The Ruins

The Ruins (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Carter Smith
viewed: 07/30/08

Last summer, at the airport on my way to a brief vacation in Los Cabos, I espied the book The Ruins by Scott B. Smith, which was a horror novel set in the Yucatán peninsula, a part of Mexico that I had previously visited.  Even though I wasn’t headed to the Mayan part of Mexico, this seemed like fortuitous discovery, so I picked it up.

My reaction to reading it was simple: it’s a clever conceit and horror story, one that just seems like a movie waiting to happen.  Writer Scott B. Smith may well have been planning this all along.  His previous novel, A Simple Plan, was made into a moderately successful film by Sam Raimi in 1998 with Smith writing the script himself.  And with this book, begging to be translated to film, Smith again got the opportunity to write to screenplay.

But unlike A Simple Plan, which I thought of as a sort of poor man’s Fargo (1996), crime drama set against a lot of snow, The Ruins is a pretty pure genre concept, a monster movie, not exactly a psychological or character study.  It’s B-movie stuff all the way, though with cleverly-plotted gruesomeness.  I don’t know that this film really needed to be anything more than it is, really, not that it is great.  It’s a decent rendering, very much like one imagined everything in the novel.

It’s a group of Mayan Riviera partying 20-somethings who randomly decide to follow a German traveller into the jungle to find an “off the map” Mayan ruin where the German’s brother headed just a day or two previously with another small group.  Once there, the group is trapped on the ruins by a group of Mayans who speak no Spanish much less English.  And then there is this man-eating ivy stuff.

The film is pretty gruesome and gory, more so that one might expect.  But other than that, it’s kind of paint by numbers.  It’s painted okay.  It’s just not particularly interesting.  I found the predicament of the characters intriguing, trapped with no real hope of escape…but in the end, it’s not all that compelling.  Though there is some speculation that the monster is some ancient thing that the Maya have been trying to keep in check for centuries, what is this fear about exactly?  Americans believe that they will be missed and rescued, though are eaten up by some primordial nature?  Kind of like The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)?  Will they remake this as a musical in 25 years?

I doubt it.

The Bank Job

The Bank Job (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Roger Donaldson
viewed: 07/28/08

Based on the 1971 bank robbery known as the Baker Street robbery, The Bank Job is an attempt at revealing some complicated backstory that was hushed up along with the robbery.  How much of The Bank Job is fact or fiction probably doesn’t matter to most, though it is interesting that there is perhaps some true history there.  If so, it’s kind of scary.  But as a movie, it’s just pretty entertaining.

Starring Jason Statham, of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), Snatch (2000), and The Transporter (2002), and many other action films, it’s a caper film, a conspiracy film, and seemingly a historical film to an extent.  It’s directed by Roger Donaldson, who is one of those directors who has a few decent films to his resume (No Way Out (1987), Species (1995), and most recently before this, The World’s Fastest Indian (2005)), but isn’t really a stand-out of any kind.  (Also, it’s not that Species is good…but it’s good/bad as I recall.)

For some reason, I kept conflating the name and concept of this movie to 2003’s The Italian Job, which was actually a PG-13 remake of another movie.  I think it’s simply because the name is so simple that it almost is forgettable.

Maybe that is true enough with this film.

Statham shows about 3 centimeters of emotional range here, which is a stretch from his normal 1.5 centimeters.  He’s always got the same look on his face whatever movie he is in.  That said, he’s not a terrible leading man.  He’s less unlikeable perhaps due to restraint.  I don’t know.

The story is complicated, mixing bad beat cops, bad drug-dealing wannabe Black Power characters, bad government types, bad bad guys, and then our good bad guys, the low-level thieves that get mixed up in a bank heist arranged by the English equivalent of the CIA.  Everyone is out to get someone, everyone has something to lose.  And once the heist is over, that’s when the drama really starts.

It’s entertaining.  It’s not bad.  But it’s not particularly memorable either.  Kind of like its title perhaps.

The X-Files: I Want to Believe

The X-files: I Want to Believe (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Chris Carter
viewed: 07/25/08 at AMC Loews Metreon 16 with IMAX, SF, CA

Dude.  Was the last X-Files (1998) movie really 10 years ago?

Jeez.  No wonder I couldn’t find my last post on this.  I started in 2002.

