New Moon

New Moon (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Chris Weitz
viewed: 03/29/10

The second film of the “Twilight” (2008) series, New Moon is the second in a current series of four stories, originally young adult novels by the author Stephanie Meyers.  It’s one of the biggest phenoms in a rather busy field of series of novels for the young reader set.  I’ve never read any of the books, nor do I currently plan to read any of them, but I did see Twilight and for some reason felt like keeping up at least on DVD with the teenage Joneses.

But frankly, New Moon is a major yawn of a film.  Directed by Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass (2007) and About a Boy (2002) among others), the film has no major strengths, following in the casting steps and narrative directions set in the original film.  But perhaps most challenging is the namby-pamby-ness of the narrative.  There just isn’t a lot going on here.

Bella, the human girl who fell for the teenage-forever vampire Edward in Twilight is still seeing him here, but as she turns the ripe old age of 18 is already fearing the future when she’s an old lady and he’s still and young and vibrant as ever.  She wants him to make her a vampire but he doesn’t want to do that because she’ll lose her soul (which she doesn’t believe in).  Their little romantic scuffle leads Edward to flee with his family from the area (to protect Bella from other vampires that seek to kill her to piss him off).  And so, Juliet is bereft of her romeo.

Step in Taylor Lautner, along with his massively chiseled body, the local native-American lad, who is as sweet and true as purity itself.  Bella, mourning her relationship with Edward, starts a solid friendship with Jake (Lautner), but still she holds him at “friends'”-arm-length.  But then he literally “gets hot” for her and has to run off to discover what’s going on in his teenage body.  Turns out that he’s a werewolf and the werewolves typically fight the vampires to save humans, but nobody knows this big secret.

Long story short, Edward appeals to a vampire Vatican to kill him, when he believes that Bella is dead.  This leads to some other dramas around saving him, Bella wanting to be a vampire, laws, rules, regulations, and ultimately, only at the very end, a near skirmish between the two beaus, vampire and werewolf.

Mostly the film is a lot of romantic innuendo, bad moody pop songs meant to convey tone and emotion, lots of sullen brooding.  You see, like the bloodless vampries (who don’t drink human blood), we also have sexless teenagers.  Not only is nobody having sex, they hardly ever get to kiss without interruption.  It’s all love without the sex.  I noted before that this is not surprisingly why this flies so well in middle America.  Abstinence is truly the best method of protection against pregnancy, STD’s, and vampire bites.

But really, the whole thing is BORING.  B O R I N G ! B O R I N G ! B O R I N G ! B O R I N G !

I don’t know.  Maybe I’m just not your typical teenage girl, but I just cannot sink my teeth into this series.  I did manage to like Kristen Stewart a bit more than before, which I’d started to do after Adventureland (2009).  Lautner is a nice hunk.  Robert Pattinson (Edward) is a modern day, emo version of Luke Perry.   Heck, in reality, Beverly Hills 90210 had a lot more drama and complexity in one episode than this series manages to pack in.  Will I be back for the next installment?  Probably.  But not enthusiastically and not til DVD.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Diary of a Wimpy Kid (2010) movie poster

(2010) dir. Thor Freudenthal
viewed: 03/27/10 at AMC Loews Metreon 16, SF, CA

Adapted from the popular kids’ book series by Jeff Kinney, Diary of a Wimpy Kid is one of those things that I’ve come to know as a parent.  The books are printed in a hand-written looking script, meant to be the actual “diary” or journal of Greg Heffley, the self-procalimed “wimpy kid” and populated with lots of simplistic but amusing cartoons.  And since Felix is learning to read, they’ve been the ideal motivator for him, so I’ve probably caught dozens of several page snippets but never a full book.

The self-depricating humor about a boy entering into the hell years of middle school seem to speak to the elementary school kids below that age.  He’s got a bullying older brother, a drooling younger brother, semi-clueless parents, and friends that have less social acuity than even him.  And then there is school, popularity, humiliation, and all sorts of other things to make life miserable.

