The Brothers Grimm

The Brothers Grimm (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Terry Gilliam
viewed: 01/09/06

Terry Gilliam is one of those directors of whom I will watch pretty much anything he makes. It’s not that his work is consistantly great, but rather that it is consistantly different and unusual. And, of course, he has made some very good films, too.

I’d heard that The Brothers Grimm was not very good and knew that it had been sitting on shelves, so to speak, waiting for a release date for some time. That is often a sign of a movie with which studios do not know what to do. Still, even so, I kind of liked the concept of the titular brothers going around Europe pretending to root out witches and horrors until they end up facing one that is real. The story weaves around a bit of fairy tale stories and reconfigures them in amusing ways. And the tone of the film is pretty good, light and funny.

But it’s not that great. I’m not a particular fan of Heath Ledger or Matt Damon, but they actually do pretty well here. The narrative gets a little cheesy with some of the more dramatic parts that it tries to pull off and the female lead is sort of a pretty lame faux-feminist sort of character. That part of it lacks imagination.

There are moments when one feels that there was real potential here. But in the end, it’s not great. That said, I didn’t mind the film. It may be a lowlight in Gilliam’s career thusfar, but it’s not totally embarrassing.

The Triplets of Belleville

The Triplets of Belleville (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. Sylvain Chomet
viewed: 01/12/04 at Embarcadero Center Cinema, SF, CA

This is a pretty great film. I’d recommend it to any and all. I’d love to make this film overpower Finding Nemo (2003) and Shrek (2001) in terms of box office returns to encourage the world to realize that there is so much more potential in animation than is ever going to be explored in mainstream Hollywood productions. Not that this could ever happen. Still, it’s heartening to see a feature-length film like this that is so rich and clever and different.The film is beautifully animated, with some wonderful character animation, and in that sense is very appealing and strong. More interesting is the emphasis that this film puts on the visual by telling its entire story with virtually no dialogue. For animated short films, this isn’t anything new or radical. Animated shorts, like other filmic shorts, can afford to be more radical or unusual in their approaches to narrative and representation. Feature animation is so costly to produce that it almost always requires commercial viability. And in that sense, this film has some aspects of a straight-forward adventure sort of story, including a climactic car chase sequence (how un-radical is that?).

But this film is different from most anything else at the feature-length animation level. It surely wouldn’t be confused with any other film that I can think of. It represents a very personal vision, a world utterly unique and vivid.
Everyone should see this film. It’s totally great and fun and clever. Really.

 

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Mike Newell
viewed: 01/07/06 at the Loews Metreon Theatres, SF, CA

The amazing thing about this movie is actually how it constrained the sprawling 734-page novel into a cohesive 157 minutes. Credit the writers for cutting out a lot of fat from J.K. Rowling’s heavy tome. I know because I read it not long before watching this film. I’ve kept up with the books usually just in anticipation of the movie releases, though a couple of volumes behind the crowd and the book releases. It’s good stuff.

The thing that the films do well is visualize the books. It’s all very literal and well-designed. It’s always quite striking how close the films come to capturing the world and characters to the way that one imagines them while reading.

What was really impressive, too, was seeing this film on the IMAX screen at the Metreon. I happened to catch the last Star Wars film on the IMAX too and it’s just cool. It’s hard to get over the hugeness of everything. And for this Harry Potter installment, the sweeping landscape shots around Hogwarts struck that much more of an impact on their pure vast scale. It’s really the essence of seeing something on the “big” screen.

All in all, the Harry Potter franchise is certainly not the worst such thing out there. It’s pretty fun. I can say that was I the target age range for this stuff, I am sure that I would have eaten it up. It’s not genius, but in some ways, it’s more pedestrian aspects sometimes are part of its charm. It’s guileless.

