Youth in Revolt


Youth in Revolt (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Miguel Arteta
viewed: 06/26/10

Youth in Revolt is a coming of age comedy, a movie dedicated to quirkyness and the droll, a built to charm cult film-to-be.  And it is not without that charm nor that quirk.  Starring the likable Michael Cera (Juno (2007) & Superbad (2007)), the cast features a number of amusing actors including Steve Buscemi, Fred Willard, Ray Liotta, Jean Smart, and Portia Doubleday.  And the film employs cute animation sequences at various points during the movie to amusing effect.

Cera plays Nick Twisp, a nerdy, yearning virgin who impresses no one, whose life is thrown its first positive curveball when he and his mom and her boyfriend head to a trailer park one weekend.  He meets Doubleday, the proverbial girl of his dreams.  She likes art cinema and unusual music, is clever, pretty, and actually takes a liking to him.  When he has to return home and runs the risk of losing her, she convinces him that he needs to develop a “bad” side, willing to do things that his more normal self will not.  For instance, his goal is to get his mother to send him to live with his father so that he can have a chance to be near this girl again.

Thusly, Francois Dillinger is born, Cera in nattier European-style wear, hair combed, pencil moustache on his lip, danger in his tone, and a cigarette in his lips.  This dual personality is what allows Nick to take risks and challenge the systems and people that he would otherwise have been a flaccid wallflower in their presence.  And this is what seemed, particularly in light of the film’s marketing campaign, to be the key twist to the story.  And Dillinger gets the job done.

The thing about this film is that it’s all kind of there, and it’s all kind of charming, but it never seems to add up or crest over a certain level of okay.  It’s sort of less than the sum of its parts, despite the parts being just fine.

The film’s tone doesn’t reek or naturalism.  For instance, Nick and other characters speak in a very refined and potentially stilted, meant to be intelligent and clever, vocabulary and speech.  Which, as I said, I get.  It’s their characters, they say funny things, things regular people never would necessarily.  It’s not reality.  It’s funny.  They’re clever.  But then what was striking me as the movie unfolded was that I ultimately was a little adrift in exactly what world this movie was residing in.

So, as the narrative transpires, I felt less connected to the story, less caught up in its potential drama, just happy enough to be along for the ride, so to speak.  And whether I’m hitting the nail on the head as to the problem of the film, I am certain of where I came out on this film, that I liked it okay, I wasn’t as annoyed as I can be with some quirky comedies, Juno or Little Miss Sunshine (2006).   But the film dosn’t achieve that type of character that makes for truly significant experience either.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Wes Anderson
viewed: 06/19/10

It was only just Thanksgiving last year that we went to see Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) in the cinema.  I liked it a great deal, listing it among my personal favorite films of 2009 (Best of 2009).  And oddly enough, Felix really liked it a great deal, too, listing it among his favorite films period.  Heck, it was enjoyed by all, so it was a pretty safe bet to add to the kids’ DVD collection.

I don’t buy a lot of DVD’s for myself, largely because I am so keen on seeing the films that I haven’t seen, this long, long seemingly endless list of films.  But with the kids, especially such a watchable and lively film like this, it’s the kind of thing that I think will get more mileage than general films on my shelf.

And again, the film was a total hit both with Clara and Felix and again with myself.  In reading over what I’d written about the film back in November, I don’t have a lot additonal to offer.  It’s charming, entertaining, a fully realized world with all of the markings of a Wes Anderson film, but also so much more as well.  In the stylish stop-motion animation and design, Anderson’s vision and style are utterly evident, as are his themes of family, heroism, and quirky comedy.

It’s greatly enjoyable.  If you haven’t seen it…well, you should.

Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3 (2010) movie poster

(2010) dir. Lee Unkrich
viewed: 06/19/10 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Pixar’s latest, a return to their most visible and repeat-performing pool of characters, the team that launched one of the most successful studios currently producing films in the American mainstream, is a genuinely quality film and most uniquely, a sequel that feels like a real movie, and is in fact, a real good movie.  It’s been years since I’d seen either Toy Story (1995) or Toy Story 2 (1999) but whereas the sequels to the Shrek films for instance seem less and less appealing and compelling, Toy Story 3 actually feels like a complete movie and a worthwhile experience.

If you think about it, that makes this film quite remarkable.  It’s not a cynical, get the product out to the people, keep rolling with the sequels until the audience becomes numbed and tired of the product.  It evolves the characters and the narrative, from a prior film released over 10 years ago and an original 15 years ago.

