X-Men: The Last Stand

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Brett Ratner
viewed: 06/02/06 at the AMC Loews Metreon 15, SF, CA

Not surprisingly, with the departure of Bryan Singer, director of the first two installments, and the insert of director Brett Ratner, whose claim to fame were the action/comedy Rush Hour series, the X-men franchise hit the rocks of mediocrity rather hard. Singer, whose work is probably above average at best, left to make the coming Superman reprise and left the super-mutant group struggling with one another for screen time.

Eh, it’s exactly what everyone else is saying about it. Too many characters and plot lines vying for the spotlight, with none of them getting proper treatment. There is an aspect of “last gasp” to this film, feeling like everybody has to get their 15 seconds of screen time since it might be the last shot.

I’ve felt that the main success of the X-men movies has been that they got a lot of the characters “right”. This simply means that they were able to bring them to the screen with casting, effects, make-up, and narrative in a way that really captures their comic book origins. Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine is the prime example of this. And this time, they bring The Beast, played by Kelsey Grammer, in bright blue, which I thought was pretty good. Grammer’s voice I think found its greatest role in Sideshow Bob on The Simpsons and I can hardly hear him speak without thinking of that character.

The comic has long portrayed the “mutant condition” as a metaphor for racism (originally) and later for homophobia and other societal fears of non-mainstream culture, non-white culture. In X-men: The Last Stand it’s a myriad of things, but the “cure” for mutantism echoes I think a bit more of historical psychological approaches to homosexuality, seeing it as an aberration that must be “fixed” rather than a variation that can be accepted. Ultimately, it’s simply “difference” that is being eradicated (and I want to say that with the French accent on difference). I don’t think that this film really has anything to say in particular on this issue, but merely rides existing rhetoric in the comic narratives to suggest a sense of something more than lots of explosions and characters with “real cool” superhuman abilities.

As a summer movie denuded of all this comic book expectation, it’s not too bad. It’s entertaining enough, hyperactive and overfull of material and characters, but enjoyable. Being a San Franciscan, I enjoyed the major set-piece with the Golden Gate Bridge being moved from Marin to Alcatraz.

Lots of characters are either killed or made powerless in this film, though the ending leaves the door open for future installments. Certainly, as many others would suggest, one hopes that they will find a more interesting director to take the helm next time.

Girl, Interrupted

Girl, Interrupted (1999) movie poster

(1999) dir. James Mangold
viewed: 06/01/06

Upon its release in 1999, Girl, Interrupted wasn’t high on my list of movies to see. I mean, I have liked Winona Ryder for years, but the reality of her is that she may be one of the prettiest waifs to hit the big screen in decades, she’s at best a middling actress with zero range. And after her initial jump onto the Hollywood A-List, she started choosing really crappy movies to be in. This, of course, came before her shoplifting phase, from which she seems to just about to be starting a comeback.

I recall people reading the book and there are all these pop-culture products that reflect the type of experience portrayed in the film. The “mental institution” situation is almost a new genre, at least for film. I guess this idea gelled for me after Christina Ricci pulled her own version of this with Prozac Nation (2001), which I haven’t seen yet, but will see right after this one. This is my mini-exploration of this genre.

Girl is set in the late 1960’s in a posh mental institution in Boston. Psychiatry and Psychology have changed dramatically since that time and I am not familiar enough with their histories to really analyze the quality of help and diagnosis that Winona’s character receives in this film. Overall, she does seem to get the help that she needs, though her stay is pretty darn long at 18 months. Some other comments that I have read about the film suggest that Susana Kaysen, the author of the memoir/novel, perhaps wasn’t sick at all but just misunderstood and out of step with society at the time. However, Susana as played by Ryder, is diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, which is still a diagnosis used today, though perhaps seen differently than it was 40 years ago.

The film is better than I expected, only because I had pretty low expectations. Director James Mangold, whose more recent film biography of Johnny Cash, Walk the Line (2005) got a lot of reasonable praise, is really a pretty unremarkable director. The film is glossy and moderately pretty. It’s not tough and gritty. It’s mainstream Hollywood all the way, conventional and predictable (I knew someone was going to commit suicide, just had to guess which one).