The film, though, is a live-action film, starring your typical cast of young people, some of whom are quite good, but fulfilling long-standing cliches of nerdiness or bitchiness or bullyishness.  So, when it comes as a film, it’s a whole lot more like other things that we’ve seen before, even with Greg addressing the audience directly or in vocie-over about his personal takes on the world, its hopes and its cruelties.

I have to say that the kids liked it, particularly Felix.  He sat with a big grin on his face through much of it and laughed out loud often.  He very much appreciates the humor and ironies of much of the material.  Clara enjoyed it too, but perhaps less blatantly.  Then again, Felix liked the animated parts and seemed a little ambivalent afterwards.

The film does use animation to refer the characters back to their simple, not so obvious cartoon counterpoints, for recognition sake, I would guess.   I suppose that this film might have worked better as animation in general, but the simple drawing style doesn’t offer itself particularly to the big screen.  It’s very 2-D and goes well as a diary/comic.  But the stories, transposed on real actors, are a little more pedestrian, even when quite funny.

And one thing in particular struck me.  Greg’s character, for his neurotic concern about popularity (which isn’t analyzed in any fashion whatsoever — like what is the benefit of popularity exactly?), he shows that he is a very self-centered and egotistical person and ultimately not a good friend.  He sells out Rowley, his chubby best pal, in a case of mistaken identity punishment.  And the very cute older girl (who is a bit of an Avril Lavigne look-alike) who represents the opposition to conformitive thinking is shut out like she’s made of “cheese touch” (cooties on steroids). And while the story arc for Greg is that he realizes all this, it’s a somewhat hollow re-connection with his buddy and acceptance of the social strata being what it is.

So, really, it is a rather mediocre example of a kids’ film.  But interestingly, it’s the first that we’ve gone to see that is of this ilk (we don’t watch Disney Channel or Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network so we haven’t gone through the phase of the kid-oriented live-action shows).  It’s perhaps a corner that they turn from kid to tween.  I’m not pushing for that turn.  And this film isn’t the gateway drug to those types of entertainments, luckily.

The books are still just about right.

Greenberg

Greenberg (2010) movie poster

(2010) dir. Noah Baumbach
viewed: 03/26/10 at CineArts at the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Writer/director Noah Baumbach’s latest film is a step up from his last film, Margot at the Wedding (2007), but it’s also not quite as fulfilling as his best film, The Squid and the Whale (2005).  And actually, Baumbach has struck a great partnership with Wes Anderson on some of Anderson’s best films including Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), which I think has led to the best films between the two of them.  But ranking a film against others is not such a useful strategy.

Greenberg stars Ben Stiller, who I don’t always care for, in a role of the more “serious” and “actorly” than his broad comedies.  He is Greenberg, a 41 year old man who, following a nervous breakdown, comes to live in his brother’s house in LA while they are on vacation in Vietnam.  He’s a man “stuck” in himself, narcissitic, angry, bitter, and yet maybe an okay guy.  Stiller is quite good in the role, giving the character only the most modicum amount of charm.  He’s not easy to like.

Opposite Stiller is the polar opposite, Greta Gerwig (who I started liking from Baghead (2008) and The House of the Devil (2009)).  In many ways, she’s almost as critical to the story as Greenberg.  The film opens with her, after having walked a dog, her face fills the screen, looking to the right while she drives across Los Angeles.  She is the full picture and the background is zipping past her.  She has direction?  But she has a natural human loveliness of a girl that you met at a party and probably dreampt of all night.  She’s a beautiful girl, but a regular, real person, both physically and in her character’s demeanor.

She is Florence, Greenberg’s brother’s hired assistant, running errands, walking the dog, buying groceries.  And at 25, she’s a bit of a score for Greenberg, but he can’t hardly see that.  His issues, agoraphobia, self-loathing, misanthropy make him utterly self-involved.  It’s actually amazing that she likes him.  But her character has what his character utterly lacks, self-awareness of a sort and sensitivity to others.