The story follows the toys of a boy named Andy, now ready for college, ready to leave his favorite childhood playthings in a box in the attic or worse.  Woody and Buzz Lightyear and the gang are going through the toy version of “empty nest” syndrome and there is something very compelling in the emotions therein.  I’ve been reading about many a viewer in one’s 40’s who was hit “right there” by the story.  And it’s striking that it’s able to pull that off with such genuine originiality.

With every film, Pixar’s design and technologies evolve, making each new movie look that much more fresh and striking, even the Toy Story characters, who were in many ways the prototypes for the company, the breakthrough for computer-animated feature films.  The wit and charm of the characters, the clever developments of the narrative, it’s the whole package.

The film’s major plotline has the beloved toys accidentally donated to a day care or preschool, which seems like a good thing to the toys who have been losing playtime as their owner evolves into adulthood.  And initially they are welcomed by Lotso, the strawberry-scented oldtimer bear and the other toys that live at the day care.  But it turns out that Lotso is a twisted tyrant who sends all the new toys to the very dangerous “little tykes” room where they are manhandled, chewed on, and wrecked, while the other toys, who’ve earned their spot in the calmer, older child room, live in relative harmony.

The film’s best addition to the cast is the Ken doll, voiced by Michael Keaton.  The mileage they get out of Ken’s dreamhouse and his endless closet of clothes, his vain, but good-natured affability and head-over-heels love for the newly arrived Barbie.  You know, product placement usually annoys the hell out of me, but this material, clearly aimed at the adults in the office with their knowing precepts about the Ken doll, was killing me it was so funny.

The film on occasion does go a little extreme, particularly in the finale, where the toys are all headed to the dump to be chopped and crushed and burned in a totally apocalyptic vision far outside of the world of the rest of the film.  Perhaps as a final chapter of this series (who knows if or not there will be another), the idea was to make the dangers more extreme, more universal.  And gosh knows that it scared Clara.  She was clinging in excitement to my arm through much of this final portion.

As I said, it’s been a long time since I saw Toy Story 2 which had its villains and drama, too.  But in this case, the villainy and danger seemed to far outpace the storylines in the prior films.

Clara loved the film.  Felix enjoyed it.  Maybe he’s getting a bit old for it or just in that in between age of really enjoying it.  I personally thought that the film was great, a real testament to Pixar’s character development, handling of story, making of movies.

I think that the Shrek comparison is the most apt.  There is a series of four films now since the original in 2001, which to my mind never really was better than amusing, but which gladly rolled out film after film, every couple of years despite no one really wanting or needing them.  We didn’t even bother with this year’s Shrek Forever After (2010), which is kind of unusual for us since the kids do like going to the movies so much.  What I posit is this: Dreamworks offers a standard product, not utterly soulless, and not utterly unamusing, but vapid by comparison.  Pixar could easily have made several more Toy Story films in the last 10 years had they simply wanted to cash in, but they didn’t want to cheat their audiences or their characters or themselves.  Pixar makes films with greater heart and character than most others in the biz these days.  And ultimately their legacy will be much greater.

Eight Men Out

Eight Men Out (1988) movie poster

(1988) dir. John Sayles
viewed: 06/18/10

I’ve watched a lot of different kinds of movies with my kids from Godzilla to Buster Keaton to the latest Pixar offering.  But this one was going to be a bit of a curveball, John Sayles’ 1988 film about the 1919 Chicago White Sox scandal, a drama about professional baseball’s most blackest eye, a PG-rated film that I had never actually seen, so I didn’t know exactly how it would fly with the kids.  The idea of watching it came up in conversation, in talking with the kids and their neighbors one day about the true events.  And in talking it over, there was some interest, mainly from Felix and the older of the two neighbor girls, but I thought, “what the heck, I’ll give it a shot!”

Circumstances being what they became, it was only Felix and I watching the film.  I had to stop and start it a lot to explain things to him.  I don’t know if it was because being set a long time ago or the sound of the recording, but he was having a hard time making out some of the dialogue and was getting pretty confused during the film.  Given, there are a lot of characters, a lot of goings-on to understand, for instance that the World Series champion and best group of ballplayers perhaps ever assembled for owner Charles Comiskey’s White Sox were so poorly paid and appreciated that they found men willing to “throw” a World Series for cash money.  I mean, let’s face it, this actual event changed things forever and now it’s hard to look at ball players and pity their poverty.

