For a Few Dollars More

For a Few Dollars More (1965) movie poster

(1965) dir. Sergio Leone
viewed: 07/05/03

Oddly, For a Few Dollars More, I always thought of as the lesser of the trilogy, partially because I had a bit of a hard time remembering the plot from it, compared with the other two films. As it turns out on this viewing, that it’s actually pretty cool in it’s own right.

It features one of my favorite shots from all of the films. Lee Van Cleef, as Civil War Veteran turned bounty hunter, Col. Douglas Mortimer, sees the Wanted poster for villain, El Indio. The camera flashes back and forth with greater and greater rapidity and in tighter and tighter close ups between the image of El Indio back in to Van Cleef’s glaring eyes. Each flash is punctuated with the sound of gunfire, “Pow!” “Pow!” “Pow!” “Pow!” “Pow!” “Pow!” “Pow!” “Pow!” “Pow!”

Funny, now that it’s been a month since I saw this one, again much of it has faded away. It’s definitely still great fun to watch.

Lost In La Mancha

Lost in La Mancha (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Keith Fulton, Louis Pepe
viewed: 07/03/03

Originally started as a “making of…” documentary about Terry Gilliam’s project The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Lost in La Mancha wound up documenting instead the disaster that the film’s production became. Lost in La Mancha, in the end, is a decent film about the film-making process and a sidelong biography about Gilliam himself. Gilliam, I think, is one of the more consistently interesting directors working in Hollywood, and this film might have been more interesting if it attempted to contextualize his work more, looking at the challenges of a filmmaker with very un-Hollywood ideas as he tries to cast his visions onto multi-million dollar productions. As it is, the film only gives the briefest mention of his previous films, showing no clips from them and not visiting them in depth. Still, there is a lot to enjoy in this film, amusing scenes and moderately informative glimpses into the world of movie-making.

The highlights of this film are indeed the meager footage from Don Quixote that were shot, suggesting that it could have been quite a fun movie had it seen completion. Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort were to star in Gilliam’s film and appear in many scenes as the disasters ensue. Ultimately the film production is cancelled with Rochefort develops a nasty prostate infection.

This is a small film, neither ambitious nor radical, quite unlike the work that Gilliam attempts to accomplish. It does have a good humor about it, and I enjoyed it. It was rather amusing.

The Pianist

The Pianist (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Roman Polanski
viewed: 07/01/03

Roman Polanski’s The Pianist is a simply, but elegantly filmed adaptation of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s account of his survival, hiding out in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation. It passingly reminded me of a film that I had always really liked, Agnieszka Holland’s Europa Europa (1990), as it was another remarkable tale of survival in the belly of the Nazi beast by a lone individual during the dark years of the war. Outside of this, I remember hearing another story of a family that immigrated during the war, and having commented on what an amazing true story it was, was told that every story that told of survival during these times was amazing, by its very nature. Whether that is true or not, I cannot say. But there is a power to the veracity of the tale told, that it actually happened, more or less according to the story woven in the film.

Polanski’s own life will no doubt one day be committed to film (probably after his death), as his own life story is as complex and incredible as anything filmed. Having moved to Poland at the age of three, just before the war broke out, Polanksi’s parents were both imprisoned in concentration camps and his mother perished there. He escaped the Jewish ghetto as a child and survived the war in the Polish countryside. I had read an interview with him when this film was in initial release and he seemed to heavily downplay any of his life experience being portrayed in this film. Whether or not such information adds a layer to this film or not, I don’t know, but it does cast it in a somewhat altered light.

I had this movie out from Netflix for over a month, I think, never getting around to watching it. It’s the kind of subject matter that one doesn’t really “enjoy” watching, though the film was not as brutally depressing as it could have been, I guess. Of course, Polanski is always interesting in some respect.

The star of this film, Adrien Brody, who I really liked in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam (1999), is good here; there is something imminently likeable about him. (I still think that Daniel Day-Lewis should have gotten the Oscar nod, but what-are-ya-gonna-do?)