Dark Water

Dark Water (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Walter Salles
viewed: 01/05/06

Dark Water is really not a bad ghost story of a movie, though the pervasive decay of the environment is a little over the top. It’s an adaptation of a novel by Kôji Suzuki who wrote the Ringu series and technically also an adaptation of Hideo Nakata, the director of the Japanese “originals” of these films. I never have seen the originals in this case. But I think the work of The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) director Walter Salles and the overall attempt at this film really is better than the buzz it’s received.

The location filming on Roosevelt Island in New York City is very effective, locating the action in this separated section of the metropolis. And the use of the housing blocks in which the film takes place are evocative, though perhaps not as effective as they could be. The gloomy decrepitude is heavy. Perhaps that is naturalism, but it felt a little strong.

I think that the film’s biggest problem is it’s main theme and motif, quite literally the Dark Water. It’s heavily emphasized and in some instances is effective, but it’s a lot of overkill. I mean, the polluted water running down the walls and coming out of the sink is gross and somewhat creepy, but it’s not so much in and of itself. I think it actually put me off of seeing this film a bit because it didn’t seem to be that much substance to be so interesting. Beneath it, I think that the story is good, perhaps quite simple, and could have succeeded perhaps with less emphasis on this, its main visual and literal motif.

Alone in the Dark

Alone in the Dark (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Uwe Boll
viewed: 01/04/06

I can’t remember the last time I watched a Christian Slater film. Really, how long has it been? My curiosity got the better of me with this very low-quality adaptation of a video game into a horror/action film because it was so roundly panned and director, Uwe Boll, was even referred to as the modern potential Ed Wood, Jr. That with star Slater and co-star Tara Reid as a scientist, I knew this might be worth a look.

I don’t play video games, so I am unfamiliar with the “source material” for this film, so I just have to treat it as a film narrative and know where it came from. It doesn’t really matter. All I can say is that it makes Resident Evil (2002), another adaptation of action/horror video games, look pretty polished.

Alone in the Dark starts of with a narrative “scroll” that tells a pretty long and detailed backstory, so much so that you’re pretty confused from the word “go”. It’s this crazy native American lost society unleashing some Lovecraftian evil beasts, with some crazy government agency for paranormality that operates like some high end SWAT team. There is too much to tell and huge jumps in logic and the whole thing is pretty ridiculous. It’s almost great in its badness, but not utterly fulfilling in that regard.

The other notable thing about this film is the movie poster which is a H.R. Giger-inspired abstraction of an x-ray-lookin’ thing. It really doesn’t have anything to do with the movie except that the creatures clearly owe their inspiration to the aliens of Alien (1979).

2046

2046 (2004) movie poster

(2004) dir. Wong Kar Wai
viewed: 01/02/06 / diary entry: 01/05/06

I had been meaning to see 2046 for some time and I am sorry that I didn’t catch it in the cinema. The cinematography and art design of Wong Kar Wai’s films is always stunning and certainly exudes more power on the big screen. His films also typically move fairly slowly, so watching in the theater tends to be more engrossing. 2046 is, in some ways, a reprise of Tony Leung’s character from In the Mood for Love (2000), which I have never gotten around to seeing. I can imagine that watching that film could inflect itself on this one. His character’s attitude toward women is chaotic, from distant functional sexual relationships to deep longing and love. He is lost, due to the happenings in the prior film in a fractured world from which he seeks escape.

The escapist narrative is an oddly futuristic “place” or lack of “place”. It’s neither time nor place in a sense. It’s a train, populated by no one but the protagonist and a beautiful automoton played by Faye Wong. Again, the protagonist’s dream of love is refuted ambiguously by the woman. Is it due to her delayed reaction? Or is it her previous engagements?

In Wong Kar Wai’s films, characters are always failing to connect, helplessly caught in some longing, yet unable to resolve the need for themselves or others. It’s a tone and mood that pervades his work and is heavily present in this film as well. In some ways, the tone feels tired, as though we have been through this all before. But something in the secondary narrative, maybe its parallel commentary on the main narrative provides more insight to the characters’ states of being more than in other of his films.