I wasn’t a regular viewer of the show, even though I could tell it was the kind of thing that I would have loved if I was younger, having grown up on Kolchak: The Night Stalker and The Twilight Zone.  It just never clicked with me, though I wasn’t unappreciative of it, not an anti-fan.  I only saw the other movie when it hit DVD, and quite frankly, I didn’t really even have plans to see this one.  It was just a whim.

I only give those disclaimers since I managed to see this film the day it premiered and want to clarify that I am definitely not a fanatic.  Expectations were reasonably low, even with decent reviews.

The bottom line: I actually enjoyed it.

I don’t think it’s great stuff.  I don’t even think, necessarily, that it’s out and out cinematic.  But it’s enjoyable.  David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are likeable and fine, carrying less baggage than some former television shows that try to convert to film.  In fact, probably less baggage than in the last one.

The question is “The X-Files: Why?”.  It feels like culture has left this once relatively relevant show behind.  The movie is fairly clever, has its creepy and outlandish elements, but isn’t big by any means.  It’s no The Dark Knight (2008) nor Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) nor Iron Man (2008).  Heck, it’s not Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) for that matter.  It’s not the stuff of “man, I gotta get to the theater and see that movie!”

But it’s still good.  Or decent.  Respectable.  It’s no big film.  It’s got a good idea, a decent narrative, is entertaining enough, hardly reaches for the sky.  Is that a recommendation?  I don’t know.

I liked it well enough.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Guillermo del Toro
viewed: 07/25/08 at AMC Loews Metreon 16 with IMAX, SF, CA

Back in 2004, I ventured to the theater to see the “original” Hellboy, which was also directed by Guillermo del Toro, a director who has moved out of the moderate obscurity into the relative mainstream with the success of his last film, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), which gave him his alternate art house cred to match his action film cred.  Del Toro’s career can be seen as two pronged, even though those prongs share similarities and aesthetic characteristics.  His first side is his oldest side, in a sense, starting with his 1993 film Cronos, an odd vampire film from Mexico, with objects of blood extraction embodied in mechanical insects.  Again in this vein, he made the very fine, The Devil’s Backbone (2001), which in many ways reflects his later work in Pan’s Labyrinth.

But del Toro also has his films that “pay the bills”.  These are the action films, horror films, genre crap that in other hands is easily forgettable dreck.  But for del Toro, being somewhat of an auteur, his films from both the “highbrow” and the “lowbrow” seem to fit reasonably well together, and they share his keen design aesthetic, not just as a filmmaker but as an art designer.  His first of these was 1997’s Mimic, a sci-fi film with Mira Sorvino and giant cockroaches in the NY subway system.  He later made Blade II (2002), a sequel to another genre action film and then the moderate failure of Hellboy, which was pretty lame (I saw it in the brief period that I was not updating this thing).

I’d heard that Hellboy II: The Golden Army was an improvement on the first, which was fine but forgettable.  I’d even heard decent buzz about it.

But you know, it’s not really a whole lot better.

At its best, Hellboy II features a calvalcade of designs of del Toro’s monster notebook, which is actually really kind of neat.  Lots of interestingly designed monsters and landscapes, which are pretty fun.  And I like Ron Perlman as Hellboy.  The design of the character is both cartoony and plastic, yet visually appealing.  And his oddball cast of characters, creatures and weirdities.  I’ve never read the comic from which it was adapted so I can’t comment back on that.  But it’s fine.

But the movie was only decent at best, which are its action pieces and broader comedy.

When it strives toward emotion, the sentiment of romance, soppy friendship, love, significance…well it’s even crappier than the Barry Manilow song that it utilizes ironically in one of its more comic sequences.  Even though the film makes fun of itself and its characters in points, there are other points of genuine attempts at true heartstring-plucking.  And there, it’s just downright embarrassing.  It makes you feel foolish for sitting there.

In the end, it was not that good of a movie.  It’s entertaining enough, but it makes you wonder how deep is the depth of the stronger work of Guillermo del Toro.  If he is truly an auteur, not just a stylist, then there should be more to mine and fewer grimaces to bear.

The Sweet Hereafter

The Sweet Hereafter (1997) movie poster

(1997) dir. Atom Egoyan
veiwed: 07/21/08

It’s hard to get excited about seeing a film about a busload of children dying in a frozen lake after a crash.  Maybe it’s just me.