So, the film, as a kids’ film, was a bit of a wash.  But for me, I thought it was pretty darn good.

It features an excellent cast including John Cusack, David Straitharn, Charlie Sheen, Michael Rooker, Michael Lerner, Christopher Lloyd, D.B. Sweeney, and numerous others also Studs Turkel and Sayles himself.  And the story, perhaps for an ever-more passionate baseball fan, is hard to beat.

The film picks up with the White Sox as the round out the pennant, about the head into a World Series against the Cincinnati Reds.  They are heavy favorites, but are poorly paid, and poorly handled by Comiskey, breaking promises on bonuses, serving them flat celebratory champagne instead, all the while living large and bragging big at the top of the game.  Some keen gambling criminals with ties to larger mafia elements, find a willing group of players to “throw” the series for $10,000 a pop.  They find a group of eight or so, including two of the three starting pitchers and the fix is in, signaling that fact by having the first starting pitcher hit the first batter in the first game of the series.

Sayles’ heart and perspective is with the players, from those who knew to those who didn’t know, from those who gladly participated to those to begrudgingly did so to those who actually refused, Cusack’s Buck Weaver and Sweeney’s Shoeless Joe Jackson being the two who played their best despite the teammates trying to lose it.  Because in the end, the players were the dupes of Comiskey, of the mob, of the government regulators who came in to “clean up the whole mess”.  They realized only a fraction of the money promised to them, despite the mobsters and gambling groups making out big time, and then, again at the whims of the power dealers, found “not guilty” were still barred from playing professional baseball for the rest of their lives.

Heck, I quite enjoyed this movie.  I’m sorry that Felix did not.  He might have done better with a documentary, perhaps Ken Burns’ documentary would do, long as it is.  He’s interested in the facts.  But I do have to say that this was definitely a fine drama by one of the pretty cool guys in American indie cinema from the 1980’s.  I’m glad I saw it.  And I certainly would recommend it to anyone who was halfway interested…unless they happen to be perhaps a little too unfamiliar with more adult dramas…

The Killing

The Killing (1956) movie poster

(1956) dir. Stanley Kubrick
viewed: 06/17/10

After watching Michael Winterbottom’s latest adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel from pulp page to big screen, The Killer Inside Me (2010), I felt somewhat interested in venturing down Thompson’s other cinematic forays, such as they’ve been.  Most of Thompson’s work that has been adapted, I have seen, but what was also compelling was that briefly, in the 1950’s he worked with notable auteur Stanley Kubrick on two films, the 1956 low-budget, highly stylized noir film The Killing and then again on 1957’s Paths of Glory.

Kubrick is such a popular auteur, a big cult hero with several films that people just love to watch over and over, that it struck me as odd that in the nine or so years that I have been writing and keeping my film diary that I’ve only actually watched one of his films.  I mean, I’ve seen a lot of them varying numbers of times but the only one that I’d seen in the last decade or so was The Shining (1980).  A lot of that is just circumstance.  I almost went and saw Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) last month at the Castro.  Anyways, I still only had seen one of the films recently enough to have written about it.

I’d seen The Killing before, but for some reason had some sort of mental block about it, getting it confused with whether it was Kubrick’s previous film, Killer’s Kiss (1955) (which I do not believe that I’ve seen) and also perhaps with the two versions of The Killers Richard Siodmak’s 1946 version and Don Siegel’s 1964 version.  Now that may seem just silly to you, but believe me, I think I’ve found confusion there.

Perhaps no more, however.

The Killing is a terse heist film, a bit of an ensemble picture in which even star Sterling Hayden is as much of a character actor as much of the rest of the cast.   It’s told in a not completely linear fashion, though with a loud, pedantic narrative voice over to give us “just the facts”, so to speak, reminding me quite significantly of Sgt. Joe Friday’s dull monotone from Dragnet.  But like almost every heist story, things go wrong, as much as they go right, as much precision is brought to bear, the whole crew is due for dissolution and death.

Not being a Kubrick scholar or having even read up on him much, I can only speculate at the experimentation that was going on in this film, from its narrative hopscotching to its often very interesting camerawork to the rich character actor performances that give this film its particular flavor.  It’s funny to me that it always failed to register more significantly in previous viewing or viewings in that there is so much specific here from the horse race (filmed at local Bay Meadows) to the unusual ethnic identities and racial slurs of some of the characters.   And even especially a couple of key scenes, Hayden in the clown’s mask, robbing the crew at gunpoint to the penultimate image of the wads of stolen money blowing wildly about on the tarmac at the airport, swirling away into nothing.