Actually, her life is perhaps also a bit unsettled.  Having just ended a long-term relationship, her entire life is being a part of a family of which she is not family.  She is notably not invited on the vacation, but she does everything for them.  And her small apartment, small life, at 25, has yet to come to crisis about such a situation.  Her sensitivity and kindness will probably allow things to work out for her.

Greenberg, though, is stuck somewhere within himself, not really living in the past, but certainly not in the present.  He hides in the house from the neighbors, and when he digs up his old friends from a band he was in as a younger person, he manages to alienate everyone across the board.  The one creature that he seems to develop a caring for is his brother’s ailing German shepherd.  He’s living in the family house, but not within the family.

It takes pretty much the entire film for Greenberg to wake up at all.  And, if anything, the film’s wry humor bursts onto screen perhaps a little too infrequently.  It’s a detailed and dedicated study of a man, perhaps an age?, are we all a little Greenbergian?  But it’s kind of harsh and unlikeable.  In Margot at the Wedding, Baumbach made Margot such a bitch that her redemption at the end seemed a little too late and a little too trying.  In Greenberg there is more balance to the equation, but it’s still not a very happy film.

Gerwig is lovely.  She’s come up through the mumblecore movement and smaller independent films and this film will no doubt open doors for her.  Baumbach’s camera gives her the full breadth of the screen, and she is a tender, belieavable young California girl.

For Baumbach, it’s another good film.  But I have to say that I prefer the stuff that he works on with Wes Anderson.  Some mixture of the two of them bring out something much more lively, cheering, and significant.  Still, it’s interesting stuff.

The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day

The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Troy Duffy
viewed: 03/26/10

A long time coming, and in some ways almost surprising that it came at all, The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day is the sequel to the 1999 film The Boondock Saints, both written and directed by Troy Duffy.  The original film is a good slice of late 1990’s indie cinema, a sort of genre picture, bubbling with strange characters, surprising twists, and violence in amplitude.  And really, the story behind the story is almost as interesting as the story itself, captured in the documentary Overnight (2003) which followed the rise and fall of Duffy through the production of the film.  And at the end of it, you had to wonder if anyone would ever work with him again.

Well, not only did he get this film made, but he actually managed to get all the primary actors back to reprise their roles.  The first film followed the happenstances that led to two Irish brothers becoming “the saints”, self-created vigilantes, inspired by Catholocism and vengeance to bring all of the mafia baddies in Boston to meet their makers and becoming cult heroes.  And like the brothers, the characters became cult favorites.  So in returning to the screen, the brothers must be brought back to wreak more of their violent righteousness upon the heads of all the villains in Boston.

But really, the story is pretty damn convoluted.  Not that the first story wasn’t pretty convoluted, but it sort of spun as it was happening, so you thought it through less perhaps.  The sequel gives backstory to the boys’ father, Billy Connolly, and his initiation into the world of vengeful retribution.  And seeds of the past are meant to be reaped in the events that bring the boys back from Ireland to bring another wave of destruction on the city.  A Catholic priest is murdered in a church in the style of the boys’ crimes, meant to imply their responsibility and to affront their sense of rightness and make them come back to kill.

But the film, unlike its predecessor, lacks the the elements that made it work.  One could say that it’s the je ne sais quoi that is missing, sense the film is populated with lots of “characters” and quirks and comic elements, fuck-filled dialogue, but this time most things go “clunk”.  The timing and cleverness aren’t there and the script goes for so many wild rants and analogies about brutal anal sex that you squirm more in just hearing the writer at his work, trying to come up with more wild catchphrases and striving painfully to be funny.

Duffy clearly sets himself up for yet another sequel with the ways that the story leaves off.  I don’t know if he’ll get to make it or not, but I hope that he manages to find whatever little element that he lost between these two films.

