Human Nature

Human Nature (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Michel Gondry
viewed: 12/18/02

Human Nature is a high-concept comedy with some intellectual trappings. It is also broad comedy with a significant reliance on slap-stick and physical humor. Its split-personality approach seems analagous to its themes about the conflict between animal instinct and civilization and its codes.

Written by Charlie Kaufman of Being John Malkovich (1999) and soon-to-be-released Adaptation (2002) fame, the film mines a territory akin to his other work, absurdity and surrealism, virtually untrafficked by other Hollywood films. The film is director Michel Gondry’s first feature film, and maybe the film’s short-comings all crop up in its execution. Or maybe the material just simply isn’t as funny as it is supposed to be. I hardly laughed at all during it, though I found it moderately amusing throughout.

Trying to paraphrase the general plot of the film makes it sound funnier than it really is. It’s also quite convoluted. Patricia Arquette plays Lila, a woman whose body is covered in fur, escapes civilization to live in the wild. Longing for love, she returns to civilization and meets Tim Robbins, who plays a scientist who abhors nature and is obsessed with “civilizing” humanity. His life’s work is training mice to use proper table etiquite. And Rhys Ifans is a wild man who was raised in the woods, isolated from civilization, thinking himself an ape.

The film’s major subtext is foregrounded, obviously, in the conflict in humanity between the natural world and the “civilized” one. Kaufman and Gondry clearly sympathize with the nature side on the surface, Robbins’ scientist is so repressed and out of touch with himself that he can’t interpret his explicitly straightforward dreams in which his conflicts are played out. Each character is narrates the events in flashback form, with varying degrees of understanding. Robbins again is clearly myopic regarding the facts.

However, there is an aspect of self-loathing in many of the characters and perhaps also in the tone of the film. The film often seems loaded with intentional irony. Do the film-makers truly side with Arquette and Ifans’ characters? If so, much of the film’s rhetoric is also straight-forward and explicit.

Ultimately, I didn’t think that the film was very good. I can’t really say what it was exactly. I think it was just the whole thing. I don’t know. Je ne sais quoi.

Reign of Fire

Reign of Fire (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Rob Bowman
viewed: 12/11/02

This movie looked ridiculous, almost to an amusing degree. I can enjoy bad films as much as the next guy. Maybe I enjoy them ironically, but I can enjoy them.

Directed by Rob Bowman, whose previous directing work included lots of television science fiction and The X-Files (1998) movie, Reign of Fire seems to take its hilariously outrageous pretense very seriously and tries to depict its fire-breathing dragons invading Earth story as realistically as possible. In digging a subway tunnel in contemporary London, excavators unearth (and unleash) a long-hidden ancient dragon. In less than a generation, the creatures drive humanity back to Dark Age lifestyles. The protagonists hole up in an ancient castle in Northumberland. It’s an post-apacolyptic vision with a D & D fantasy twist.

The fantasy aspect to this vision of mass destruction seems to in fact be far more pure “fantasy” than one imbued with significant meaning. I struggle a bit to ascertain some semblance of the subtext at play here. Just what are the dragons meant to represent? Are they some environmental revenge or perhaps merely a metaphorical trigger that unleashes civilization’s weaponry to an ultimate mass destruction? Neither of these ideas holds up under much analysis.

It is unsurprising that much of the discourse of the film seems rather muddled. A good deal of the plot points of the film are equally silly and utterly full of holes.

Despite the film’s inherent silliness and its utter inability to acknowledge that fact, I found this movie moderately entertaining. I might have been my incredibly low expectations that allowed for that, but I have seen far worse (see Brotherhood of the Wolf for example). In many ways, this is a shallow, “by-the-numbers” Hollywood action flick with all the latest digitally animated fantasies dominating the screen. Perhaps this film’s greatest merit is its ludicrous plot.

I also found the weird homage to The Empire Strikes Back extremely corny and hilarious.