It’s an excellent film.  Hard to say about the Thompson dialogue, since I know little of the production of the film (he’s credited for dialogue, not the screenplay), though there are lots of colorful barbs and backs-and-forths.  I suppose that this is a film that can be seen in a number of contexts, and perhaps the Jim Thompson angle is one of the smaller ones.  Still, it’s well worth the re-visit for any number of reasons.  And it might finally do me some good to make sure that I can finally lay claim to having seen all four of the films that I conflated with one another so as to never have that problem again.

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Stefan Forbes
viewed: 06/15/10

Truth be told, it took me many years to get interested in politics and world events.  So the subject of Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story is something which echoes back through my life, but somewhat shamefully reminds me that back as either a teen or a relatively young adult, I wasn’t interested or following the times and events that this film covers, though I was alive and relatively aware of much of their goings-on.

Lee Atwater, who rose from a Louisiana college Republican roustabout to the head of the RNC, did so in a way that would cement the concept of dirty politics and give definition to an era that has much responsibility for our current world of political nonsense.  And he is a rather compelling, beguiling, and frustrating character, which makes this documentary quite a telling and enlightening tale.

Atwater moved from Louisiana politics to the big time with the Reagan administration and led George H. W. Bush’s 1988 electoral campaign.  What’s fascinating are the perspectives of his friends, admirers, and adversaries among the interviewees, who all have a rather large chunk of admiration for the conniving, sharp-witted, almost unsinkable Atwater, even when he was at his most-dubious worst.

For instance, former Democratic congressional nominee Tom Turnipseed, about whom Atwater had uncovered the fact that Turnipseed had undergone some psychiatric treatment and attacked him with lines such as referring to him as being “got hooked up to jumper cables”, suggesting that Turnipseed had undergone electroshock therapy.  Atwater’s strategy was one that pushed buttons, hot buttons, but had little if any basis in fact, used exploitative imagery and skirted around outright lies.  And it worked like a charm.

In the 1988 presidential campaign, Atwater floated through “leaks” and other clever press manipulation that Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis’s wife had burned a flag during her college years, suggesting there was photographic evidence.  Whether or not she did wasn’t the issue, once it was stated “perception became belief” and left the Dukakis campaign, like many other of Atwater’s political foes, on their heels, defending themselve from spurious accusations while the real issues, like Bush’s involvement in the Iran-Contra affair, fell behind the discourse.

And most heinously, there was the Willie Horton case (again, a name I felt quite familiar with from the day — I didn’t vote in the 1988 election, though it was the first one that I was “of age” for).  Horton was an African American criminal, who had raped and murdered someone while out of jail on a “weekend release” program in the state of Massachusetts, the state in which Dukakis was governor.  With a very racist-seeming television ad campaign, among many other placements, Atwater made it sound like Dukakis was to blame for this, despite the fact that this was a program, the weekend release program, that had been based on one from California under Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial leadership.

Atwater was a master of raising flashy false subterfuge, demonizing the other candidate, but also manipulating the whole discussion in ways that made the other guy look like not only the villain but the fool, too.  Dukakis appears onscreen to discuss this failed campaign and still is at a loss for words.  His attempts to “take the high road” with these spurious issues left him as the also-ran in history and also kept the door open for George W. Bush (a chum of Atwater’s) and Karl Rove (a protege of Atwater’s) to step further into history.

Atwater, so the film claims, wasn’t really interested in “the issues”.  Some claim that he could have just have easily joined the Democratic party, but joined the Republicans because he thought there was more room to have fun.

The fascinating thing about Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Storyis that while it certainly paints Atwater as the Democrat’s “boogie man”, it is hardly a damning, single-minded portrait.  Atwater, who was a blues guitarist who actually played and recorded with a number of blues greats (most likely due to his status in the public eye, not purely for talent — though not necessarily lacking in talent), ran campaigns that were outwardly racist, good ol’ boy Southern, in stark contrast to his personal relationships with some African American friends and associates.

Atwater’s story has a bizarre coda, in that in his late 30’s, right after his success with Bush, Sr.’s ascendance to America’s presidential throne, Atwater developed a horrible form of brain cancer, which led to disfiguring treatments and a humbling crash for the whippet-fast, savvy political manipulator.  In his illness, he claimed to have a realization of the evils that he had wrought, such as the Horton case and the jumper cables lines, and sought to atone for his crimes.  Some of the interviewees believe his sincerity, others think he was spinning all the way to the grave.