The actress Julie Benz caught my eye.  She plays the new FBI special agent assigned to the Saints’ case.  She’s nattily-clad and sexy, given the role of the hot and smart detective.   And it’s clear that Duffy expects our tongues to be lolling on the floor over her like we’re wolves in a Tex Avery cartoon.  And I did a little, but then the way he shoots her gets more and more obvious and over-the-top (not gratuitously sexual, but just gratuitous).  The camera lingers on her longer and longer as wind machines blow her hair as she struts through a gun fight sequence.  This is perhaps some sort of exemplar of Duffy’s problem.  He’s a little too aware of what he’s got that is strong and tries to give more and more of it even when it’s not necessary.  Like this sequel, perhaps.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Niels Arden Oplev
viewed: 03/23/10 at the Embarcadero Cinema, SF, CA

Adapted from the novel by Stieg Larsson, the late author of what is known as the “Millenium” trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first cinematic adaptation of the popular Swedish thriller series.  The book seems quite popular here in the US, but apparently is even bigger back in Europe.  It’s an interesting, though semi-tragic story how Larsson, a journalist, had written these three books and submitted them to his publisher but died before they were published.  This whole thing has become big after his death.

The book, which I read earlier this year, is a complex mystery involving ritualistic serial murders, Naziism, corporate intrigue, and a sort of “locked room” mystery at its core.  Really, though, I think perhaps the most compelling thing in the book is the character of Lisbeth Salander, a gothy punk misanthropist who specializes as a computer hacker and detective.  She’s a tough little gal whose been through hell and she teams up with Mikael Blomkvist, a dedicated journalist who had been set up in a libel suit that nearly ruined him.  She’s 25.  He’s 40 something.

She’s the “girl with the dragon tattoo.”

Actually, the title in Swedish translates as “Men who Hate Women”, which has bearing on the story because the book is focused on heinous crimes against women.  The anglocised title actually rings a lot better and goes along with the latter books, The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, which I believe are already in production.

What’s interesting in this film is the role of adaptation from popular texts featuring characters who have become iconic from the written page yet never portrayed visually.  There was a massive casting effort to find someone to play Lisbeth and they wound up finding a pretty spot-on actress in Noomi Rapace.  She looks exactly as I’d imagined her and she plays the character with just the right tone.  But like a lot of other cinematic adaptation series, like Harry Potter or even The X-Men, there is so much effort to not spoil the character and to try to be true to the story for the fans that the actual work of making a good movie is almost secondary.

Personally, I thought that the book was somewhat bloated.  It took me well over 100 pages to get involved (though I did get involved) and the film, at 2 1/2 hours, has a bloated quality to it as well, even though they trimmed a lot of side plots down to try to capture it all.  Typically, thrillers or mysteries, being genre creations, work best when tight, perhaps even concise.  And yet, with all the trimming that they did with this film, there is a lot still to pack in, and oddly enough, the loss of some of the storylines oversimplifies Salander’s character and her relationship with Blomkvist.

What I did like particularly, was seeing the settings portrayed in the film.  Set in both Stockholm and on a northern island of Sweden, the landscape plays a key role in the story.  A girl has gone missing in the 1960’s, from an island with only one bridge connecting it to the mainland, which was blocked at the time of her disappearance.  Blomkvist is hired to help to solve the mystery of who killed her and why, by her uncle the reigning patriarch of a once powerful business empire.  So seeing the northern landscapes really was enlightening.

But I did ask myself, ultimately, why I went to see this film.  Well, obviously I like movies and mysteries, etc., but why is it compelling to see a story you’ve read visualized onscreen, portrayed  by actors, constructed by other storytellers, interpreting everything for you and simplifying and paring it down?  Isn’t the book the better place to be?  And obviously the reason that they made this film was because they knew people would want to see it and that it also would potentially expand the readership of the books, too.  It’s money.

Adaptation is an interesting problem at any time, but particularly constrained by expectation when adapting a beloved story or character, playing to a fan club if you will.  And frankly, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, while it certainly “got some things right”, it also sort of flopped for me.  I kind of wished that I’d seen it with someone who hadn’t read the book to know how much sense the story made to them.  I also understand that there will likely be an American adaptation of the novel which will obviously be given some significant creative license.

But as well, the second book, The Girl who Played with Fire, was released yesterday in paperback (the final book of the series is to be published in the US in May, I believe), and I went out and bought it and started reading it.  I had planned to read it once it was in paperback.  But perhaps I am just feeding the fire that I just criticized by doing so.