Hands on a Hard Body

Hands on a Hard Body (1997) movie poster

(1997) dir. S.R. Bindler
viewed: 12/07/02

I had been interested to see this documentary when it came through the Roxie a couple of years ago (or whenever it was) and had since heard good things about it from a couple of different people. It is about a Survivor-like contest at a Longview, TX Nissan dealership in which participants have to stand with their “hands on a hard body” Nissan truck until they are the last one standing. It is an endurance challenge, not unlike the dance contests of the early 20th century. The prize is the truck which they have held a hand on for the roughly 80 hours of sleep-deprived waiting.

The participants are all pretty entertaining characters. The contest has created and attracts a bizarre subculture, the most-amusing of which is Benny Perkins, a winner from a previous year and thus an intimidating competitor in the present competition. Perkins pontificates and philosophizes about the experience to amusing extremes, seeing within the contest all of the “human drama” of the world. The filmmakers rely a good deal on Perkins’ rhetoric to convey the film’s intended significance. And he’s a good subject with his Texan drawl, he’s a veritable Walt Whitman of the standing-with-your-hand-on-a-truck circuit.

The film manages to keep from making too much fun of its subjects, which could have been a reasonable temptation. The contest was filmed in 1995, but at times feels like its from perhaps a decade earlier.

Techncially, the film is weak, though. Working with a low budget and possibly just a single camera, the filmmakers manage to miss every significant dramatic moment, including the final person to drop off. The physical editing and sound also seem particularly unpolished, which is understandable, but the editorial “choices” also seem unpolished. Frequent visual and autitory flashbacks seem to detract from the narrative, rather than to enlighten it.

Despite its technical shortcomings, it still made for entertaining viewing.

All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) movie poster

(1930) dir. Lewis Milestone
viewed: 12/03/02

Most of the films that I have been seeing lately are very recent. In fact, the oldest film that I had seen this year only dated back to the 1960’s up til this point. I was interested in seeing Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front as I had just finished reading the book from which it was adapted.

Erich Maria Remarque’s novel is absolutely stunning. I would easily rank it among the best novels that I have read. Shockingly visceral, the book is written (in translation from the German, mind you) in simple, clear, immediate language that effects poetry at times. Both the novel and the film are often described as “anti-war,” which they certainly are, as they depict “a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.”

I had not long before read Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and had been taking an interest in reading more about the first World War. I had remembered the gruesome descriptions from history class, and the significance of the horrors of the war on the world of the time. Now, having entered our new century, the second World War seems to have totally eclipsed WWI in the general consciousness (this is purely an opinion on my part — don’t ask me to prove it). Anyways, the period and history had interested me, and the novel of All Quiet on the Western Front I had known to be a “classic,” so I was interested in it.

So, after reading the book, I was curious to see the film, which was released in 1930, right as film was changing its productions from silent to sound. The film has also received great praise; it was the first sound film to win the Acadamy Award for Best Picture (while such an accolade these days seems to stand for nothing, it isn’t necessarily historically a problem).

The film is very good, but comes nowhere near the novel. The novel is more purely tragic and weighted with a heavy sadness throughout. The novel is also incredibly graphic and detailed, yet very personal and, as I mentioned before, even poetic at times. The film has many strong moments. Some of the strongest are dolly shots that pan across the approaching line of the French troops as they are gunned down or blown to bits one by one. They charge the screen and die in a continuous scrolling movement.

The film does a good job at telling the story, though it simplifies the narrative by making it chronilogical. It makes sense for the film to be this way, but it loses the less linear storytelling that gives the novel some of its qualities.

Also, I believe from what little that I have read, that the film originally began shooting as a silent film, and somewhere in the midst of production, they decided to add sound. There are many shots that linger on images longer than typically happens in sound film. Reactions are acted or mimed, with the image held for a more sustained “look” than we are used to seeing. While part of this has an antiquated quality to it, it also has an interesting effect. Silent film was a purely visual medium, and as such, relied entirely on images to tell the story. There is still a power in this.

Well, this is all I will say on this for the time being. Read the book. It is amazing.

Louis Wolheim was excellent as Katczinsky, easily the best performance in the film.

