, and Janeane Garafalo.  There are way too many to mention.  And actually, I didn’t even recall seeing Garafalo.  They vary greatly in what they offer to the film, but for me, I felt much more aware of who they were in real life than who they were supposed to be in the film.  I kind of think that may be part of the film’s pastiche-like qualities.

Kelly uses all kinds of techniques throughout the film, with a multitude of focal points.  The use of computer graphics and animation (occasionally put in as part of news reports) is very odd.  A lot of it is very cheap-looking.  Was that the intent or a result of cost-management?  The work is sprawling in so many ways.  There are so many double-crosses and moles and characters switching alliances and even doppelgangers that it’s hard to keep up with.  And mostly I didn’t care to bother trying.

It’s been 6 years since I watched Donnie Darko and the film has become a cultural touchpoint in that time, a genuine cult film.  Since then, Kelly wrote the script for the choppy but strangely entertaining Domino (2005), which was directed by Tony Scott.  And then this.  I’d read about it for a long time before it was released.  The production took a long time and when it hit Cannes in 2006 it got severely panned, which effected its theatrical cut and release, as well as its promotion.  Southland Tales got little hype, and now seeing it, it’s clear why that was the case.

Kelly’s vision of doom, poeticised, self-reflexive (Johnson’s precognition of the end of the world is written out in a screenplay that is coming true), glances through some grand vision of the world, with characters who are meant to represent all walks of society, from the grunts to the presidents.  And it’s meant to be comedic.  The comedy is also annoying.  It’s a combination of the broad and the arch when subtlety would perhaps have been much more apt

The word that kept coming to mind was “pastiche”.  The film tries to digest so much, for its vision to be so encompassing, and in the end it’s just convoluted and confusing, rarely ever clever.

The whole film is one big disaster.  It’s not unwatchable by any means, but it’s pretty bad.  This film, if it becomes a cult film, will be more along the Showgirls (1995) variety than the Donnie Darko hip coolness.