The Beaches of Agnès

The Beaches of Agnès (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Agnès Varda
viewed: 03/22/10

It’s been a little over a year since I saw Agnès Varda’s documentary The Gleaners and I (2000), which I had long planned to see, but in that year, and largely from inspiration of seeing that film, I have caught a few more of her earlier films and have grown to really like and appreciate her work.  Varda is perhaps most famous for being the lone female director who was associated with the French New Wave, in particular her films Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) and Le bonheur (1965).  But when I had read about The Beaches of Agnès, her autobiographical documentary, I was pretty excited to see it.

It’s hard not to think of this film without considering The Gleaners and I, because that film seems to have kicked off a renaissance of sorts for Varda, who fell in love with the light, mobile, digital camera that she used to make a documentary, freed from much of the production requirements of a big shoot and allowed to find this particular voice, this same voice with which she turns the camera upon herself.

The film opens with the first of many staged installation-like settings, on a beach with a multitude of various old mirrors set to reflect at angles and vantages.  This is one of her two large metaphors for the work of this film: she is reflecting upon herself, liking the mirrors, as she does personally, but also comparing the interior being of hers to that of a beach, being that her life has so long revolved around or near them.  She also spends time in many of these settings walking backwards.  For her, self-reflection or at least a dwelling upon the past is not a comfortable habit, but God knows she has the material for it.

She looks back to her childhood, born in Belgium, and raised in parts of France, partially during WWII, to her experience as an 18-year old, traveling to the south and taking a job repairing fishing nets.  It is after this that she studies photography and begins to develop her interest in the world of both still and moving images.  Her approach is largely chronological, light, humorous, flitting, full of play and puns and visual jokes.  In some ways, these two films (of hers that I have seen) have the most pronounced “voice”, literally too because she narrates them.

One has to wonder, now that Varda is 82 and has made films about both her life and the life of her late husband, the filmmaker Jacques Demy, whether this is the end cap to her career, some final comment cinematically at least.  Her life is certainly interesting, from the provincal beginnings to the Cannes and other film festival awards, living briefly in California, marriage, children, social activism, and art.  She is a lovely character, fun and funny, someone that you’d love to spend an afternoon with.

Another thing that struck me was that how in Hollywood, only this very year, it was the first time that a woman was ever recognized by the establishment (the Oscars) as Best Director and how Varda (who was hardly the first important female filmmaker) started making films in the 1950’s and had won international acclaim by the 1960’s.  It’s truly shocking that women haven’t had more opportunities for recognition, even 50 years later, that such a trailblazer, who blazed a trail more out of happenstance than pure drive, would be still such an anomaly.

For me, The Gleaners and I is still a preferred film, in that its play and discovery are so fresh, and while not like jazz in the literal sense, it is also freeform and flowing and clever.  The Beaches of Agnès also has great charm and character, though much the same character as the other film.  The subject matter is both more singular and more expansive, heart-warming, largely, but less “new”.  And I have renewed my vows to watch more of her films this year.

Duma

Duma (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Carroll Ballard
viewed: 03/20/10

When this film first caAdd an Imageme out five years ago, my kids were considerably younger, but the reviews stayed with me, which were very positive and I long planned to view it with them.  In our visits to the DVD-shop, I’d occasionally pointed it out to Felix, who either claimed to have seen it or offered other forms of disinterest.  So, when the occasion arrived, I decided to just rent the damn thing and show it to them and see what they thought.

They really enjoyed it.

Directed by Carroll Ballard who has made few films but almost all of them films for children about humans and animals, all of which have been well-received and yet unseen by me, including The Black Stallion (1979), Never Cry Wolf (1983), and Fly Away Home (1996).  This film concerns the relationship between a boy and a cheetah.  Perhaps not supremely high in pure originality but this film is made with great humanism, integrity, and care.

