Theatrical Film

Films watched on the big screen, the way God intended.

King Kong (2005) dir. Peter Jackson
viewed: 12/22/05, Loews Metreon Theatres, SF, CA / diary entry: 12/28/05

I was actually looking pretty forward to seeing this, the latest blockbuster from Peter Jackson, a major remake and homage to the classic 1933 horror film. I guess it's my childhood affection for the old horror films or something and Jackson has had a good track record, nothing more impressive than his Tolkien trilogy, the mammoth undertaking that ultimately nabbed him an Oscar for directing and best picture.

Oddly enough, I was catching some part of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) on tv the other day and I was thinking how corny and overdone the sentiment in that film was, and this vaguely new-agey Society for Creative Anachronism-ish thing... It was striking me altogether less impressive and a bit simpy.

King Kong is impressive, particularly in the way of visual design. I think what struck me the most was the visualization of 1933 New York (Jackson set this film in the period that the original was created). And it's fascinating, with wide views of the NY cityscape, the 1933 Times Square, and of course, the Empire State Building, much more monumental towering above the city whose structures don't begin to bury it. I was just up in the Empire State Building for the first time a couple of months ago, so it was an interesting "perspective" on the visualization of the city. It's the most-digitized city in feature films, and the version that most recently comes to mind is the one from Gangs of New York (2002) set about 70 years earlier but equally interesting in its interpretation. I don't know why this seemed the most significant aspect of this film for me.

It's a massive film at 187 minutes, nearly doubling the length of the original. And it makes you wonder, "Is this really an epic? Or is an epic the only length of film Jackson knows how to make after the Rings trilogy?" It's clearly overdone. It reaches heights of simpering soft-eyed emoting that tend to choke one rather than choke them up. As an aspect of the homage, Jackson's film and characters lack cynicism, I guess some assumption or treatment of "a more kinder and gentler era"? The way it shapes up is some schmaltz that is schmaltzier than this side of schmaltzville. The most painful moment of which is the ice-sliding sequence with Kong and Ann Darrow in the park. It really reeks of those Christmas-y Coca Cola commercials with the digitally-animated polar bears. It's cuteness with a quotient of the nth degree and sappier than hell.

And for me, it really brought the movie down. There perhaps could be edited out of this film a pretty good flick, losing some of the "bonding" between Kong and girl, some superfluous action sequences with dinosaurs and killer bugs, and just cutting some unnecessary character development.

The cast is charming enough and the action is entertaining, but nothing really shines here. It's disappointing, but still fun enough, I suppose.

Chicken Little (2005) dir. Mark Dindal
viewed: 12/03/05, Loews Metreon Theatres, SF, CA / diary entry: 12/27/05

This was not a case of actually wanting to see this film, but rather that it was the only G-rated movie out at the theater and an opportunity to take my son to the movies. I, quite frankly, thought this looked pretty lame, up and down, and found my suppositions to be well-grounded.

This, I think, was the first digitally animated film that Disney has produced in-house (outside of their contract with Pixar), and if that is correct, then I think that Disney should be well-worried for their future without the Bay Area studio under contract to them anymore. While the animation and design are fine, the whole thing is poorly developed and lacking the charm of character development that works the best for these very mainstream films. It's funny enough, but not memorable at all, and that is all true with the weird advantage that this film had at being made in 3-D.

I mean, that is a pretty unique experience, going to a 3-D movie, and I have already all but forgotten that aspect of the film. Someone needs to realize that animated films need some greater vision and writing and direction, or they will simply be well-designed, occasionally funny and ultimately forgettable pieces of junk confection that will not make much of a mark on the world or the audience.

It should be noted that my son enjoyed it pretty well. But I don't think it made much impression on him, either.

Walk the Line (2005) dir. James Mangold
viewed: 11/23/05, Loews Metreon Theatres, SF, CA / diary entry: 11/29/05

It's movies like this that make me realize that I could never be a newspaper or otherwise widely read critic of films, reviewer of films for the mass of the world. Films like this, whose main driver are the notable performances by the actors, aren't usually good enough films on their own to be very compelling. This is a gross generality, but one that tends to be pretty accurate in my estimation. Sadly, the films that I would cite here are mostly films that I haven't bothered to go see, stuff that usually wins people their best-actor/actress Oscars, rather than makes a lasting impression as cinematic fun or art. You can probably go back through the last several years of Oscar winners to find a multitude of examples.