Of course, Angelina Jolie, who is freakishly skinny in this movie, made her name with her performance and earned as Oscar. She is good, convincingly real, but it’s not Shakespeare she’s dealing with.

The best thing in the film was the definition of ambivalence, the concept that one has strong feelings that are in opposition to one another which causes them to be unable to move or decide. This is in opposition to a common misunderstanding of the word to imply non-commitment being a form of disinterest. It’s interesting, too, that this definition strikes Susana since she is a wordsmith and ultimately achieves “understanding” of her illness through concepts rather than medical definition.

It would be interesting to further pursue this genre of the “mental institution” film, which most notably is represented by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and The Snake Pit (1948), the former of which I am well-familiar with while the latter I have never seen. Also, I think of Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963) and one also thinks of The Bell Jar, though I have only read the book on that one. Of course, next up is Prozac Nation, which I understand is not as good a production as this one. Should be interesting.

The Devil’s Rejects

The Devil's Rejects (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Rob Zombie
viewed: 05/28/06

I’d been curious about Rob Zombie’s gore films even though they had gotten mixed reviews because some of the comments about them suggested a sense that they strove to attain some visceral quality of 1970’s horror films, something more edgy than other current horror fare. I didn’t realize that The Devil’s Rejects was a sequel to Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses (2003) or I probably would have watched that one first. I don’t know how watching this film would have been altered by that experience. I just note it.

There’s a lot of extraneous nudity. The violence itself is less graphic than other films I have seen lately. Ultimately, though, it’s a film where the crazed psychopathic killers/rapists/torturers are the explicit anti-heroes despite their brutatlity. There is an interesting twist when they are tortured by the cop that is seeking revenge for the murder of his brother. The cop is played as the bad guy largely, though it’s a bit of a blurry line. The viewer is meant to enjoy the band of killers called “The Devil’s Rejects”, a family of fightin’, feudin’, and feisty Ed Geins, mostly gruesome and filthy in their appearance, but perhaps idealized as well. It’s a family unit, so there is probably some social commentary there.

Baby Firefly, played by Sheri Moon Zombie, wife of director Rob Zombie, is a weird contrast to the pure trailer park creepy that the mother, father, and brothers are. She’s straight out of Playboy, blonde and cute like a girl-next-door. She’s the oddball, which one could liken to the character of Marilyn on TV’s The Munsters. Maybe that is part of how she is figured. Everyone else is gross, pretty much, though her brother Otis could be considered somewhat of a representation of the director, since he looks somewhat like him.

Ultimately, I am not sure what to make of it. It wasn’t utterly innovative or clever. The dialogue was often criminally bad. It’s hard to see what Zombie is making of his killers. They enact moments of torture and violence that are unprovoked and cruel. Are we meant to like them? Why are we meant to pity them when they go through the same things? It’s clear from the ending that they are being posed heroically, maybe like Bonnie and Clyde, or something poetic and idealized. It’s not a-morality in a rational sense, but maybe in a confused and contradictory way. Maybe if I’d seen the first film, I’d have a better sense of it. I don’t know.

Thumbsucker

Thumbsucker (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Mike Mills
viewed: 05/27/06

Tepid indie fare. A coming of age story about a teenager who sucks his thumb. There are some good performances by Tilda Swinton and Vince Vaughn and others. And a typically strange and representational performance by Keanu Reeves as an orthodontist. There are moments of true quality but it’s mostly low-key and not overly substantial, I would say.