Set in South Africa, a young boy and his father come across an orphaned cheetah cub while traveling across country.  They take the cub home to their farm and raise it as a pet or sibling, though the father tells the son that it is a wild animal whose nature requires it to return to the wilderness when it grows up.  Unfortunately, when this time comes, the dad dies and the child and his mother are forced to lease the farm and move to the city, which unsurprisingly turns out to be no place for a cheetah.  So the boy picks up his father’s mantle and decides to return the cheetah to the location where they found it (leaving his mom a note).

Across the African landscape, the boy take the cheetah north and east in an old motorcycle with a passenger attachment.  Of course, they run out of petrol and wind up in the desert wilderness, where they meet a traveling tribesman, looking to return to his tribe from an attempt at making a go of life in the city.  The man is a little threatening and disconcerting in that he wants to cash in on the cheetah rather than purely help the lad.  But after a series of adventures, they wind up developing a close relationship.

It’s not that the concept is so unique.  Perhaps we have seen things like this before (though maybe not with a cheetah).  I was brought to mind occasionally of Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), though the film is not so transcendant nor meaningful, but the white child in the bush with a native of the land have parallels that are not ridiculous to draw together.

The film starts wordlessly with the world of the cheetahs and the baboons and lions, how the mother of the babies is killed by the hunting lion pride.  And the story is told in an earnest and naturalistic way, cutting out the uber cliches about life and meaning, and yet still touching upon the nature of life and death.  It’s a rare thing, an animal film, that insults no one’s intelligence.  I’m not trying to get into the politics of animal protection here, but to say that it does a fine job in its way.

The kids actually loved it.  Clara was gaga over the baby cheetah and they both loved the bush baby than joins the group.  They were totally wound up when the got dumped into the river with the crocodiles and had to fight their way to shore.  The films glimpses the broad range of the major animals of the African landscape from ostriches and rhinos to hippos and hyenas, lions, baboons, warthogs, giraffes.

This is a rock solid film of its kind.  The kind of children’s film about the realtionship between a child and an animal, a child and the concept of the wild vs. the tamed, a child and the understanding of life and death.  It’s not perhaps the utterly transcendently amazing type of film, but it is the kind of film you can watch with your children and not feel dirty afterward.

Moon

Moon (2008) movie poster

(2009) dir. Duncan Jones
viewed: 03/19/10

Moon is a semi-throwback of a science fiction film, a cerebral, intellectual story about a man and his isolation, his psychology, sense of self, memory and being.  It reckons more of films like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), ringing more in tune with the 1970’s than much of more recent science fiction that I’ve seen (though I must admit I was brought to mind of Christmas on Mars (2008) more than once).

Also, another nod to the 1970’s is that Duncan Jones, the writer and director of Moon is the son of David Bowie, whose song “Space Oddity” is also about the lone man in space, lost in space.

And certainly, the film’s strength is in its cerebral subject, a lone man on the Moon, played by Sam Rockwell in probably the first thing that I’ve ever liked Sam Rockwell in.  There is a bit of a mystery at the core.  Sam Rockwell’s character has been stationed on his own on the moon, harvesting Helium 3, which exists in abundance there and is now (back on Earth) a primary fuel.  He’s been there 3 years all by himself, with only a Kevin Spacey-voiced robot thing to keep him company.  He starts hallucinating.  Then he has a crash.

When he awakes, he’s fine, but as the station is locked down, he gets curious, goes out onto the moon’s surface and discovers his doppelganger, still alive, though badly injured in the crashed vehicle.  Is it a ghost?  Is he imagining himself?  If so, which one is imagining the other?  All along, he longs for his wife and 3 year old daughter, who he is due to meet when his 3 year shift comes to an end in a fortnight.

But see, this is perhaps where the film’s concept might have succeeded in the 1970’s better than today.  The fact that the moon is the isolation point for a man for 3 years?  That his communications with the planet have to be sent and cannot be back-and-forth in real time?  That it would be necessary to have one man take a shift like that?  The moon isn’t that far away.

It comes back to the old joke, “They can put a man on the moon, but they can’t cure the common cold.”  In this case, they can put a man on the moon, harvest a rich natural resource, have him communicate with his employers, but no one can come visit him for three years?