So why did I see this film if I anticipated finding it so lackluster? Well, the pickings at the cinema are slim and I felt like going to a movie for one. Secondly, it's Johnny Cash, and I am more willing to bear with a story in whose subject matter I find a little more interesting. It's Johnny Cash, you see.

This time of year, these types of films come out in a glut. It's this whole Oscar-related hoopla and nonsense. It's all a significant form of Hollywood marketing, tapping into viewers' sense of what is "good quality" acting, directing, and film-making. People like being told what is "good", and it probably appeals to one's sense of appreciation. I mean, no one in Cinema Studies would put an ounce of credit to the awards or the types of films that are made to try and appeal to this marketing base (though it might be an interesting study). I had a friend who noted while discussing the rare occasion that the Oscars truly annointed some genuinely deserving film that "Even a blind chicken gets a peck of corn every once in a while.

But there is this type of film that is very color-by-numbers and it appeals heavily to the most mainstream of Hollywood actors because it offers a "juicy role" which can very well be translated into a good shot at an Oscar nomination. Again, it's all about marketing oneself, as well. Like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. Why do you think that Tom Cruise makes weird actorly films every once in a blue moon between blockbuster after blockbuster of popular junk? He wants that accreditation just as much as Jamie Foxx or Joaquin Phoenix.

I mean, I am hardly one to really criticize the Hollywood machine. I actually enjoy some of its output. I am not an art-cinema purist, shunning all Hollywood offerings and only watching edgy or cult cinema. But at the same time, I have my preferences and tastes. And as much as I am hardly aligned with the outside, I am also not so aligned with the mainstream. And this is why I can't imagine that I would be successful writing my opinions for an audience looking for a recommendation. That is why I write here, in obscurity, for only people who might care what I personally think, can bother reading, which is about no one.

So, for my no one readers, I would say that Walk the Line was entertaining enough. I like all the Johnny Cash music throughout, though as resung by Joaquin Phoenix, it isn't quite the same. He can hit those barritone notes from time to time but lacks the gravitas that is no doubt utterly unique to the original. I mean, if he was so easy to imitate, he probably wouldn't be so notable. Reese Witherspoon comes out a little better. I never expect much from her, I guess.

The film really feels very color-by-numbers, walking through plot point by plot point, some scenes feel just predictable. It's like I have seen this film before, and I am not overly familiar with the narrative, the actual narrative. It just feels like I am.

Serenity (2005) dir. Joss Whedon
viewed: 11/05/05, Loews Metreon Theatres, SF, CA / diary entry: 11/07/05

I felt like watching something fairly mindless and action-y. It was Saturday afternoon and I had the freedom to go see whatever tickled my fancy. I made a bad decision.

This movie is awful, even by made-for-television standards, which it seemed to have a hard time to uphold. I can honestly say that I didn't think it had a redeeming characteristic at all. It was boring, which is in many ways the worst crime that a movie can commit.

I never saw the show that this was adapted from, nor did I ever watch director Joss Whedon's other claim to fame, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the TV series. I know of its cult standing and have often wondered about all the hubbub. If this film is any indication, it seems that the quality levels are still quite on the low side.

The whole prodcution stunk. I mean, it was low-budget, which I hold against nothing, but the script and the acting were blah and occasionally laughable. The characters were silly and unbelievable. Even the cinematography seemed cheaply produced and cheesy.

It was one of those films in which I am sitting that I get the bad feeling at the very beginning, a tip-off that this is going to be bad. And when one realizes that early on, it's...ah forget it. I am embarrassed to have seen it.

I should have gone to see Doom or Saw II or something.

Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005) dir. Steve Box, Nick Park
viewed: 10/15/05, Loews Metreon Theatres, SF, CA / diary entry: 11/07/05

Nick Park's work is always fun, and this film is no exception. I took my son Felix to see it. He's four and I thought he would be pretty into it. I think he found it a bit frightening, which he is a little prone to. He's much more into Gumby at the moment, which is a little more his speed.