Atwater’s influence on not only the politics of his time, but ultimately, what those politics have wrought (the administrations and actuality of the governments that he helped to empower), are the bases of our present world.  One can easily imagine him hooked up to Fox News, teaming up with the pundits and nonsense-makers of today, having shown them the path of owning the dialogue and running the discourse.  His legacy certainly paved Rove and Bush, Jr.’s pathway to the White House in the decade following his untimely death at age 40.

The film covers an intriguing man, wickedly clever, a no-holds-barred dirty politicker of the highest degree, and a man who may indeed have lacked a moral conscience.  The film really has a rich core and is well-made, having won a number of awards for its coverage of a relatively “untold” story.   And I have to say, it makes me regret that I didn’t become more politically aware at a younger age, because complacency is an easy target when a master manipulator is at the helm.

The Killer Inside Me

(2010) dir. Michael Winterbottom
viewed: 06/11/10

Jim Thompson is one of the most fascinating writers to have ever emerged from America’s pulp fiction landscape.  A true modernist, draped in the crime genre, Thompson was miles ahead of and beyond most anyone else.  And his deep-seeded darkness, penchant for weirdness, and powerful stories are among my favorite fictional writings.  And while some of it perhaps lends itself more easily for adaptation, other works fall into the realm of near impossibility.  And that’s not to say that they are so far-fetched, but simply to capture exactly the black spirit, black comedy, and ruthlessness has just been one rare thing.

Adapted from the classic 1952 pulp novel The Killer Inside Me, director Michael Winterbottom’s latest film is the latest stab at taking one of Thompson’s most seminal works and translating it into cinema.  There had been an attempt before, a pretty atrocious attempt, by Burt Kennedy in 1976 starring Stacy Keach.  I’ve nearly completely blotted that abortion from my mind, now only left with the scars, not much memory of it per se.

Thompson’s work has been most effectively filmed by Stephen Frears.  His 1990 film of The Grifters starring Angelica Huston, John Cusack, and Annett Bening, while it’s been a long while since I’ve seen it, I recall thinking was a deft and true adaptation.  I also recall liking James Foley’s adaptation, also from 1990, of After Dark, My Sweet, starring Jason Patric, Rachel Ward, and Bruce Dern.  Now my memories of these films are now quite old themselves, so perhaps I need to revisit them.

More recently, I’d watched Coup de torchon (1981) (adpated from Thompson’s novel Pop. 1280) and also Sam Peckinpah’s adaptation of Thompson’s brilliant The Getaway (1972).  But even in Peckinpah’s rather dirty and blood-soaked fingers, Thompson’s work didn’t find it’s way to the fore.  But still, I perservere here, hoping.

I liked the casting of Casey Affleck as Lou Ford, the small Texas town deputry sherriff with an increasing number of dark secrets to cover up, a growing body count, and a mania that is spinning, spinning, spinning.  I’d really liked Affelck in Andrew Dominick’s amazing The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and in big brother Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone (2007), and thought that this was quite a casting coup.  For the female roles, Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson, I was a little more dubious.  And as for Michael Winterbottom, I should have been most dubious.

Winterbottom, an English filmmaker of middling quality, actually is often attracted to a number of interesting scripts and ideas.  I haven’t seen by any means all of his films, but that he adapted a version of Thomas Hardy’s Jude, I find intriguing, that he made a movie about the Manchester, England music scene 24 Hour Party People (2002) I found interesting, I also watched his Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005) and had previously seen his first feature film, Butterfly Kiss (1995).  That he’d adapted Hardy again in The Claim (2000) also interested me.  I find that he’s drawn to movie ideas that intrigue me.

Only, his movies aren’t all that great.

Now, my intention had been to re-read the novel before seeing this new version of the movie, but I didn’t get around to it, and when I saw that it was being played on On Demand before it even hit San Francisco movie theaters, I decided to give it a go.  And since it’s been such a long while since I have read the book, I couldn’t quibble over little interpretive aspects.

Affleck, though, seems wrong.  The killer is inside a soft-spoken, nearly effeminate-voiced Lou Ford, who while seeing the world as his rapidly-decaying oyster also likes to stun others with his pretense of stupidity, while internally thinking he’s smarter than everyone else.  Or at least that is sort of how I recall the character.  Here, he’s a bit on the sympathetic side, with some weird references to child abuse and abandonment, and he’s loving to both the woman who would be his wife (Hudson) and the whore with whom he has love and lust (Alba).  That is, when he’s not bruising them or beating them to death or near-death.