Of course, as the story plays out, other questions and issues arise that perhaps make those issues moot, but still, it might have made more sense if he wasn’t on the moon, but maybe much further away, like on a moon of another planet.  But then it wouldn’t be “Moon” as meaningfully for us on Earth?

I thought the film was a potential drudgery experience and am not 100% sure why I queued it up.  But it’s actually pretty good.  Rockwell does a good job playing both versions of himself and they have a little fun with it, getting him to play ping pong against himself with two very different styles of play.  I don’t think that the film reaches the levels of import or meaning that the Kubrick or Tarkovsky have been appreciated for, though clearly Jones and crew are influenced by those films and filmmakers.

It’s neither a space odyssey nor a space oddity, but it is not altogether uninteresting.

2012

2012 (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Roland Emmerich
viewed: 03/19/10

When you direct films like Independence Day (1996), Godzilla (1998), and The Day After Tomorrow (2004), you develop a reputation for liking to destroy major world monuments onscreen.  You have done “the end of the world” thing, by alien invasion, mutant dinosaur/iguana, and global warming.  What’s left for you?  The ultimate end of the world film, the “end of the world” film to end all “end of the world” films, and with that, you unleash 2012.

Which was unleashed last summer, and now is unleased on DVD.

I recall the trailers for it, thinking to myself, how overtly ridiculous this film felt, how over-the-top the destruction of Los Angeles and super-silly escapes from near death.  I thought to myself, “Now that is one to miss.”  But then the reviews began to turn a bit more positive, seeing the film as a pretty fun, super-silly “end of the world” movie.  And, as time played out, I got interested in seeing it in the theater.  And while I missed it there, I now kind of regret it.

I like to note from time to time that if you’re going to see a big summer blockbuster with lots of special effects and crazy visuals and action, the big screen is the place to see it.  And I think that this film would have benefited there.

In the film, cataclysms of all kinds convene to destroy the Earth.  And while government scientists figure this out, the government decides to build giant ships for the rich to escape doubtless death.  And while everyone is on-board with this, when the clock suddenly jumps and the predictions go awry, all hell is going to break loose pretty all-of-a-sudden.

The Earth, effected by solar eruptions, decides to suddenly reshape the phsyical surface of the planet and all those little ants on its surface will go the way of the dinosaurs (but in a quick couple of days).  Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanos…see this film has several other films all pulled into it.  This one has every disaster you can imagine.  And if it hasn’t been destroyed enough yet, then let’s destroy it.

John Cusack helms the film as the ex-husband father of two who is down on his luck and still trying to score with the kids.  The film has a multitude of characters, too many to mention, trying to give us a cross-section of the Earth’s populace, while giving us the small band to root for.  Woody Harrelson shows up as a Timothy Treadwell-like conspiracy theorist nut job who is actually right.  Danny Glover is our president.  Thandie Newton is his daughter.

There are no out-and-out baddies.  A couple of characters show selfishness but are not seen as total villains.  This film is about the world coming together and uniting, the human race, building “arks” to protect the future of the species, as well as other species.  And in the end, mother Africa rises from the sea, more highly elevated than before and the symbolic and literal home for life to re-new itself, for humanity to re-grow.

The best sequence is the film’s silliest.  The initial escape by limosine and small airplane through the apocalyptical Los Angeles, seething and crumbling in “the big one”, the long predicted California version of the End of Days.  Heck, just like a lot of people joke, and perhaps some would like to see, the whole West Coast gets dumped into the Pacific with gaping holes in the surface of the Earth and death by the millions.

The escape is so ridiculous, so over-the-top, so unbelievable, that it becomes totally more comic.  And the filmmakers know this, throwing in visual gags, making the near-misses even nearer, the explosions and the destruction so much more extreme than one can imagine.  It is quite entertaining and really ups the ante of hope for the film.  Sadly, the rest of the film doesn’t live up to that one sequence, but it stays pretty close.  It’s silly but entertaining fun.

While the film manages its emotional core with a story about the familial connections, the heart of the film.  And that works at the level it’s intended to, not perhaps much more than that, but at least it hangs in there.

