The Royal Tenenbaums

The Royal Tennenbaums (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Wes Anderson
viewed: Metreon, SF

I enjoyed The Royal Tennenbaums, though in retrospect, it was a little “precious.”

Rushmore, I thought was pretty brilliant. So, I anticipated that Tennenbaums would be quite good, too.

And it certainly is a film cut from a similar cloth. The narrative presentation and pacing ring a similar bell, while the characters are clearly the same sort of imperfect geniuses that amuse and create in this fantastic, Salinger-esque universe of Anderson’s. Gwynneth Paltrow’s character has the same sort of knack for impressive theatrical adaptation at a tender age as the lead character in the earlier film.

The film has a great visual style, at times, striking and slick, while at others it looks like a student film. It’s mise en scene bears a strong influence on its personality.

The narrative follows an entire extended family and is, in that sense, a classic ensemble picture, revolving around Gene Hackman’s lead as the “Royal Tennenbaum” himself. And the cast is good: Ben Stiller, Angelica Huston, Luke Wilson, Danny Glover, all put in good performances. The characters feel developed in that they all have elaborate “back stories” that we are told, often in detail, but they are so “presented” to us that there is almost a feeling of detachment toward them.

The film is genuinely funny at times, both situationally and visually. It’s another film that I expect that future viewings may well offer more fuller enjoyment and understanding.

Blow

Blow (2001) movie poster

dir. Ted Demme (2001)

This film, which turned out to be Ted Demme’s (1963-2002) last, Blow, proved to be a pretty decent mainstream Hollywood bio-pic. Its subject is George Jung, “the man who established the American cocaine market in the 1970’s”.

The film was not really anything overly special, but none too shabby, either.

Demme envisions Jung’s life as the classic American success story/tragedy, an innovative businessman who discovers a new market, has to buck the system to make his business flourish, and ultimately gets rich. Jung is a sympathetic character for Demme, despite the fact that he is claiming to have essentially ignited the drug trade into the massive “illegal” industry that it became. It’s a stark and interesting contrast with Traffic (2000), Hollywood’s big “drug” film from the previous year, which was much more centered on the “problems” of drugs. Blow pretty much glamorizes Jung and his lifestyle, particularly in its initial splash, and maybe Demme saves his harshest criticism of Jung for his fading lack of fashion sense as he enters the late 80’s and middle age.

Johnny Depp is good as Jung. As his empire unravels due to betrayals and arrests, Demme never casts a negative light on his actions or motivations. In fact, in his final drug bust, he is set up by former friends who ultimately sympathize with him, feeling guilty for stabbing him in the back. And his motivation for getting in on the final scheme is to get enough money together to take care of his daughter and start a new life. He is portrayed as a family man, almost all-American, not a criminal.

In fact, Jung’s relationship with his father is classic Hollywood stuff, boy and his dad, right out of the late fifties/early sixties (perhaps not ironically, the period in which the boyhood scenes flash back to). Ray Liotta plays Jung’s father, who never judges him for his choices. He claims not to understand Jung’s career, but admires his son’s success, due in part to his own failures to eke out a living for his family. Liotta’s character is highly sympathetic and thusly, his compassionate view of his son is shared with the audience.

It’s melodrama with a coke straw.

The film features an good performance by Paul Reubens as drug-dealing hair salon queen and a dull performance by Penelope Cruz as a Columbian trophy wife, who is humanized only after she has crashed and burned and morphed into a typical suburban housewife.

The film is fairly well-made and entertaining, but gains its most thought-provoking aspects from its ironic use of mainstream Hollywood narrative and style to idealize a person whose lifestyle is clearly counterposed to mainstream American ideals. In that sense, this film is almost radical and definitely partially subversive.

Interesting.

Bridget Jones’ Diary

Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Sharon Maguire

Recommended to me by a litany of people, I had unfortunately concocted some expectations here. Word of mouth is the best arbiter for me, something I more inherently trust. But this time, it didn’t add up. Eleanor liked it, though.

It was only half-bad. I mean, I thought that Renee Zellwegger was pretty good. And I thought that Hugh Grant made a more interesting bad guy, even though he was only half-bad.

It just wasn’t all that funny. And I think it was supposed to be.

There was this weird little Pride and Prejudice undertone, what with the male lead being called Darcy and all, but it was pretty half-assed, too.

for what it’s worth, most people I know that have seen it, liked it. Pretty well. Maybe I am the only one. Maybe I saw it on a night when my sense of humor was hard to please.

Who knows?

Brother

Brother (2000) movie poster

(2000) dir. Kitano Takeshi

I love Takeshi Kitano.

The man is a genius. He is a great screen presence, like a small, bemused, Japanese “Man With No Name,” a la Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti western film persona. He’s always on the verge of laughter or violence, yet he is almost always expressionless. One of those faces that it’s impossible not to project upon, yet impossible to comprehend.

As a director, I personally think that some of his films are brilliant, particularly Sonatine (1993), another film about yakuza who are taken out of their element. However, Sonatine‘s brilliance is not matched here, even though some similar ground is tread and like metaphors abound.