The whole thing just feeling kind of wrong.  Like it doesn’t gibe.  And I’m not sure if that is my expectations talking or just purely my reaction.

One thing I did like a lot was the soundtrack.  Great period music that I’d love to listen to on a jukebox.

But the film, which has gotten mostly negative criticism from what I’ve read, also with a focus on the film’s violence, which I think is a bit of an over-wrought reaction, it’s not what it could be.  And I think, perhaps, that even Affleck is not necessarily miscast but just goes the wrong way with this whole thing.  And one of the key elements missing, I think, is Thompson’s ruthlessly black humor.  Part of the character’s meanness and madness plays out in some comic perspectives on the world and the people around him.  Affleck’s version of Ford is an almost sympathetic fatalist, doomed to be the way he is and to bring those down around him.  What made Thompson’s character frightening, his burning drive and internal chaos and cruelty, are almost apologized for in this film.

Frankly, I would have to re-read the novel to give it a better estimation.  It’s not that an adaptation needs to be true to a novel, though often that is what is expected.  But when a direction is taken that seems to rob the story of its core elements, its core character, one has to wonder…  And I will wonder.  I do wonder.


Go (1999) movie poster

(1999) dir. Doug Liman
viewed: 06/10/10

In talking to someone about the new horror film, Splice (2009), I was talking about star Sarah Polley and I was trying to note the film for which she is best known, so that someone would know about whom I was speaking.  I mentioned Go, director Doug Liman’s sophomore feature and somewhat exemplar of 1990’s indie American cinema.  How many people had seen the Canadian film about a school bus full of children that drowned in a frozen lake (The Sweet Hereafter (1997))?  I mean, I know that she’s been in a ton of films and has even directed a critically acclaimed film of her own, Away From Her (2006).  But how does the average person know her, if at all?

I’d fondly recalled Go, which I would consider one of Liman’s two best films along with The Bourne Identity (2002), the film that launched the Matt Damon action series.  But it had been a long time since I’d seen it and I started re-thinking it and wondering how it would strike me today.  10 years or so later.

So, that’s how I got here.

Heavily influenced by Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) (which I also haven’t seen in a long, long time, despite its cultural ubiquity), Go was Liman’s follow-up to Swingers (1996), his breakthrough film starring Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau, from a script by Favreau, which put them all on the map, highlighted against the upsurgent swing music revival in Los Angeles and Las Vegas in the mid-1990’s.   I frankly had found Favreau and Vaughn immensely annoying in that film and found the film kind of annoying, too.  But I liked Go.

The film follows a non-linear narrative, splintered into three, not necessarily Rashômon (1950)-like, but more just a playful twist on the theme of following sets of intersecting characters and the duration of one day/night series of adventures.  The themes are sex, drugs, and raves, which is also a cultural snapshot of sorts, one arguably not necessarily as tuned into the pulse of the time as Swingers, though perhaps its as relevant today, I don’t know.

A small time English drug dealer (who also works at a supermarket), goes to Vegas with some friends on a romp.  Two young men come into the store looking for him and approach Polley, the rent-delinquent and in-need of cash clerk, asking her if she can help them score some ecstacy.  She sees an opportunity to make some money and approaches the English guy’s drug dealer herself, hoping to make the money she needs to help her evade eviction.  Turns out that the guys are actually working with a demented cop, trying to create a sting operation, because they had been busted for possession.

I could certainly elaborate on the plot, but it’s one of those movies that relies heavily on twists and turns and surprises, not just coincidences, to create a sense of ever-escalating insanity.  And I think it worked quite well for me the first time through back in 1999 or whenever I saw it initially.

Polley’s story goes first, so she seems like the core, though the English guy and the two actors-cum-sting-operators get equal time in the re-cap of each groups increasing chaos of a night, interestingly enough, Christmas eve.  And the film has a number of notable young names of the time beyond Polley, including Jay Mohr and Katie Holmes.  Not necessarily one of those key castings that seem to capture a huge slate of young talent, but not a shabby line-up, either.

The film is entertaining.  Not only does it channel Pulp Fiction but it rings as well of The Hangover (2009), for instance, not merely for its Las Vegas setting, but as the kind of bender movie, a comedy based on the ever-twisting plot and chaos for humor.