I guess that’s why it took me so long to get around to seeing Atom Egoyan’s critically acclaimed film about just such a thing.  Why I finally queued it up and watched it,…I don’t know.

Set in Canada, though based on a novel by Russell Banks who based his novel on a true incident in Texas, the film follows the lives of several of the town’s grieving parents following an accident that killed 21 children, leaving only one teenage girl and the bus driver alive.  And the blood-sucking attorney who whips into town to try and cast blame and stir up a lawsuit, though it is clear to many that the accident was simply an accident, no one was to blame.

Clearly, there is a critique of litigous ambulance chasers, embodied in Ian Holmes’ frozen-hearted lawyer, who is a professional leach on tragedy.  Other hot button issues are glanced upon, drug addiction, HIV, child abuse, among them.  Maybe this additional litany of things seemed a bit much.

The film is set in the snow of winter in a small town, beautifully shot and rendered.  The acting leans toward the naturalistic, embuing most of the townsfolk as good-hearted people who are honest, though perhaps also flawed and damaged.  The film is well-done in many respects, haunting and sad.  The narrative swings back and forth through time, before and after the accident, quite effectively developing its characters and tone.

Sarah Polley is completely angelic, playing the one teenage survivor who becomes paralyzed below the waist as a result of the accident.

Egoyan, who I was not particularly a fan of before, does good work here.  The parallel the film draws between The Pied Piper of Hamelin and the lost children of the town resonates initially, but then kind of gets re-enforced again and again, as if it was hard to make such a connection.

Well, when you’re in the mood for a movie about a school bus full of children perishing in a frozen lake and the hard-hearted attorney who comes to try to leach of the town’s misery,…this is the film for you.

Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten

Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Julien Temple
viewed: 07/20/08

Director Julien Temple already made one excellent documentary about the 1970’s English punk scene, The Filth and the Fury (2000), a revisioning and revisiting of the Sex Pistols which really contextualized their songs in the culture of Britain at the time.   Eight years later, he approaches the period again, this time in a film in tribute to Joe Strummer, the leader of the Clash, perhaps still worth considering as “the only band that matters.”

Temple’s career has been pretty much married to music, starting with early work with the Pistols in their day, then music videos, movies with David Bowie, and on and on.  I’ve read that his documentary, Glastonbury (2006) is also good.  He knows the musicians and his interviewees seem to be fairly loose and comfortable, which works for these documentaries, these somewhat oral hisotries of the punk scene.

Temple seats most of his interviewees around campfires, reminiscing while flames flicker on their faces, an interesting aesthetic, but also a tribute to Strummer’s appreciation for campfires and the culture of sharing around them.  Temple also interweaves snippets of a radio show that Strummer compiled, playing music from his diverse fields of taste and influence, which is part of Strummer’s main “voice” in the film.

The movie begins with radio announcements of Strummer’s untimely death at age 50 from a congenital heart defect that he’d never known about.  And from there it goes back to his birth, to the family of a diplomat, and his diverse youth spent in several different countries, surrounded by different cultures and languages.  All this comes to influence the man who would be the leader of one of the most diverse and political of punk bands.  His years in boarding school and his middle class background put him in an odd place since he clearly identified with the working class and oppressed people arond the world.

I’ve seen a couple of documentaries about the Clash and quite a few about the music scene in general.  Don Letts’ The Clash: Westway to the World (2000) had the benefit of interviews with Strummer in his later years, the strongest part of a fairly weak film.  And most recently, I had watched Rude Boy (1980), a pseudodocumentary made during the Clash’s hedey which benefitted from lots of live footage of the band while they were still up and coming.

But Julien Temple has certainly added to his work in the documenting of the music scene.  Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten is a well-crafted, interesting film about one of the most intellectual and important leaders of the UK punk scene and man who made a difference.

High School Confidential!

High School Confidential (1958) movie poster

(1958) dir. Jack Arnold
viewed: 07/19/08

I’m not sure how this film shot up in my queue.  There are a couple of possibilities.  As a teenage drug exploitation film from the 1950’s, there is always that exploitation angle.  Or perhaps, via my current non-cinematic appreciation of early rock-n-roll music, I might have discovered that like the much more fun and entertaining, The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), that it featured rock-n-roll performances, in this case only one, by Jerry Lee Lewis, “Rockin’ at the High School Hop”, which could have appealed.  Or even by the fact that it was also directed by Jack Arnold, he of It Came from Outer Space (1953), The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and Tarantula (1955), of many, many others, could have been why or perhaps the lynchpin.