Adaptation

Adaptation (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Spike Jonze
viewed: 06/22/03

Until Spike Jonze directs a feature from a script other than a Charlie Kaufman work, it will be hard to assess how much of his own stamp he manages to put on his films. Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze were the writer and directer pair that brought out Being John Malkovich (1999), which was very a clever and surreal film to have arisen from a Hollywood studio. Adaptation is very much a film about screenwriting, and quite specifically a film about the screenwriting of itself. The narrative includes a fictionalized character bearing the name of the screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman who is in the process of adapting Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief into this resultant film. Self-reflexivity is foregrounded to the Nth degree and definitely to a negatively narcissistic level.

The first half of the film features parallel narratives, one of the adapted version of the book and the other the screenwriter and his process of adapting the book. About half-way through the film, the book’s story ends and the movie merges the two stories into a presumably even more fictionalized projection. I recall that when this film was in its theatrical release that I had heard that a lot of people had been unhappy with the final act of the film. I, too, found it dissatisfying, but wondered about what was going on in it.

The book from which the film was “adapted” is essentially a non-fiction account of people’s obsessions with orchids, and particularly one John Laroche, the titular character of the book. The account of the screenwriter’s adaptation process is satirical and exaggerated, one perhaps based on some modicum of reality, and then embellished considerably. But one of the points that the Nicolas Cage Charlie Kaufman states as he is trying to adapt the book is that he doesn’t want to “make it all Hollywood” and end it with sex and a drug deal and having the Susan Orlean character actually fall in love with the John Laroche character (essentially falsify the story by adding sex and violence). The Nicolas Cage Charlie Kaufman has a twin brother named Donald (also played by Nicolas Cage) who writes a ridiculous screenplay that is well-received by his brother’s agent. Charlie loathes his brother’s approach to writing, explicitly deriding it and the workshop that Donald espouses as the genius approach to writing.

Where the first part of the film seems to resemble Charlie Kaufman’s off-beat approach to screenwriting, the latter part of the film seems to take Donald’s approach. The story becomes exactly what Charlie Kaufman said that he didn’t want, with sex, drugs, and violence. As the story veers off from its initial path, this idea is never explicitly suggested, rather it just happens.

The film is quite interesting and clever, though through much of it, the self-awareness reaches levels of near-preciousness. The ending, I think, is intended to read as near-campy indulgence, with Alligator attacks and explosions, aping the worst of Hollywood embellishments in adapted material. Like Kaufman’s other scripts, there is an element of pessimism that prevades the film, underlying the humor and clever structures and ideas.

The Hulk

The Hulk (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. Ang Lee
viewed: 06/28/03 at Platinum Theaters, Dinuba, CA

When I used to live down in Reedley, CA (a small town in the San Joaquin Valley — for those of you who do not know), we would have to drive to either Fresno or Visalia to go see a movie, which would amount to a 40 minute drive each way. A couple of years ago, the town of Selma (another small San Joaquin Valley town) opened a small, six-screen cinema, which made for a 20 minute drive and despite the rather mainstream and limited fare, saved the trouble of the long haul to the bigger towns when we visited the valley and wanted to see a film.

Well, on the Wednesday before I got to Reedley this last week, the town of Dinuba (yet another small San Joaquin Valley town) opened its own six-screen movie theater, the Platinum Theaters, as they call it. They feature “stadium seating,” which I guess is a plus over the Selma Theater, and though they show virtually the exact same mainstream fare, it’s only a ten minute drive from Reedley. On Saturday afternoon, we visited the Platinum Theaters to see Ang Lee’s The Hulk, the latest Marvel comic character to get the digitally animated big screen/live action treatment.

The theater is located right in the downtown, which is pretty cool, but its parking lot was still pretty unfinished, making it look quite a bit like it was not yet opened. But it was. It had that “new theater smell,” which I can’t say that I have ever smelled before, but is full of semi-toxic artificial chemical aromas of acrylic fibers and fresh paint. The theater was none too crowded, which was nice.