I have an affinity for lots of kid-oriented material, from animation to other themed content, fairy tales, children's books, you name it. It's kind of interesting introducing Felix to a lot of that stuff and seeing how he reacts to it. I see from web postings that a lot of parents see movies through their children's perspective and react negatively or positively to things depending on what their kids thought.

For me, I have my own reactions, but it certainly is changed, my perspective, when I am watching with him. I notice different details and am sensitive to his responses, checking on the look on his face off and on throughout the film. I know that as he gets older and is perhaps less impressionable, I would be less apt to be concerned, but I do feel pretty tuned into it. It's an interesting experience.

Broken Flowers (2005) dir. Jim Jarmusch
viewed: 08/10/05, Embarcadero, SF, CA / diary entry: 07/22/05

Jim Jarmusch is one of my favorite directors, despite the erratic natures and qualities of many of his films. When he gets it right, as he did so amazingly in Dead Man (1995) and Down by Law (1986), his films are the best of a generation.

This film is interesting in his oeuvre, as it is in essence a bit of a road movie, which is a vague genre that he has ventured into in the past, most notably in 1984's Stranger Than Paradise. In that film, he explored the country in a strange perspective, from an immigrant perspective, very visceral. In Broken Flowers, the exploration of the country is less about specific locations (no places are explicitly named), but rather a look at life choices and social strata, though I haven't concluded the absolute point.

The story follows Bill Murray, who is typically excellent, as a solitary lothario, who is wearying of his place in life, but is sparked to attention by a note left for him from an old lover, suggesting that he has an 18 year old son who is seeking him. The letter is unsigned and spurs him to make a list (with the explicit direction from his neighbor) and seek out the women of his life from 20 years ago.

There are five women that he seeks out in locations and professions that connote with varying lifestyles, all different from one another. One woman is a single mother with a teenage daughter, who comes from a lower middle-class neighborhood, alone since the death of her husband. The second is an upper middle class woman who is married and apparantly childless, living in a modern pre-fab neighborhood, making money from selling real estate. The third is a new age animal communicator, who is somewhere between crazy and rational. The fourth is an angry working-class woman, about whom we learn little, other than her association with motorcycles and rough guys. The fifth one is in a cemetary.

The progression moves in his relationship with the women from pleasant to brutal. He ends up sleeping with the single mom, who is glad to see him, to getting beaten up by the friends of the biker chick, who seems to loathe him.

What this all means, I am not totally sure, though for Murray's character, it is clear that he catches glimpses of alternative lives to his own, alternate paths he might have chosen. But in the end, as he stares intently at every young man on the street that is the age of his son, he realizes how lost he is and how alone. The crisis is of no longer knowing who he is in the world and what matters to him.

The film is slow, but is interesting. It's a sad, lost feeling that emanates from it. When it ends without closure, the audience is meant to feel as unsatisfied as the protagonist. And I am sure it will disappoint those who seek such closure in films. In the end, it's not great Jarmusch, but it is good Jarmusch. I'd recommend it, but not to everyone.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) dir. Tim Burton
viewed: 08/10/05, Loews Metreon Theatres, SF, CA / diary entry: 07/22/05

Tim Burton exhibits on his usual strengths here, great visual design and largely fun entertainment, but still displays a real lack of narrative power. I actually found this film pretty fun all the way through. Burton has been trying to pack a more emotional punch lately, and this film, though not powerful in that regard, delivers as much as any of his films ever had in that regard.

Johnny Depp is very good as the bizarre cartoonish recluse, playing camp for laughs. There is this sentimental part of the film where Willy Wonka makes up with his long-estranged father. Burton has used this motif before in his 2003 film, Big Fish, which some read as a personal commentary on his strained relationship with his own father who passed away prior to the making of the film. His handling of this content is pretty schmaltzy, not as deft or sickening as Spielberg, but more forced and unnatural.

I have said it before and I will say it again. I don't think that Tim Burton will ever make a great movie. But he may well continue to make films that are really fun and visually striking, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and maybe that is good enough.