The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings (1978) movie poster

(1978) dir. Ralph Bakshi
viewed: 12/23/02

It’s hard to believe that I hadn’t watched a single film on VHS all year until I borrowed this video from my nephew. The moment that the movie started, I remembered why I have switched over to DVD so permanently. This video was an old one, so it suffered from quality and degradation issues, but significantly, its pan-and-scan format cheapened the look of it considerably, which I think hurts the film quite a lot. So much of this film was trimmed down (as the pan and scan principles do trim), it looked more like an old Johnny Quest episode than as if it had ever been a theatrically released film.

Also rather startlingly, I realized that I had last seen this film twenty-four years ago (Good God!), at the age of nine, upon its initial theatrical run. Certain aspects of this film had struck me at that time and had stayed with me over the years. As through my university days, I began to take a more coherent interest in the films of Ralph Bakshi, I had been tempted to see it again, but had never gotten around to it. It was only after reminiscing about it with my sister, right after having just seen Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers in the theater, that she told me that they had a copy of this film on video at home.

Bakshi had made this film, which comprises the first two books of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, as the first of a planned two-film series, the latter of which was never made. At a 132 minute running-time (and actually, the video copy that I had may have been even more truncated than that), compared with Jackson’s two film interpretation of the same material that adds up to something like 360 minutes or something, the film manages to hit most of the major plot points with reasonable success. Still, it’s quite a bit more like a Reader’s Digest version of the tale.

The most interesting aspects of the film are some of the differing techniques that Bakshi employs to tell the story, some of which are quite effective in some ways. Bakshi relies heavily on rotoscoping for motion and design of all of the taller characters. For those unfamiliar with this technique, it was initially developed in the Fleischer studio (home of Betty Boop, etc.). Rotoscoping traces the live action film movements of actors, animating by virtual “tracing,” but enhancing to whatever extent (a modern rotoscoping method was used for Richard Linklater’s Waking Life film).

Bakshi employs different levels of animation on top of essentially rotoscoped images for different effects. It would be good to get a sense of the actual techniques used to create these effects, but I will have to guess at them. It seems that some characters are more traditionally rotoscoped, gaining their movements from the original film footage, but being more traditionally cel animated over the top of that. At other points, some of the rotoscoping seems to show more of the footage through the “animation,” possibly to the degree of almost simply tinting the film which seems like it was shot in high contrast. The orcs and the night wraiths are extremely creepy in their rendering this way. I had remembered finding them scary as a child, and the mental image of them had stuck with me over time.

There seem to be many degrees to which Bakshi utilizes the rotoscoping technique, though it was hard for me to pick out any real rhyme or reason to it. At one scene in a tavern, the actual people’s faces show through the animation/tinting quite strikingly. The opening sequence actually seems as though it is merely shot in silhouette, not animated at all. It seems that the high contrast footage may also have been shot to create the look of old silent film footage, moving a little more jerkily and with a reduced details.

These character renderings play out against a variety of backgrounds. In much of the film, the backgrounds are fully-rendered naturalistic fantasy landscapes. But at times of high drama and also significantly when the perspective changes when Frodo puts on the ring, the backgrounds become downright abstract. Sometimes it seemed like these abstractions were derived from photographic images, but others it seemed purely non-representational.

I have to say that the effect of some of these techniques is still quite spooky. Rotoscoping retains an “echo” of sorts from the naturalistic movement recorded by the traditional filming process, but the process of animating over it mutates it. This ghost-like effect seems apparent in all rotoscoped animation to some degree. By intensifying the contrasts in many of the applications of rotoscoping that Bakshi employs and by using the images to create a dissonant sensation (these are the scary, evil creatures often), the images are disorienting and unnerving. I would easily place this as the film’s greatest strength.

The overall execution of the film suffers from other weaknesses. The “acting” in it isn’t atrocious, but the film’s overall effect is not strong. I do think that it suffered considerably from being a poor and old video copy that also may have been trimmed from its initial theatrical release. And though some of the varying rotoscoping is strong and interesting, some of the traditional cel animation looks cheaper and more poorly executed. And at some points, I wondered whether some of the variances in technique were tied to production’s financial limitations, which I know plagued the film. Were all the decisions purely aesthetic, or were they monetary?