As for what the film is saying, which I did find myself asking, it’s a little hard to say.  These are all young people, largely behaving badly, getting in lots of varieties of trouble, but ultimately with only bad guys by degree.  Are they punished for their wrongdoings?  Or do their somewhat full-circle experience of karmic elements bring about some form of justice.  And just because they happen to be young enough to endure their beatings, bruisings, embarrassments, fractures, gunshot wounds, where do they wind up except bleary-eyed on Christmas morning, almost entirely without a parental figure in sight.

Maybe as a younger person, you simply identify.  You say, oh yeah, I’ve been there (in a relative sense).  Maybe as an older person looking at it, you wonder what it’s really all about.   Sex, drugs, and pumping rave music.  Comedy.  Not bad.  But I do wonder if this is one of the better exemplars of 1990’s American indie movies or it’s more part of the average.  Not sure, but leaning toward the latter.

The Seventh Victim

The Seventh Victim (1943) movie poster

(1943) dir. Mark Robson
viewed: 06/10/10

Rounding out my final film of my Val Lewton RKO horror series, I have to say that The Seventh Victimis probably the best and most interesting of the films directed by Mark Robson for Lewton.  It’s definitely the weirdest when it comes right down to it, and for the films of Val Lewton, that is saying something.

Personally, I think that Lewton achieved his greatest successes with Jacques Tourneur (Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Leopard Man (1943)), the first two of which are among the best horror films of any era and any level of production values.  But with Robson, who wasn’t lacking in talent having begun as a film editor at RKO on Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) with Orson Welles, the works don’t seem to jell in quite the same ultimate fashion.  But The Seventh Victim comes as close as he gets, with a great deal of fascinating content, subtexts, great scenes, and even devil worship!

While there are elements of film noirin all of these Lewton films, The Seventh Victim, which features no real supernatural element, in many ways plays more film noirthan horror.  Many afficianados note that Lewton’s horror films were all more psychological than pure traditionalist horror, but really in each of them, the element or “question” of the supernatural infuses itself within the narratives.  Is something magical happening?  Or is it all explainable?

The Seventh Victimhas a highly convoluted plot, about a girl who has lived her life at a private school, coming of age and having to go to New York to find her older sister and benefactor when she suddenly falls off the face of the Earth.  But her sister, who had run a cosmetics company, didn’t simply disappear in any simple way.  And everyone that she meets, from her sister’s husband, to her sister’s doctor, to her sister’s best friends, all are hiding elements of the story.  Everyone seems to have something to hide, something sinister in their nature or being.  And oddly enough, for many of them, that is a form of benign-ish devil worship.

The devil worshipers are oddly pacifists, who are only forced into murder when one of their own seems to be ratting them out.  They are certainly predecessors of the devilish folk of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), though much more banal and less clear.

The film also has another prescient moment, a shower scene, undoubtably influential on the classic shower scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s notorious Psycho (1960), and in some ways, even all the more shocking because of it.  The scene is nowhere as violent or analyzed, but is extremely effective, filled with fears of vulnerability, mystery, and threat.  And it carries with it the film’s themes of lesbianism (though not a very enlightened theme of lesbianism, rather one tied to domination and otherness.)

However, the film’s most shocking and striking characteristic is its end.  The film ends on an incredibly pessimistic note, with a great sensibility of doom, the inevitability of death, and is notable in that Lewton apparently, when told that his film was not supposed to have “a message”, said that the film did indeed have a message and that it was that “death is good”.   I don’t know that death is necessarily good in this film, but rather that it is something inescapable and perhaps better than living in certain circumstances.

I felt that the film had a little too much happening, really, to make it as poetic or ideal as Cat People or I Walked with a Zombie, but it has a number of extremely striking scenes (on the subway where a body is being dumped, or the classic Lewton “walk” scenes, in which a character walks through a darkened alley-like space, hunted by unseen forces, but tied very much to the real, urban world).  And it has that pervasive power of weirdness, of gloom, and of ultimate pessimism and death that is just so damn striking.

Lewton’s reputation is well-earned.  His films are all worth seeing, and really they are worth seeing together, to sense the themes and continuity, contrasts and ideas.  I already feel like revisiting the ones that I’d seen a couple of years back before this recent dive into his oeuvre.  And I do still have the Martin Scorsese-directed documentary to watch.  And who knows, maybe a couple of his other films will become available too.