Land of the Dead (2005) dir. George A. Romero
viewed: 07/13/05, Loews Metreon Theatres, SF, CA / diary entry: 07/15/05

As a big fan of zombie films and of George A. Romero's preceding Dead trilogy, I was pretty excited to see him get a shot a doing a new zombie film. Romero really had not done much since his last film in the series, 1985's Day of the Dead, a time period spanning 20 years, and I was a little dubious that he could still pull off a good flick.

The idea in this film, that 20 years have passed since the original series's narratives, was pretty clever. Not just picking up where the last ones left off, but evolving the whole world beyond its original universe. Romero has always used these films for social critique and certainly takes aim at contemporary socio-political realities with the criticisms here.

In the previous films, life is largely one of survival, though by Day of the Dead, former social structures have begun to take root. By Land of the Dead, living society has rebuilt its structures in a crude version of its former self. The rich live in a luxury tower, protected by a militia that is run by the corrupt leader of the society. The militia protects the haves from the have-nots, just as much from the zombies. The poorer class live on the streets of the protected city, virtually like homeless people, though peppered with much of the crime and ruthlessness in its underground as well. The pooer people have learned how to deal with the dead, stunning them with fireworks when raiding shops for food and supplies and knowing to aim for zombie's heads to kill them. Overall, they are less frightened of zombies and accept the dangers as part of the natural world.

But one key component of this film is that the zombies, too, have evolved, regaining the instincts of their past lives, learning to use tools (though like using a lawn mower on a parking lot surface, than anything useful). The zombies evolve a leader, one who figures out that the living aren't just food, but a threat. He learns to use guns and other tools as weapons and is able to rally other zombies to follow him, communicating with grunts and moans.

It's interesting to note that in the previous trilogy that an African American male was usually the main heroic lead for the films. This was particularly notable in the original Night of the Living Dead (1968), as a significant choice in a period marked by the civil rights movement. In Land of the Dead, the African American lead is the leader of the zombies, a far more sympathetic zombie, one with whom the audience is meant to identify with more than revile. It seems clear that the zombies represent another strata of a social class, a growing and evolving group, struggling to find their place in the world. This is even commented on by the hero of the living group toward the end of the film.

At the end of the day, Land of the Dead is no masterpiece. It lacks some of the low-budget charms of the originals in having name actors, Dennis Hopper and John Leguizamo, where the early films had almost entirely unknown actors in the roles. Overall, it does stay true to its gruesome humor and social commentary, while still being a fairly fun adventure film. It is a solid effort, nothing to be ashamed of, for Romero, and actually quite promising for future sequels (already in development).

Batman Begins (2005) dir. Christopher Nolan
viewed: 06/30/05, Loews Metreon Theatres, SF, CA / diary entry: 08/01/05

Though I enjoyed this version of Batman, I haven't really thought of much to say about it.

I think that Christopher Nolan did a respectable job here, creating a version of the story that has a very believable human angle to it, something about it is pretty convincing. It's dark and heavy and spends a lot of time re-working the "origin" of Batman. That is almost a knock against it, though it does do a good job at the process of re-telling a story that you know 90% of already. The film really does well considering the potential set-back of all the backstory.

Christian Bale is very potentially the best Batman yet performed. He's surely got the best build of anyone who's played the part.

I am encouraged that there will be sequels. This film promises things to come, though hopefully by that time Katie Holmes will be otherwise engaged (no, actually the pun was not intended). She's a smirky young person, not yet adult, not much of an actress, as far as I can tell.

Joel Schumacher be damned.

War of the Worlds (2005) dir. Steven Spielberg
viewed: 06/30/05, Loews Metreon Theatres, SF, CA / diary entry: 07/15/05

War of the Worlds, director Steven Spielberg's latest foray into science fiction (his specialty, many would argue), is a heck of an entertaining flick. The design and execution of the adventure sequences, the overall trashing of the world by the giant tripod robots marching around a destroying everything, is incredibly well-done and really is quite engaging. I was a little surprised how much I liked it myself.

The devastation wrought by the invaders really calls to mind Mars Attacks (1996) in a sense, this bloody, heartless annihilation of all things human. The river full of corpses and the sucking out of human blood really characterize the campy and shocking violence of the bubble-gum cards that inspired Tim Burton's comedic satire. It's definitely effective here, played for shock and seriousness, rather than for laughs.