It’s interesting, really, the way that Hollywood tries to tap into the cultural Id, pulling from the fears of the world.  In this case, the Mayan calendar-inspired prediction of the end of the world in 2012.  But really, what is striking, even in the hilariously outsized vision of disaster, is that the world is indeed beset by earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic activity.   These stories, these truths, spur the fear and the urge to see this visualization of our collective doom, joked about, commented upon, discussed casually, but felt somewhere quite deep down.

The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer (2010) movie poster

(2010) dir. Roman Polanski
viewed: 03/16/10 at the UA Stonestown Twin, SF, CA

Roman Polanski is unique.  Unique is an overused word, so much so that its specific meaning has broadened.  Unique means something singular, and by being singular, there can be no degrees of uniqueness.  You are either singular or you are not.  If you vary by degrees then uniqueness is not something that you achieve.  Yet, I personally argue, that with the ever-changing language that uniqueness or the quality of being unique is a term whose meaning has changed.  In other words, you can be unique(r) than something else.  You can be something less like other things and more one and only yourself.

And even in this argument, Roman Polanski is unique.

A director who burst upon the scene with such amazing films as Knife in the Water (1962) and Repulsion (1965), he then went on to greater commercial success with Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974).  He had his beautiful wife, Sharon Tate, pregnant with their child, heinously murdered by members of the Manson cult.  He also, some time later, was arrested for statutory rape and fled the United States for Europe to escape trial and likely imprisonment.  He continued, intermittantly, to make films, ranging from bad (The Ninth Gate (1999)) to Oscar-worthy (The Pianist (2002)), and near the release of this film at the Berlin Film Festival, was arrested in Switzerland, awaiting potential extradition to the United States for his child abuse crimes.

Is that a unique life or what?

Nonetheless, his latest film, The Ghost Writer, arrived in the United States just recently and depicts a political thriller/mystery of sorts, focussing on a character played by Pierce Brosnan, an image of Tony Blair to an extent, the former Prime Minister of Britain, now accused of war crimes for supporting torture as used on potential terrorists.  It also stars the incredibly likeable Ewan McGregor as the titular ghost writer, hired to scribe the memoirs of Brosnan’s ex-PM, following in the footsteps of his predescessor who died mysteriously.

For me, knowing Polanski’s situation at the time of the release of this film (he was imprisoned or under house-arrest in Switzerland during post-production), it’s hard not to look upon Brosnan’s character, an amiable, once powerful, charismatic statesman who is more or less imprisoned in his own home by the media and the world who want to expose and ruin him, as a potential self-reference.  The question of Brosnan’s character’s collusion in the crimes is under question throughout the film, only at the end is the secret revealed.

For a lot of critics, this film was a striking thriller, taut, well-made, well-acted, riveting, showing the director, now pushing 80, at his prime, or at least re-claiming his prime.  And frankly, the film is pretty solid, and actually perhaps, more solid that I supposed.  I’ve long held this question about directors in their later years making films, being perhaps more out-of-touch with reality, not able to create a believable world (for whatever reason).  And this film, holds most of that potential complaint at bay.

But really, The Ghost Writer is not one of Polanski’s great films.  And to be truthful, I would have to say that I would be willing to state that those are all behind him (no matter what comes of his imprisonment or potential extradition).  But it’s not at all a bad film.  Ewan McGregor is a very likeable lead and the story has enough of a mystery to keep one involved.  But while the film tries to be timely, citing complicities of would-be Tony Blairs, Bill Clintons, George W. Bushes, and even Condoleeza Rices, it lacks the weight and depth of what those real crimes have been by taking the story and extending it fictionally further.  Or at least, that is my thought.

The Ghost Writer is, for me, hard to simply see as another “thriller” of political or other tones, but the film of a complex and bizarre, unique filmmaker, whose life story has yet to be settled for history, whose work continues to challenge themes and ideas of his heydey, but yet doesn’t begin to grasp the complexity of the reality that belies these stories, either his own or his subject matter.