The movie. Ah, yes, the movie. Well, I didn’t have such high expectations. This wasn’t a film that I would have gone out of my way to see, but I felt like seeing something and my nephew was interested and there was this chance to see the film in this new theater…so that is how I ended up at it.

Digital animation has given filmmakers the license to portray a lot more fantastic storylines and characters than were feasible in the past with more traditional special effects. The Hulk is a giant green dude, bulging repulsively with musceles beyond even the most grotesque bodybuilder on Earth, something presumably that in the past could only be rendered with the likes of Lou Ferrigno (the tv Hulk of the 1970’s) or perhaps some animatronic creature. The problem for digital animation is to create believably something that is utterly unbelievable. And despite the distance that the technology has traveled, filmmakers often try to rely too heavily on the technology to render their story. This is not to say that some of the digital animation is not impressive or engrossing, but that its shortcomings are evident throughout, distancing the viewer and at worst, showing itself for what it is…which is not convincing.

In the past, 2-D animation has been utilized in the manner, and the results were similarly stylized but not convincingly real. The heavily detailed attempted naturalism of the Hulk and other digitally animated special effects seems to clearly attempt to allow itself to “read” as truly three-dimensional and “real.” Perhaps to younger viewers who have grown up with this animation style as a staple of the language of film, this technology “reads” better. Perhaps it is a personal prejudice on my part.

The film’s character and story development, which take up the first hour of the film and set the stage for the action, is handled more successfully, I thought, than last year’s Spider-Man. That said, Spider-Man was more fun, for whatever reasons. Ang Lee tries to situate The Hulk in more emotional territory, and as much as one can with a very fantastic story, manages to do better than Sam Raimi did with his bad dialogue and hammy acting. The Hulk climaxes with an operatic finale which seemed pretty over-the-top to me and somewhat unsatisfying. The best action scene was the battle with the “hulk dogs,” I thought.

In the end, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend anyone to see this film in the cinema, but it’s not a total waste of time. If you take it for what it is…an expensive summer confection from Hollywood that is ultimately a cheap sort of thrill.

Sex: The Annabel Chong Story

Sex: The Annabel Chong Story (1999) movie poster

(1999) dir. Gough Lewis
viewed: 06/19/03

I read about Annabel Chong (a.k.a. Grace Quek) first about 6-7 years ago in Giant Robot magazine, which is an interesting magazine in its broad scope though not always in its writing quality, and was not unsurprised when I read that a documentary had been filmed of her story as well. Chong, a native of Singapore, was a USC undergrad in sexual studies who entered the porn industry in a combination of research, perceived social commentary, and presumably to confront personal issues that she had about sex in general. The Giant Robot article and this film center around the apex/nadir of her journey, the filming of her movie, World’s Biggest Gang Bang (1995) in which she had sex with 251 men in a single 10 hour session, more than doubling the then world record.

As a documentary, this shot-on-video film is no great shakes. But as with many documentaries, the subject matter sometimes transcendently compelling and can override a less than quality film. I am not sure how “transcendently compelling” this story actually is, but there is something more here than the film manages to capture. Chong is intelligent, idealistic, troubled, and naive, and at the tender age of 22, these characteristics are in no way a-typical. Her academically inspired rhetoric about Sexuality and Women’s Studies is impassioned yet inarticulate. I wouldn’t doubt for an instant that someone with greater objectivity and education could weave some strong analysis of the issues that Chong seems to project on her situation.

What she seems incapable of recognizing is the self-destructive nature of her acts. Years before, in London, Chong had been gang-raped, a scene to which the camera follows her rather morbidly late in the film. A couple of times the film alludes to drug use, something which Chong is never shown doing or talking about. One scene depicts her cutting herself with a knife (scratching would be more accurate since the wounds she inflicts are not deep). This might be the great irony of that scene in general, as Chong’s life seems to be a series of self-inflicted emotional wounds which she doesn’t have the wherewithal to recognize.