As is often commented about Spielberg films, I think a strong argument can be made that the villans in this film, the aliens, can be interpreted as representations of the Nazis. There is this idea that in all Spielberg films, the villans are the Nazis, even the shark in Jaws (1975).

In the case of War of the Worlds, there are things that reckon of the holocaust: people being vaporized and turned into light ash, while their clothing flutters emptily down to earth (the ash like the resultant burning of bodies in concentration camps and the clothing as the remnants of a race exterminated), the bodies in the river (the bulk of death), and the chilling coldness of the aliens extermination of the human race.

War of the Worlds also reckons heavily of post 9/11 world as well. The attack on New York city, the hand-made posters for missing persons plastered all over the city, the crashed airplane, and again the ash leftovers of the vaporization covering Tom Cruise as he returns from the heart of "ground zero" (here the ash is like the soot of the pulverized World Trade Centers rather than human remains). Spielberg touches nerves with these allusions, quickly and effectively reckoning great tragedies in brief images, giving some emotional scale to the destruction being shown.

Spielberg exemplifies his own directing style with the "family" moments, creating a "heart" of the film. The performance that he gets out of Dakota Fanning is remarkably typical of the way that he directs children, cute and telescoping emotions, incredibly shallow and pap-like. Cruise is part of this too, though interestingly, his natural cockiness that is usually portrayed as a deserved attitude in films in which he is an ace something (race car driver, jet pilot, pool shark) is played against itself here, as he is a man with a broken family and kids that don't relate to him, too self-assured to doubt his place, until his humbling and heroic experience. This whole side of the film is really its greatest drag.

The ending, which more or less comes from the original source written at the turn of the century by H.G. Wells, is a whole lot of anti-climax after the adventure of the humans fighting back. But in other ways it's quite an intentionally humbling climax, in that the humans were pretty much doomed and all their pluck and humanity wouldn't have saved them. In essence they are saved by a plague that has exterminated many races with the globalization of European expansion across the globe.

I don't know, I liked seeing this film on the big screen, and I would pretty much recommend it straight up.

Howl's Moving Castle (2004) dir. Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 06/17/05, Loews Metreon Theatres, SF, CA / diary entry: 06/30/05

Hayao Miyazaki is one of the best things to happen to cinema. Not just animation, not just cel animation, but to cinema as a whole. He is a visionary auteur whose richly designed and developed fantasy worlds are utterly awesome and engrossing. His films are as good as feature animation gets and are so beautifully imagined and developed that it's little wonder that Pixar trumpets his greatness. There is no working animator who comes close to his work.

The San Francisco Chronicle reveiwer said that this film feels like it comes from another age, but really, it attests to the timelessness of his fantasy world, the mixture of old Eurpoean landscapes and weirdly period setting. Howl's Moving Castle is a fun adventure of a film, just fantastic.

It is not as good as Spirited Away(2001), but that film was likely his masterpiece. This film is excellent.

There are many classic creations at play, Calcifer the fire demon, Turnip Head the scarecrow, and the castle itself. The film is about a world of witches and wizards, of magic and transformation, the latter of which I believe is the core of animation. Though adapted from an English novel, Miyazaki takes the story and design and renders it as something wholly his own.

I honestly wish that everyone would see his films. I wish that I could take my son to see this, but I think it's a bit scary for him.

Long live, Hayao Miyazaki, and may he make films until he is 200 years old.

Sin City (2005) dir. Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino
viewed: 05/27/05, AMC Van Ness 14, SF, CA / diary entry: 06/30/05

I just realized, looking at the list of films that I have seen in the theater, what a bunch of nerdy choices there are: sci fi, sci fi, comic book adaptation,'s kind of silly.

It has to be said that I haven't been making it out to the theater for much and have been missing the less mainstream fare lately, despite having a number of films on my list that are less akin to these. Then again, the Metreon is incredibly close and convenient to my work and I'll probably end up there more often than not. Well, then again, the 1000 Van Ness ain't far either and it's pretty much the same thing, just arranged in a different order.

What amazes me, in San Francisco, is that all the multiplexes have the exact same films, probably the exact same films playing in middle America at a multiplex, too. The great homogenizers, the multiplexes. Around here, they let the smaller theaters handle the independent and art house circuit. They don't even bother with it.