There is an interesting analysis of Ritalin as a treatment for the main character. And some of his journey is interesting. I think that the portrayal of his parents is one highlight. The best sequence is when he gets his Debate Team teacher to buy him and a bunch of girls beer in a hotel room and they have a pillow fight. I don’t mean this for voyeuristic reasons, mind you. This film is not bad, but not amazing either.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. Judy Irving
viewed: 05/25/06

This film played in San Francisco for some time and intrigued me. I have always found the flock of wild parrots in the city as one of the city’s amusing characteristics. I’ve seen them flying many times and heard their distinctive jabbering. I didn’t really know how one could make a feature-length film on the subject, but quickly after the movie starts, one realizes that this film is really about Mark Bittner, this semi-loser/classic San Fransiscan, and his relationship with the animals.

Bittner is this guy who is jobless and lived in a little place right by the birds free of rent for several years. He cared for the birds, fed them, named them, studied them. There are interesting aspects of parrot biology offered up, but ultimately this isn’t a nature documentary. It’s really about Bittner. He’s sort of an urban, less insane version of Timothy Treadwell, Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005), although he is not pecked to death in the end of the film.

The film has a sappy ending that sort of makes sense, with the long-haired Bittner (who says that he was growing his hair until he got a girlfriend) cutting off his locks, moving out of Telegraph Hill, and hooking up with Judy Irving, the director who poses herself lightly into the film (until this point). Sorry for the spoiler. I know that you’re upset.

The Body Snatcher

The Body Snatcher (1945) movie poster

(1945) dir. Robert Wise
viewed: 05/24/06

This film appears as a companion on the DVD for I Walked with a Zombie (1943), part of the Val Lewton collection. Directed by Robert Wise, director of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The Sound of Music (1965) among many others, it is like other Lewton films, a cut above the period’s genre films while remaining pretty low budget.

Based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson, it is a mostly “realistic” horror film about grave-robbing and the cultivation of the science of anatomy but ultimately murder as well. It features a prime performance by Boris Karloff and a sad and diminished role for Bela Lugosi.

Again, I was struck with how this film and I Walked with a Zombie both prefigure some of the better work of Roger Corman in the 1960’s with Vincent Price, who also goes back to 19th Century Gothic horror to cull for subject matter for their films. It’s a tight film, dark and creepy, but also interesting historically regarding the development of science. It’s good stuff. I mean it.

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. George Lucas
viewed: 05/22/05

Ah,…Star Wars.

As a general rule, I won’t watch anything in an “edited-for-television” mode. But with Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) just released and my impending trip to the theater to see it, I was thinking that it would be good to revisit the 2nd …or is it 5th chapter of this saga, because the last and only time I had seen it was in the theater on its initial release and disappointment.

When Fox broadcast this, I realized the opportunity to save myself the trouble of renting the DVD and could watch it in its most plebeian format. Then I would feel prepared to head out to the cinema to catch the final installment.

I grew up with this stuff, like many a person of the era. I saw the first film in the theater in 1977, a mere 28 years ago. I was agog over it from the age of 8-14 or so. And I still have a soft spot for it. But significantly, I am not part of this modern zealot phenomenon whose fanaticism is far more proliferated and often even more insane than the cult of Star Trek. Is it all about Science Fiction culture?

Anyways, my first viewing of Attack of the Clones was in the theater and was disappointing. While I thought it was an improvement on Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), it was still a huge letdown. Was Lucas really so bad at so many aspects of making a film?

The love story is awful, painfully awful. The cringe-inducing dialogue and the amazingly over-the-top cliche’s of soft-lit romantic backdrops to the lovers’ conversations are truly things for the ages. Interestingly, it seemed as if they cut some of it for the telecast.

Still, the film is more fun than the first, and I am not just talking about when Natalie Portman’s shirt gets ripped to reveal her midriff. Though that still does crack me up like nobody’s business.

It’s amazing how many plot points that I had forgotten in the years since I had seen it. Who was making the clones, why they were making the clones, all about the death of Anakin’s mother, etc., etc. So re-viewing it helped for going to see the new film. And for some reason, I felt less harshly critical of it. Maybe I’m just softening up after all these years.

Brick

Brick (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Rian Johnson
viewed: 05/23/06 at the Embarcadero Theater, SF, CA

It’s been a long time since there was a movie that I was hearing a lot of word of mouth buzz that I hadn’t read much about beforehand. But lots of people have been talking about Brick and most have been recommending it. So much so that I actually got out to see it.