There is so much material here that could have been better explored. Small asides with friends and associates fail to enlighten the subject in much more than hints. She delusionally tells an old school friend that she “is now one of the biggest porn stars in the world,” though, based on interviews with others in the industry, the claim is by no means an accurate one.

Ultimately, this is a depressing story and a depressing film. One would hope that this film would never become a truly tragic footnote in that perhaps Chong has grown/will grow and move on. At the end of the film, she returns to the porn industry after having quit. Her struggle for self-awareness, to come to terms with who she is, remains incomplete at the end of the film. And though her experiences are extreme and unusual, her troubled exploration of self is something that I think that most people can recognize and empathize with.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) movie poster

(1962) dir. John Ford
viewed: 06/16/03

Another journey to the realm of the classic Western for me, yet another John Ford film that I had not before seen. With John Wayne, no less!

I, like many people I would guess, have a somewhat prejudiced impression of John Wayne, the macho, drawling image of stereotypical American maleness, tough guy who solves problems by shooting people. Interestingly, this film seems to comment on that very stereotype considerably. And I have to say that the only other John Wayne film with which I am familiar, the brilliant John Ford film, The Searchers (1956), also seems to play Wayne against the types and ideals that from the outside seem to be what he represents.

As the film opens, Jimmy Stewart, a U.S. senator, arrives at the town of Shinbone (love that name) on the train, returning to the now civilized almost modern Western community, which boasts churches and schools and even looks very 1950’s. The bulk of film is told in flashback, as Stewart recounts the tale of how the town was settled, how law and order took over and ousted the wild criminal element embodied by Liberty Valance (played by Lee Marvin, who is totally excellent). It’s an interesting perspective for this film and filmmaker, in the latter days of the studio system and the a late classic-era Western from the greatest of the genre’s directors, looking back at the latter days of the “Old West”.

Wayne represents the classic Western hero, whose tough guy confidence, street-wise smarts, and ability to sling a gun prove to be just the skills that make a man a man in the order of things. Stewart is a lawyer and a pacifist who wants to tame the West with law and justice and shuns the fighting and killing that he perceives makes Wayne’s character just as bad as the villan. Though the story is told from Stewart’s perspective, and presumably the audience is meant to side largely with him, the tension between the two ideologies drives the narrative. In the end, Stewart gets the girl (the usual determinate of who wins in these types of stories), but by compromising his ideals. And ultimately, I am not sure exactly what Ford was saying here, but perhaps it’s that the West needed and authority of violence to instill arepresentative authority of law?

I don’t know exactly, but it’s a very good film, with a well-developed narrative and excellent performances by some truly classic Hollywood stars. If you haven’t seen it, you should add it to your list.

The Matrix Reloaded

The Matrix Reloaded (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski
viewed: 05/28/03 at The Coronet Theater, SF, CA

I’ve been really falling behind on this diary of late, and sadly, haven’t even been really seeing all that many films. This is yet another entry that I would have been much better off having written a more closely to the time I had seen it.

That said, the only thing that I think I would have articulated with more energy was my overall disappointment with this film. Perhaps what this sequel proves more than anything is that The Matrix (1999) by the Wachowski brothers was more pure design, style, and technology rather than storytelling and anything overly fascinating. This time around, the design and visual style are familiar (rather than flashily innovative), not only from the previous installment but from all the hundreds of films and commercials that have co-opted the original’s more powerful visuals. The technology, as is so often the case with digital special effects, has become pedestrian rather than eye-popping, and perhaps even more criminal, the visuals look more and more like an expensive video game than a movie (though it could be noted that part of the media glut that accompanies the release of this film is a rather large spate of just that: video games).

Perhaps the greatest innovation of the first Matrix film was the real integration of Hong Kong-style fight sequences, employing famed kung fu choreographer Yuen Wo Ping’s artistry. In some ways, perhaps this is part of the ultimate legacy of the heyday of Hong Kong film, that style and character of its action sequences was finally truly co-opted by American film-making, not so surprisingly in a somewhat cutting-edge fantasy blockbuster.