His films have a feeling of the avant-garde, while in many ways echoing an outdated mode of the avant-garde. Maybe that makes sense in some post-post-modernist modernity. His films are also always beautifully shot, and 2046 is no exception. It looks great and it’s pretty intriguing. Wong Kar Wai is still one of the most interesting directors out there, in my opinion.

King Kong

(1933) dir. Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack
viewed: 12/30/2005

King Kong is brilliant. I can’t remember the last time that I had seen this film, but I certainly don’t think that I ever appreciated it as much as I did this time around. And that said, I always liked it. Especially after having recently seen Peter Jackson’s sprawling, loving remake, I was highly tuned into the narrative and the details of the period and setting. On top of all of this, I watched the film with two four year-olds with the excitement of seeing something very special and “scary”.

The special effects might be considered hokey in a day and age when the realism and verisimilitude of digital animation is becoming so strong that one is increasingly sold on their “reality”. But the special effects are still quite stunning, in my opinion. Well, at least the stop-motion ones. The close-ups of the “life-sized” Kong are more charming for their quirky silliness than their power. The action sequences are well-done, much more impressive than I had remembered.

The setting, the real 1930’s has a lot more power than Jackson’s re-envisioning of the 1930’s through a lens of innocence and humanity. Robert Armstrong’s Carl Denham has a brassy New York tough showmanship that Jack Black just can’t muster. It actually might have been much better if he tried. Black is also nicer, less cut-throat. Everything is in the Jackson film. It’s not even that this film is cynical or harsh, but rather that the New York of the 1930’s comes across more in the dialogue in ways that just ring true. It’s the character of the film, I guess, that I am focussing on, something less tangible perhaps than I can get at.

This truly is iconic cinema.

King Kong

King Kong (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Peter Jackson
viewed: 12/22/05 at Loews Metreon Theatres, SF, CA

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.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith

Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Doug Liman
viewed: 12/13/2005

Not as bad as everyone said. Certainly not a success, however. Doug Liman is a weird director with a decent if not robust resume. I actually think that he’s maybe just making the wrong kinds of movies.

I am not sure how cynical Mr. & Mrs. Smith is or if it’s got a subversive side or not or if it sort of undercuts all that with an easily predicted happy ending. It’s a critique on marriage and relationships and mediocrity, I suppose. And it’s got the two people who in terms of contemporary pop culture, would be deemed pretty much tops in the sex food chain for their respective genders (not my opinion, just an observation of the cult of “personalities”). Is it their “fake” marriage and “fake” middle class lifestyle that dulls them into an unhappy marriage that is purely gorgeous on the surface (beautiful, successful people, big house, great careers)? Or is it that the mediocrity of middle class is inherently soulless and boring? Motherhood is highly shunned by a very unmaternal Jolie in one scene at a neighborhood party. In reality, they are ace assassins, each better than the other, sexy, top of the line, in their secret “real” lives. And when they can finally expose to each other the fact that they are not these dull, boring middle class selves, and that they share much more in common, their sex lives improve and so does their marriage. Is it a critique? Does it have teeth or is it muddled? There is more here than most people would give credit for, but not necessarily enough to really recommend it, really.

Kontroll

Kontroll (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. Nimród Antal
viewed: 12/24/2005

A dark little Hungarian film shot in the Budapest subway system. It interested me since I had travelled in that subway system years ago and remembered how interesting it looked. It makes for great location shots and there is a compelling world created there within.

The film is sort of a fantasy, an “underground” (multiple meanings here) world of insane ticket collectors (so crazy and perverse that the film opens with a disclaimer by the manager of the transit system saying that this film is pure fiction and that the ticket inspectors don’t behave like they do in the movie). It’s funny and the characters are quirky and amusing, as is their world.

The film never really clarifies how literal some things are, leaving quite a bit open to interpretation, which is usually a good thing — and maybe it is here, too.

I liked the film. I thought it was fun. And though I have forgotten more than I know about it, it might be an interesting companion piece to Luc Besson’s 1985 film Subway