The film does feature a plethora of hipster lingo (or Hollywood’s nodding attempt at emulating hipster lingo of the time), pot smoking, a beatnik-style jazzy poetry recital, car racing, and needle marks.  How racy was this at the time?  The production values are pretty high so I don’t know how low down the exploitation ladder this goes.

The film stars Russ Tamblyn as the transfer kid (who is really an undercover cop trying to bust the drug ring — thus the “Confidential!”).  And it also features Mamie Van Doren and Jackin Coogan (The Addams Family‘s Uncle Fester for those who do not know) as the drug kingpin and jazz pianist.

It’s entertaining enough.  Quite so.  And oddly enough, an interesting comparative film with Fresh (1994), the Hood genre film made 40 years later, focusing on drugs and kids and culture and language (though dramatically differently).  I certainly hadn’t planned to watch them as a double feature.  It just worked out that way.

It’s a cultural keepsake.  Probably a great midnight movie.  The vernacular is definitely its best characteristic.

Fresh

Fresh (1994) movie poster

(1994) dir. Boaz Yakin
viewed: 07/19/08

Recommended by a friend during a conversation about the brief burst of African-American inner city crime films that came out in the 1990’s that were directed largely by African American directors, Fresh was admittedly one of the films that I hadn’t seen.  We talked more about Boyz n the Hood (1991) (the film that started it all) and Menace II Society (1993), which were the two that had stood out for me, though there were so many at the time that eventually even a parody film was made: Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (1996), which amusingly tried to capture a little of every film title it lampooned in one breath.

Well, Fresh, for me, is not all that fresh.

I can see some of the appeal, focusing on the story of a 12 year old drug dealer in New York City, the film has a lot of nice location shooting, capturing city views that are also part of this image of a city ever-changing and brutal.  The dialogue and story itself are the film’s strong points, and also the performance of 12 year old Sean Nelson as Fresh, the boy who is older and wiser than his years.

But the film suffers from some poor acting around him.  When Samuel L. Jackson shows up as Fresh’s father, suddenly the bad acting looks even worse in contrast to the one guy in the film who knows how to deliver a line.  Additionally, the music is weak (which it surprisingly turned out to have been composed by The Police’s Stewart Copeland who has done good work in the past).  The music is in stark contrast to the world it depicts, standard, light fare that has more the feel of an after-school movie of the 1980’s than of a film about inner city drugs and kids.  I often felt that using no soundtrack would have been more profound at many times.

The story is strong to a point.  Fresh is outside of his family, his adoptive family, his friends, even his drug dealing elders, in that he is far wiser than anyone else, perhaps even his drunk chess playing father who teaches him about gamemanship.  As things spiral apart, though, it’s still hard to swallow that the kid is clever enough to pull a Red Harvest-like trick on the two major drug dealers he works with, playing them against one another to free himself and his sister.

The most poignant and powerful scene in the movie, though, is when he decides to kill his pet dog.  It’s well-shot and really strikes home.

Overall, though, and it’s been years since I’ve seen this group of films, which seem to have developed the moniker of “hood films”, so it’s hard to say comparatively.  But it’s interesting, probably a pretty interesting genre to reassess.

The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Christopher Nolan
viewed: 07/18/08 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

After re-working the Batman franchise with 2005’s Batman Begins, director Christopher Nolan’s follow-up, The Dark Knight (pleasantly simply titled sans colons and so forth), has been hotly anticipated.  Of course, that anticipation only skyrocketed with the death of actor Heath Ledger, whose performance in this film of the Joker is bound to become one of the iconic images of not just the genre, but of film characters in general.  And the film has taken on an added darkness and interest, morbid as it is, that has people lining up around the blocks as I write.  It only premiered last night at midnight.

Ledger’s performance is by and far the most stand-out thing in the film, which is saying something because the film is a pretty solid action film, pleasantly much more grounded in physical special effects and relying far less on digital than any other of its superhero bretheren of 2008 summer entertainment.  There is something much more tangible in the setting and characters, even with some pretty big set pieces and some flashy action (I can only imagine the gushing excitement many fellows probably feel when they see the emergence of the bat-motorcycle, which is pretty damn slick).