But I am not a complete film snob. I like a good mainstream film myself. As long as it is actually "good", which most are not.

Sin City is a pretty cool film, somewhat of an experiment, but a fairly successful one. As I understand, most, if not all of the film was shot on green screen (didn't it used to be blue?) and all of the backgrounds and effects are digitally rendered. Shot largely in black and white, which is a financial gamble these days (some people won't watch a black-and-white film), it has an interesting look. There is some claustrophobic aspects to the shots, all on a soundstage, lacking the feel and openness of location shooting. But it works, as this world is a completely different one from our own.

It's a fantasy land where larger cultural development stopped at Film Noir but the brutality and physical prowess of the protagonists and antagonists is hepped up on steroids. It's the world well-adapted from the comic book, of which I have indeed read some. Frank Miller is even given co-director status by Robert Rodriguez, to inflect his vision more consistantly through the adaptation.

Rodriguez is a semi-interesting director. He's got verve and largely approaches fun projects. His low cost at any cost budgeting usually shows itself in his increasingly widespread film releases. He writes, directs, composes scores, edits, probably holds the microphone. But his stuff always comes off as fun but shallow. It's a confection, that at best might be stylish and entertaining, but at worst is just hollow junk. Luckily, this is among his best. But I am willing to bet that The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D (2005) is on the other end of his spectrum.

Vive Rodriguez, nonetheless!

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005) dir. George Lucas
viewed: 05/23/05, Loews Metreon Theatres, SF, CA / diary entry: 06/30/05

I got to see this on the IMAX screen by accident. I scheduled my ticket around the play times and didn't realize what I had gotten myself into. That said, it was pretty cool. It looked great on the large format. And besides all the disappointment that the second trilogy of Star Wars has brought, this film was pretty satisfying.

That is not to say that it did entirely away with the groan-inducing dialogue or some of the hysterically ridiculous acting, but those problems were mitigated by a much more compelling story and the fact that Hayden Christiansen finally got to act like a bad guy instead of a petulant teen.

People are totally crazy about Star Wars, and it has turned me off of the films a lot more than I might have otherwise been turned. I loved the series as a kid and was excited about this second series as an adult, though the actuality of the films really dampered that ultimately. But people are too crazy about these films; it's like a religious experience or deeper, their commitment to the minutiae and the fantasy. It annoyed me in film school, but it's so prevalent on the want to just say, "Get over it already!!"

But really, I enjoyed this film much more than I thought I would. I think the most telling part of that was that I was thinking to myself that I really wouldn't mind seeing it again. And honestly, though I did see the original Star Wars (1977) about 20 times in the theater as a kid (in the days not long before the VCR made that a more obsolete issue), I really don't have the time, money, or energy to see films more than once on the big screen. It virtually never happens. And maybe it won't this time, either.

But I liked it, better than Episodes I & II (hands down) and even more than Return of the Jedi (1983), which I never really cottoned to in the first place. That's my opinion, anyways.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005) dir. Garth Jennings
viewed: 05/06/05, Loews Metreon Theatres, SF, CA / diary entry: 05/27/05

It was a getting off early day from work and what movie that I was interested in that was starting at the right time and POW!! here I am revisiting The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, no longer some quirky low-budget 1980's BBC show, but now a special effects-laden anachronism with a largely American cast.

I had a moderately soft spot for the original tv series, and as a teen had read the first two of Douglas Adams' books. And I have friends (some who would proudly be called "nerds") who still are quite ardent fans of this cult of sci-fi humor.

And the first time around, in its time context, I think this was pretty clever and amusing. However, this time, even with all the more sophisticated visuals and effects, this whole concept, pacing, and humor seemed out of place. This story is a story of the early 1980's, not something that feels very contemporary. As true as it attempts to be, the vision of Adams' was a uniquely English perspective, with themes that truly commented on the time that it was written.

I tend to like dated Science Fiction more than the real thing, but this film just felt sort of wrong (and it wasn't particularly clever or funny.) The largely American cast varied in the quality. Though Mos Def turned in the best performance as Ford Prefect, hands down. Still, other than him it all seemed to have the wrong flavor.

That, and it just wasn't very funny.

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