Ran (1985) movie poster

(1985) dir. Akira Kurosawa
viewed: 06/07/10 at the Embarcadero Cinemas, SF, CA

In celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of cinema great Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998), a number of retrospectives and re-releases of his films are expected throughout the year.  The first of which to hit San Francisco is a re-release of his 1985 film, Ran, his last great epic, perhaps his last great film, and I took the opportunity to see it in the theater on the “big screen” because my only other experience with it was sadly on a video on television some many years ago.

I was 16 or 17 when Ran came out in 1985 and made its way to my hometown of Gainesville, FL.  It’s perhaps the first foreign film that I became interested in, though I sadly didn’t actually see it on release.  Over the years, I’ve come to a great appreciation for Kurosawa, having been catching up on a number of his films on DVD including The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Rashômon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), Ikiru (1952), and The Hidden Fortress (1958), mostly from his fecund early period of success.  I don’t know that Ran is the only of his color films that I’ve seen, but colorful indeed it is.

The film was meticulously storyboarded by Kurosawa, planned over many years, and while based roughly upon some historical elements, the story is heavily influenced by Shakespeare’s King Lear, as well.  An aging lord, Hidetora, who came to power through much battle and bloodshed, decides, somewhat suddenly, to divide his kingdom between his three sons, with his eldest holding the greatest righteous power.  The youngest and most brash of his sons calls him out as a fool for this, as does one of his noble gentry.  He bannishes them both for their offences.

The problem is, that they were right.  His eldest son, Taro, has a devious wife, who, though often stoic and seemingly proper, sows the seeds that will lead to the undoing of the whole clan.  She convinces Taro that his father needs to be humbled and that he needs to stake his claim more solidly on the castle, which leads to an argument and the father’s departure for his second son’s, Jiro’s, castle.  Jiro has followers who cajole him as well, barring his father’s entourage, but not his father himself, from his castle.  In anger, Hidetora is left to wander without a home.

Really, the seeds that are sown are not only what proves to be the vengaence of Taro’s wife, Lady Kaede, but the poisonous spoilage of Hidetora’s years and years of killing, cruelty, and harshness.  While wishing to hang his old age upon some laurels, to enjoy a hard-fought for peace, and to live his life out in some sort of mellowed happiness, all that Hidetora is truly left with is pure carnage, destruction, and death.  It’s an epic tragedy of grand, grand scale.

Kurosawa sets much of the action on the mountainous regions of Mt. Fuji, with thousands of extras clad in the color-specific flagged battle costumes signifying for which lord the soldiers battle.  But interestingly, in some ways, it comes not to matter.  Death comes for all, good and noble, pious, impious, vengeful, ruthless, everyone.  And it’s hard not to be impressed with the grand scheme played out on such grand scale.

There is much going on in the film, much too much to fully comment on here.  But watching it this time, I felt aware of what was perhaps a commentary on the Cold War or at least the destructive power of war, a contemporary vision of the mid-1980’s.  As well, there is Hidetora, whose age is similar to that of Kurosawa at the time the film was made, a perhaps personal character, a perspective on the futility of one’s life’s work, of coming to an age when all is supposedly behind one, and the sizing up of that is not perhaps what one would have hoped for.

While richly colorful, I found some of the color almost garish, while other aspects of it are most lush.  And the acting, particularly that of Hidetora and Lady Kaede is in strange, theatrical contrast to the acting of many of the other performers.  Hidetora wears a ton of make-up, projecting his intense mania as he is struck into madness by the tragedies befalling him and his family, and Lady Kaede, who at times wears a refined, unexpressive make-up, also lurches into moments of grand theatrics.  While these performances and styles reckon back to Noh theater, I am not enough of a scholar of Japanese theater to sort through why those two are the key figures to perform differently.

What is always fascinating in Kurosawa is his mixture of Western and Japanese traditions.  He often used Western texts from Shakespeare (Throne of Blood) to Dashiell Hammett (Yojimbo (1961)) as narrative inspiration for his Samuari and other films, he brought these themes upon a truly Japanese landscape and historically and culturally.  Perhaps this is partially why his popularity in Europe and America was so profound.

Ran fits appropriately at the end of a long list of great, telling, visionary films fitting well within his canon.  It was great to see it again, and to see it on the big screen, a screen large enough to appreciate the breadth and scope of his story and imagery.  I will be looking out for others of his films in this centenury and I recommend the experience.