The newer film, which lacks the original verve of its predecessor, winds up being an amped-up version of the first film, but with a lot more silly narrative and pseudo-religious fervor (or is it pseudo? Is this film just pure Christian iconography?). Some of the backstory of The Matrix Reloaded truly verges on the level of badness found usually in the lesser Star Trek films. The most painful scene is the one in which Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus character preaches to the people of Zion about the Christ-like Neo and then tells them to dance! Which they do, in an interestingly filmed but largely campy orgyistic rave sequence. The Wachowskis seem to want to portray the earthy humanism of the downtrodden Zionist freedom fighters as they writhe to Trance-like disco. A fantasy about an idealized working class of the young and the hip?

The other nadir that the film hit was the long explanatory speech that laid out the story in doublespeek mumbo jumbo while cross-cutting the bigger action sequences. Perhaps we should credit the Wachowskis with figuring out how to use Keanu Reeves fairly well…it seems that most of their direction for him would have been: “Just look cool.”

Reeves: “What’s my motivation?”

Wachowskis: “You ARE cool.”

Reeves: “Cool, then.”

Rivers and Tides

Rivers and Tides (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Thomas Riedelsheimer
viewed: 05/26/03 at The Red Vic Movie House, SF, CA

This is yet further testament to how behind I have fallen in my little film diary/journal thing. No time to catch up and so some pretty interesting films, like this one, will get short shrift, I am afraid.

I had missed this film when it had been through town last year or whenever it came through. It sounded really interesting, focusing on the work of Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy, who creates his art installations out mostly in “nature”, using only found objects, often even highly perishible ones to build his varying creations.

Goldsworthy’s personal words on the subject certainly attest to his passion for nature and his connections to the Earth. While this was a little new-agey in spoken form, the visual presentation of him creating his work and his work itself truly have a transcendent aspect of this sensibility, one that is very profound and at times even stunning.

This film works well as a document to his process, especially since his work is largely ephemeral and constructed in such isolated spots that the experience is less one of exhibition and seemingly more personal. He documents his work with photography for historical and cataloguing reasons.

One thing that I liked about his work (I was mostly unfamiliar with him before reading a review of this film about a year or so ago), was the way that it has a sort of organic feeling of inspiration, building things the way that people do with sticks and mud or stones, like daisy chains or other such things that people/kids do when they are out on the beach or in the woods. So, there is something very natural about the process and not just the materials and forms.

Definitely worth seeing, if you are curious. We saw this film as part of the Monday Night Movie Club at the small Red Vic Theater in the Haight. It was Memorial Day Monday, at the end of a warm and pleasant three-day weekend, sun still out… Shockingly, there was a line almost around the block and the film was sold out! Only in SF (and more likely only at a theater as small as The Red Vic) could a documentary about an obscure artist would be a blockbuster.

Cube

Cube (1997) movie poster

(1997) dir. Vincenzo Natali
viewed: 05/24/03

High on concept, low on acting and clever character development, Cube is one of those interesting films that you kind of wish could have been just a little bit better. Well, when I say, YOU wish, I actually mean I wish, and I say this because I seem to have esteemed this film somewhat below the average of most of the people that I know. Low-budget, indie sci-fi (surprisingly six years old), I remember reading about this film when it came out, but it somehow slipped through the cracks until it was recently recommended to me.

Five characters find themselves trapped in a series of interconnected square-shaped rooms, some of which are booby-trapped, and must try to escape. The lack of narrative explication makes for a nicely open-ended and somewhat philosophical journey for the protagonists, though the character actors are largely emoting histrionically rather than blending into their storyline, the viewer is constantly aware of them “acting,” which detracts significantly from the narrative. The only thing that I can say in their defense is that the dialogue is lacking as well, and the story relies heavily on the audience’s interest in the characters.