As a student of animation, or an aficionado, or what have you, the film certainly has merit.

Live Nude Girls Unite!

Live Nude Girls Unite! (2000) movie poster

(2000) dir. Vicky Funari, Julia Query
viewed: 11/26/02

This documentary about the unionization of the Lusty Lady strip club in San Francisco interested me from the local angle. It’s a story that I had followed in the local media, and though I have never been inside the place (I have never been in a strip club ever, actually), I have heard a lot about it over the years. Actually, I had always heard that the Lusty Lady was supposed to be “lesbian-run” (which I think was meant to read potentially as “politically correct, of course”) and a place where a lot of girls would get their first strip jobs. It made it sound like a fairly decently-run establishment, and maybe compared to other strip clubs, it is. I was surprised about the working conditions that the film documented. It wasn’t like some Third World sweatshop, but it was hardly a strife-free workplace.

Another thing that I didn’t know about the film was the “personal”, “confessional” aspect of the film. Julia Query, who co-wrote and co-directed the film, is also a stripper at the club and resultantly film’s primary subject. She is a natural focal point being one of the main organizers of the union and one who has a mother who is a well-known nurse who works with other sex workers (prostitutes, in her mother’s case). Query is almost too close to the action (no pun intended) to have good editorial judgment about directing the film, perhaps.

Some moments that arise from the “personalization” of this story are interesting, such as when Query “comes out” to her mother about being a stripper (she is already out to her mother regarding her sexual orientation). There is an ironically exploitative side to this, which Query acknowledges on camera before filming her “coming out” to her mother and the resultant drama. Query is also a stand-up comedian, and she intercuts segments of her stand-up act about her work and story to comment on certain plot twists and developments. Maybe it is not inherently the personalization and autobiography of this that is the film’s weakness, but just in the execution.

Unfortunately, Query herself is not interesting enough to carry the film, though narcissistic enough to try. However, the film’s overall subject is pretty interesting. Perhaps someone with a keener mind for film-making could have eked more out of this material.

Bottle Rocket

Bottle Rocket (1996) movie poster

(1996) dir. Wes Anderson
viewed: 11/23/02

I never caught Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket when it first came out. It was originally released in 1996 in the midst of a spate of American “independent” films, of which, for me, it was lost among the others. I meant for some time to finally see it, particularly after enjoying Rushmore (1998). So, I finally got to it.

Like many of those other 1990’s “indie” flicks, this one is a small, character-driven comedy filmed on location in the areas from which their directors hailed. In some ways, its smallness and style don’t distinguish it so much from many other films of that time. But it has a charm and character that are recognizable of Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson’s singiature type characters and world.

I don’t have much else to say about this film, but it was enjoyable.

In the Bedroom

In the Bedroom (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Todd Field
viewed: 11/19/02

In the Bedroom was a much more interesting film than I had imagined it would be.

Films that tend to get Oscar nominations for acting roles, though they of course feature “juicy” characters for actors to emote their way through, they often offer much less in the way of film-making or anything overly cinematic. This is a gross generalization, of course, and worse yet, most of my examples that I would suggest are films that I haven’t actually seen (I am Sam (2001), Monster’s Ball (2001), Training Day (2001), e.g.), but have only read about (so I truly am weakening my position on this).

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule (even weak, potentially indefensible ones like this). I only bring this up because I thought that In the Bedroom might have fallen into this catergory for me, the type of film that lots of people go to see for the performances, but are actually really unsatisfying as films.

My supposition about this film, in this case, was wrong.

Beyond being an interesting mixture of genres (the “family melodrama” meets the “thriller”), Todd Field’s In the Bedroom offers interesting metaphors regarding space and the family unit. The first allusion to this occurs early in the film on a lobster boat, when Tom Wilkinson’s character talks about what happens when two male lobsters get caught in the same trap, showing the one that has lost a foreclaw. I wish I could quote the dialogue exactly, but it’s been a couple weeks already…this is the piece of dialogue in the film from which the title arises.