In Brother, Kitano’s character escapes from Japan, following a change in mafia family loyalty by his best friend. He winds up in L.A. with his half-brother who is a small time drug dealer on the fringe of the American mafia with his multi-cultural gang, of which, Omar Epps is a primary figure. Kitano winds up taking charge of thier operation and starts gunning for the top.

It’s certainly an area full of potential, the culture clash of the two strong forms of mafia is set against the personal culture clash between Kitano and the American culture, which tends to underestimate him.

The strongest moments occur during sequences in which Kitano and Epps are playing games with one another, Chinese checkers, simple dice games. The best moment occurs during a basketball game in which Kitano’s aide from Japan tries to play, but is not allowed to play.

Escape From New York

Escape from New York (1981) movie poster

(1981) dir. John Carpenter

The thing about cable is the randomness of what is being shown. It’s always a crapshoot, usually offering up, just plain crap. This was a rare exception, a film that I liked that was coming on at a time that I could watch it. At 99 minutes, it’s a pretty tight little thrill ride.

The late-Seventies and early Eighties were a good time for low-budget science fiction/horror films, and at some point, John Carpenter had a pretty good grasp on how to make them. It seems like he’s been trying to regain his hand at it ever since he tried going “mainstream” with 1984’s Starman.

A midnight movie classic from its initial release, this film seems to have disappeared a bit in recent years. Carpenter made several films with Kurt Russell, the best of which is probably his gory remake of the classic Howard Hawks’ sci-fi flick, The Thing (1982). He also re-teemed up with Russell in 1996 to make a truly awful sequel, Escape From L.A., which missed the mark so incredibly. Luckily, the original still shines with its low-budget coolness.

Now, this is a film that I have seen several times, and actually, after re-discovering The Thing a couple years ago, I wound up renting Escape From New York at the time. So, in reality, it hadn’t been all that long since I had seen it…maybe a couple of years. So, this time around, the thing that stuck out the most was the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

A lot of movies feature the NY skyline and almost any that feature the WTC in any significance are now documents of the structures that no longer exist, as much as they are films…or at least for a while, that is perhaps how they will be seen. For this film, Russell’s Snake Plisskin lands his glider on top of one of the towers in order to infiltrate the world of Manhattan, a penal colony that reeks of anarchy, and what was, no doubt, in 1981, a humorous commentary on life in the city.

I suppose another irony would perhaps be the new “kinder, gentler, Giulianni-ier” New York that has taken place of this rather bleak, though comical view of “The Big Apple.”

Ernest Borgnine and Harry Dean Stanton show up in notable supporting roles.

The Man Who Wasn’t There

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Joel Coen
viewed: Bridge Theater, SF

You come to expect a lot from the Coen brothers. Some of their films are among my favorites, including O Brother Where Art Thou? from the previous year.

I really don’t know what to make of The Man Who Wasn’t There. It looked great. Shot on a color negative, but deveoloped as black and white, it recreates the look of the noir period., though through a different technical means.

Period noir, to me, is like a nouveau sub-genre of modern noir. Rather than envision the noir mood in a contemporary narrative, we travel back in time to the 40’s to the period from which the noir style hit its peak. Other things I have read have even pointed out some potential reference to other specific noir films, namely Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, which, in reality, though it is a crime film, I don’t know how noir it is. It’s been a long time since I have seen it.

The reason for the comparison is the setting, which is the same for both films, the northern California town of Santa Rosa, which is envisioned in both films as “Smalltown, USA.”

Actually, this point kind of bugged me about The Man Who Wasn’t There. I don’t know if it’s merely the local press’s interest in such facts, due to our proximity to the real town of Santa Rosa, but there were common mentions of the fact that none of the film was shot in the town. Some southern California town stood in for Santa Rosa, “Everytown, USA” indeed.

The film hasn’t lingered with me, despite good performances from Billy Bob Thornton and Frances McDormand.

The film that wasn’t there? I don’t know.

Out of the blue, a film that I would have had less expectation from, I might well have found it an interesting little movie. From the Coen brothers, I expected more. So, I have been left trying to figure out what this film is about. I have been lingering on place and period, which, as my good friend and I discussed, seems to play a prevalant theme in other films by the Coen brothers. But I am still clueless.

Well, I know that all of their films, despite initial reaction, tend to flower for me in multiple viewings. I recall feeling the opposite sensation coming out of The Big Lebowski, another film that dealt with noir and california and period and place. I had initially thought that Lebowski was trying to be too eclectic and tried shoving a little of everything into itself, without a strong grounding. But as I saw it again later on video and cable, I caught a lot more of what was going on, both literally and figuratively.

So maybe it will come to me, this film.

Evolution

Evolution (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Ivan Reitman

A pretty weak comedy here, with minor laughs and moderate highlights. Marketed as the next Ghostbusters, this film lacks any pizzazz that Ghostbusters had.

Ivan Reitman, of course, was the director of Ghostbusters and is clearly trying to recapture some of that film’s spirit here. It fails.

Anyways, this film was pretty lame.

Ghosts of Mars

Ghosts of Mars (2001) movie poster

(2001) John Carpenter

This film had the making of a good, contemporary B-movie. Starring Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube and Pam Grier, it had the “street cred” of some seriously lower drawer stars that have potential to have their low budget charm.