The character of the Joker pervades the film with a maniacal, anarchic villainy, a detached sense of evil, an evil that isn’t anything more than chaos, a destructive, unflappable villain who simply acts to act.

The film plays up some dualities, leading up to the creation of the other villain of the film, Harvey Dent (a.k.a. Two-Face), who is the literalization of the goals of good versus evil, the “white knight” versus “the dark knight”, who in the end mirrors the image of his scarified two headed coin, in whose randomness he seeks direction in meting out justice and punishment.  The Joker, who sends Dent on his merry way into madness and villainy, is far more interesting, lacking either side of the coin, who is all about the flip and not about the results.

While this dualism or duality plays significantly throughout and can probably be traced throughout Batman/Bruce Wayne’s narrative trajectory in the film as well, it’s not so overdone that you’re choking on it.  While the film is not exactly subtle, it embeds its strength the the chaos and unexplained character of the Joker.  He offers more than one little faux backstory about how his face became mutilated into a permanent smile, indicating that nothing is really true that he says.

It’s clear from the arc of the story that there were plans for a follow-up film with Heath Ledger as the Joker, carrying forth the chaos that he ignited in this film.  And with Ledger’s sad and untimely death, there will be a severe challenge to any reimagining of this character again anytime soon.  From the art design of the splotchy make-up and stringy, barely green hair to the dapper yet slummish suits, he’s a well-created figure, an image that we’ll be living with for some time to come.

Overall, the film is good stuff.  It’s dark.  It’s heavy.  It’s not the peppiest of the summer action films, but I think anyone could have seen that coming.

It will be interesting to see what they do with the next one.

The World

The World (2004) movie poster

(2004) dir. Zhang Ke Jia
viewed: 07/14/08

I’ve been developing an appreciation for director Zhang Ke Jia’s films this year, starting with Unknown Pleasures (2002) and more recently with Still Life (2006), but it wasn’t until I saw this film, The World, that I think I have fully crystalized my appreciation of his work.

Zhang Ke Jia is considered part of China’s Sixth Generation filmmakers, noted for a somewhat neo-realist feel or cinéma vérité, using many non-actors, shooting on digital, and shooting with long takes.  I can’t fully say since I haven’t seen the films of the other directors, though all of those characteristics can be applied to Zhang’s films.

The World, as I understand it, was his only big budget production, shot on location in Beijing’s The World amusement park, a park that promises that you can see all the world without leaving Beijing.  And it features a 1/3-size replica of the Eiffel Tower, areas with Manhattan, the Giza pyramids, Big Ben, and lots of others.  And the story, a somewhat meandering semi-melodrama about two park workers, who are in a relationship, is set amidst and in contrast to this world within the world, this world of replicas, of Capitalism, of pretense and show.

While Zhang employs a lot of non-actors, sometimes more obviously, in his films, all three of his films have also starred Zhao Tao, his female protagonist in each film, here the costume-changing performer, who moves from culture to culture in the shows and roles she plays in the park throughout the film.  Her boyfriend, who moved up with her from the villages, begins the film as a security guard, but shifts into the black market underground evolving into something different.

Much of the contrasts and representations are easy to see: many scenes, both significant and more extraneous, play out against the backgrounds of these iconic grand cultural wonders.  The characters are small against them, even the shrunken versions of the world’s treasures.  Many long to travel, many can’t imagine leaving, as their dramas are enacted within this strange and ironic place.

Zhang Ke Jia clearly saw what kind of potential he could evoke from these images, from these narratives.  His critiques on culture and identity in the changing face of China are both broad and subtle.  But what really, really blew my mind was the cinematography and visual compositions.  His handling of the camera is masterful.  Some scenes play out in quite long takes, with the camera purposefully moving around the scene in a quiet, yet omniscient fashion, but always caputuring the important images, tracking up to the image into some beautiful ways.

This film is much more than the description that I give it here.  It has all this aesthetic and cultural commentary, a compelling narrative with good and meaningful characters, and in a sense, an epic breadth of types.  But this film, which I also think is his most accessible that I have seen, is also just simply a thing of greatness.