The film is generally described as “Film Noir in high school”. This is moderately accurate. The narrative is set in a Southern California high school and the kids talk in this weird vernacular that seems a pastiche of old slang and maybe made up slang. It’s meant to have that tough sound of hard boiled communication, I believe. The whole high school thing is fine as a setting, but really the film is more interested in the story, which could have easily been set outside of high school. The whole high school thing feels strange, not trying for realism per se, but some strange fictional world that simply doesn’t really exist. This is reflected in the odd dialogue.

While the world of the film doesn’t feel like realism, one of the more interesting aspects of the film to me is the settings in which the film was shot. It’s this bland, faceless suburbia, with California hills and back alleys of a town. It’s a generic place but at the same time very specific. I don’t know if that makes sense.

Though there are some moments of curious humor, the film largely seems to be fairly serious. The living room lamp in the SUV was a nice touch. The houses are decorated with strange pictures on the wall.

Lukas Haas struck me as quite good in this film. He’s developed into a very handsome guy, and he brings a subtlety to the character of The Pin that stands out among the other characters.

Overall, the buzz about this film seems a little overheated, though it’s different, unusual, and has some true character to it.

I Walked with a Zombie

I Walked with a Zombie (1943) movie poster

(1943) dir. Jacques Tourneur
viewed: 05/21/06

I had seen I Walked with a Zombie when I was living in England 11 years ago and the film had made a great impression on me. I have long been a fan of producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur’s collaborations and really think that this film is pretty darn amazing.

These zombies are not the blood-thirsty killing machines of the 1960’s and beyond, but the more Voodoo-inspired walking dead that embody the term “zombie” (meaning catatonic more or less) more than the ones that want to eat people’s flesh.

It’s a Gothic tale in a true sense of the genre. I’ve read that it is a loose adaptation of Jane Eyre which is further insistence that that novel hits my summer reading list. Atmospherically shot, with shadows of Venetian blinds and jungle leaves, it’s a dark nightmare of a dream, with visions of fear and death.

The most striking images are those of Darby Jones, the dead-eyed African zombie, who lurches around like a specter. The shot by the tree with the hanging goat is iconic, often cited in texts. It’s really of something from a lost time. The attitude towards racism is mixed, somewhat well-intentioned, but using fear of the unknown of Voodoo as outre, there is a malignity in this, probably not entirely out of step with the Hollywood, even the B-movie Hollywood, of its era. Still, there are more African-Americans in this film than in many. But I must say, after reading a few short stories that focused on African or Caribbean Voodoo and religion as a site of horror and titillation, I would say that this comes from a small sub-genre of horror that makes it interesting, too.

The film is beautiful, particularly in its poetic ending. One other thing that struck me about it is that Val Lewton and Co. were true pre-cursors of Roger Corman in creating low-budget horror films that transcend genre and elevate into great art.

Over the Hedge

Over the Hedge (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Tim Johnson, Karey Kirkpatrick
viewed: 05/20/06 at the Loews Metreon Theatres, SF, CA

Not groundbreaking by a long shot, but a mostly well-made feature animation, Over the Hedge, the latest digital animation to hit the big screens, is alright. Adapted from a comic strip that used to run in the San Francisco Chronicle some years back and presumably still runs in some, it features some big star voice talent and finely detailed animation, showing the money spent to render it. And it features some genuinely funny bits.

My son, Felix, particularly liked the squirrel, voiced by Steve Carrell, who is pretty much the definition of “manic” and really has the funniest lines and tropes.

I mean, this is what it is, a well-made, nicely designed animation, certainly not up to the Pixar standards and certainly doing nothing of note to diverge from narrative and character standards that exist. It’s nothing overly original. There is a moderate amount of consumer culture criticism and the whole story is about animals in nature being encroached by suburbia. The only thing that could have given this critique any teeth would be if all the cute little characters ended up dying or being relocated.