The world of the film really isn’t all that different from the types of post-apocalyptic science fiction from the 80’s, though it’s packaged a bit more slickly in costume that looks contemporary. Carpenter seems quite stuck there, in the 80’s, though. The fight sequences have this low-budget feel that also somehow has missed out on the sweeping reforms of The Matrix-influenced modern kung-fu.

The biggest detractor from the film, though, oddly enough, is the strange editing style used intermittantly throughout. The film implements a fade in and fade out of action, usually used to slow things down in a film or to “skim” time a bit, sometimes giving a “dream” feel. But this technique is used in Ghosts of Mars to show a character crossing a room, or coming down a hall. It’s an effect that seems to serve no purpose, actually breaking rather humdrum shots and making one wonder, “why?”

All in all, some pretty weak stuff.

Jeepers Creepers

Jeepers Creepers (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Victor Salva

Here is a case of something that I have been experiencing a lot lately. A film that starts very well, shows a great deal of promise, setting mood, affecting a narrative that feels more unusual, but then fails to deliver on the early minutes’ promise.

In this case, however, the ultimate package wasn’t too bad for what it was worth, though the promise still lingers as unfullfilled, the potential for a much better film squandered to a different set of cliches.

Jeepers Creepers opens with a brother and sister on a cross-country drive back from college in an old car. After a quick, yet effective few minutes of character development, the conflict begins, as they are harrassed and driven off the road by malicious driver in an old van. They are frustrated and angry, and when they pass a house on their route where they spot the vehicle that ran them off the road, they see a figure that is acting suspiciously, dumping something down an old drainage pipe. They decide to intervene, motivated by revenge and curiosity.

Up to this point, and maybe by the next scene in which the brother is dropped down the pipe through clumsiness, the story has an almost classic B-movie scenario that is based enough on common experiences to be pretty compelling. The acting is less typical contemporary Hollywood than your usual teen horror flick, less produced, more low-budget. And it works.

But then the story becomes fantastical with a non-human villain (“The Creeper”) that after eventually being revealed, turns out to be some “demon” or soemthing, doing evil for the typical “unknown” reasons that cartoonified “evil” always seems to do it. I mean, who knows?

To the film’s credit, this turn could have switched over into the cliches associated with that type of horror flick, like Puppet Master or Lepprechaun or what have you. Nonsense that no longer has any connection to reality, but is merely a fantasy of creative violence (i.e. new ways to chop up teenagers).

The film continued to remain interesting, featuring a couple more scenes in which the direction elevated the material. And ultimately with its sort of ambiguous ending, actually achieve some sense of existential pleasure that the initial sequences had suggested.

So, I had mixed feeling about this film, but found it intriguing. Definitely a cut above the typical horror film genre. But it clearly had the potential for more. It would have been a totally different kind of movie.

— on a separate note, after seeing the film I was curious about the director, whose work seemed far more polished and interesting than the typical hack. I had seen his Italian family name and wondered if he was an import. To my surprise, he was Victor Salva, the director of the movie Powder, which I hadn’t really cared for, but again recalled that my friend was telling me that he was a pedophile.

Further research, by which I mean, a handful of minutes on the internet, brought up some news articles about said controversy and that the fact of the matter was that he was a convicted child molester that had “served his time”. A lot of controversy had arisen when he had directed Powder back in 1996 for Disney, especially since Disney was the production company and the subject matter was teenagers. And there had been some public outcry when this film, Jeepers Creepers had been shot.

One of the sites that I got my information from, was Andrew Vacchs’. He, if you don’t know, is an attorney turned crime novelist, who also commits a huge portion of his life defending children from child abuse. His site has a plethora of information on it, and is kind of interesting. I don’t really know what to make of him, personally. Having only read one of his novels, Blue Belle which wasn’t very good. He seems quite vindictive. He also had information about Roman Polanski, who is also wanted for molesting a child. And interesting subgenre of directors starts to emerge…

The Mummy Returns

The Mummy Returns (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Stephen Sommers

So, yes, I was catching up on all of the summer flicks that I missed in 2001. None of these had managed to inspire me to get out to see them theatrically (though I think that these types of action flicks tend to fare better on the big screen, being special effects shows that for some reason work better in the big and loud than on the small screen).

Eleanor had enjoyed the first Mummy film quite a bit, seeing it as picking up its mantle from Raiders of the Lost Ark and taking off into action/fantasy — which is totally clear. I appreciated the reinvention of a classic “monster” movie, the like of which I lived for as a small child, though in reality, The Mummy was far more Indiana Jones than it was Boris Karloff.

The sequel wound up reckoning a bit too much of Temple of Doom, what with its precocious and annoying child added to the mix of actors that reprised their roles from the initial film.

The whole film was imagined on a grander scale and with more fantasy elements, including some pretty amusingly over-the-top designs. Some of which was pretty interesting. Other parts less so.

All in all it lacked any genuine fun that the first film generated — for whatever reason. Like going through the motions makes for good adventure fun.

I did like the pygmy cannibals, though.