Later in the film, Nick Stahl’s character, a student of architecture, shows a little model that he has created in the style of an architect that he admires. He describes the way that the architect uses space to connect and separate people in his model house. Field goes on to shoot the film with a keen eye turned to the “real” space his characters inhabit, challenging their earlier words through the actions and events that occur in the homes. I can’t analyze it further without a second viewing, but it’s an interesting motif that plays throughout the film and seems to be a key point of criticism.

I won’t go on about this, but I think that this was an excellent film, surprising, dark, and strong.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Chris Columbus
viewed: 11/27/02 at Park Cinemas, Paso Robles, CA

The Harry Potter phenomenon. Like many such phenomena, 99% of it is media-made hype. That is hardly breaking news, but it’s still worth pointing out when approaching a film like this.

In a slightly less cynical time, not all that long ago, I still enjoyed these big Hollywood productions for what they were and came to think that the hype and commercialism could easily be viewed as all part of the film. The media frenzy is a wholly intentional and heavily “worked at” goal of the studios and the monies behind these products. With tie-in’s at fast food chains, toys in every format that one could imagine, and video games to boot, the film experience of a big Hollywood prefab “blockbuster” is inclusive of the barrage and inescapability of the film all around us,…whether we see it or not.

When I say it was a less cynical attitude, I mean that I kind of enjoyed the onslaught, the gluttony, the gimmicks and toys. I found it fascinating and amusing. Now, I just see lots of landfill.

This extraneous noise of the hype of a film, its ubiquitous advertising and its shared cultural excitement (which most of the children — and some adults I know — share in), is absolutely a significant part of the viewing of a movie like this. I think it often plays heavily into the frequent disappointment that films such as this evoke. I mean, how could they in fact live up to so much hype?

I also often wonder about the way that these films will play in years to come. They are such products of their time, often rooted heavily in the special effects of their time, and they tend to reflect the most polished and “cutting edge” technologies and ideas of a period. They become dated and passe very quickly. And years later, when the hype has petered out, they will be seen with totally different eyes and in utterly different contexts.

Again, this is always true of pretty much any film or cultural product. And I am sure, I am not saying anything new here. But this is all part of the “baggage” with which I approached this film.

I have read the first two Harry Potter books (keeping up with the kids on the street and all) and while I don’t think that they are ground-breaking classics of children’s literature, I did enjoy them and I do think that they mostly represent a better cultural phenomenon than, say…Pokemon.

So, anyway, about this film. I thought it was better than the first film, which did an amazing job at rendering the world of the books visually and a reasonable job at casting. I thought the first film’s visual design was excellent, but its rushed narrative tried to pack in the entirety of the story. It ended up being less engaging than I would have liked. This film had the same visual design (less significant in its familiarity, but still very nice) and seemed to be better overall. Of course, I found the second book to have a better sense of narrative development, too, so maybe that had something to do with it, too.

There are a lot worse cultural products and a lot worse films than this one. The film, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, is not bad, but one ought to be suspicious of all things that come with too much excess effluvia and hype. I am.

Eight Legged Freaks

Eight Legged Freaks (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Ellory Elkayem
viewed: 11/06/02

Semi-fun homage to the giant insect/arachnid subgenre of horror films. What it lacks in invention it makes up for (as much as it can) in its embrace of silliness and action. The film moves along at a fair clip, telling the story deftly and succinctly (of course in a myriad of cliches), never sitting still long enough for one to dwell on its short-comings.

While it is moderate fun, particularly in its dumber qualities (a guy on a motorbike popping up in the air and kicking a leaping spider at the same time, for example), it lacks the earnest seriousness of the films to which it offers homage, but rather thrives on its lack of seriousness. While films like Them! (1954), Tarantula (1955), & The Deadly Mantis (1957) have more camp value now for their earnestness, Eight Legged Freaks embraces the camp (with all eight legs) yet almost makes fun of its the silly (perfunctory – a genre staple) environmental theme (the toxic waste placed in the Arizona desert caves that leads to the growth of the giant spiders). I suppose a more clever film would manage to somehow embrace this aspect of the genre as well.