The Italian Job

The Italian Job (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. F. Gary Gray
viewed: 10/18/03

Many years ago, I was writing magazine and music reviews for a notable punk rock fanzine. Being a junior member of the staff, I was given a lot of cheap, unexciting music to review and was giving it my genuine personal criticism. The editor/publishers thought that I was being too harsh and moved me off of the music reviews, replacing me with someone more positive and less critical (I guess).

The reason that I bring this up is that lately, writing about the films that I have seen on DVD, I find that I am more and more just writing my personal reaction, since I am not finding the time to try and think up more interesting stuff to write about the films. And my reactions have been largely tepid to fairly critical. I’ve seen some decent films on DVD recently, but nothing that really excited me. I am beginning to feel that I am in a bit of a grouchy rut or something, reminding me of my demotion in the world of punk rock music.

Anyways, I bring this up because The Italian Job, while a decent PG-13 rated action-comedy, was also fairly soulless and forgettable. Perhaps these polished chase sequences and explosions played better on the big screen (as they almost always do). A film usually has to have a little bit more going for it to play well on a television.

The violence in the film, the killing, is all acted out by the film’s villain. The heroes of the film do not carry guns and keep the film to its PG-13 audience by keeping the blood flow and retribution to a minimum. This works both as a marketing device (more kids can go see a PG-13 film than an R-rated film) and also probably plays out an anti-violence undertone that probably appeals to some politically correct and pseudo-pacifist film producers.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1

(2003) dir. Quentin Tarantino
viewed: 10/13/03 at Loews Theatre at the Metreon, SF, CA

In the San Francisco Chronicle (a terrible source for critical reviews but is the newspaper that I read regularly), critic Mick LaSalle totally lambasted Quentin Tarantino and Kill Bill: Vol. 1 for the violence of the film. My understanding is that this reaction, as extreme as it is (reported not only in the initial review, but in a follow-up article later the week that the film was released), is in tune with a number of other critics of the film.

While I have mixed feelings about the way violence is portrayed in media (probably only more mixed as I now have a small child and begin to be more concerned with the world that he sees), I also have an affection for a number of types of action genres that are among the most violent in cinema. And if there is anything that this film is trying to do, it is trying to emulate and pay homage to a number of those films and their genres. I have to wonder how long has it been since these people, if at all, have seen some of the types of films to which Tarantino is referencing? I can only think that people who are reacting like this have spent too much time watching the latest (more typical) Miramax releases and mainstream “art house” films and have completely elided kung fu, the revenge film, and exploitation films from their worlds.

I found Kill Bill to be pretty damn entertaining, sashaying between moments of almost campy comedy (the dialogue was sort of intentionally bad, I am guessing) to stunningly pleasureablely choreographed action set-pieces with lots of dismemberment and geysers of blood.

Because the film was “chopped” in two, this being the first of two parts, it’s hard to draw a lot of conclusions about this film and what it is really about. It’s largely a visual spectacle, and it’s also sincerely steeped in homage. The film opens with a Shaw Bros. logo, which is followed by retro placeholder intertitle that reeks of the 1970’s. Tarantino doesn’t isn’t all too subtle with his referencing and tribute-paying. That aspect is seriously foregrounded in this film.

There is a campy quality to the violence as well. Anytime that a limb or head is severed, blood spurts from the wound in a comical stream, spurting and spurting, a couple beats longer than seems logical. The bursts are quite similar and so numerous that it quickly feels absurd. The absurdity is intentional, as it is a part of the camp and humor of the genres that Tarantino plays with. What the film’s attitude toward violence is I can’t say. But from an initial viewing, I would suggest that it’s almost like something from Monty Python, though it certainly veers toward drama to an extent.

As pure spectacle and entertainment, I liked it.

Bend It Like Beckham

Bend It Like Beckham (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Gurinder Chadha
viewed: 10/11/03

Question: What kind of a humorless sourpuss wouldn’t enjoy this upbeat, English, “grrrl power” film about a young Sikh girl’s dream of playing professional football (soccer, for you Americans who don’t know better)?

Answer: Me.

While it’s positive, upbeat, and cheerful, the film is also amazingly naff. At many points it is as badly acted and written as a poor Australian soap opera. It’s obvious, beyond recognition…meaning that I felt like I had ESP, as I could see plot twists rounding corners long before they left the door. Lots of plot points evolve from simple misunderstandings, which are about as grounded in reality as most of the plot scenarios in television’s Three’s Company

Also, I have some doubts about these self-perpetuated (self-conceived) cultural stereotypes (akin to the ones in Joel Zwick’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)), in which immigrant cultures are quite literally stereotyped in supposed positive, though self-deprecating ways. This is not a politically correct comment that I am trying to make here, but rather just saying that there is something that makes me feel squeamish about these portrayals, though they are not inherently “objectionable”. It’s just a pet peeve, I guess.

See, I told you that I was humorless.

Identity

Identity (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. James Mangold
viewed: 09/21/03

This movie was surprisingly bad. The film is intended to be a clever psychological thriller with a unusual plot “twist.” And to some extent that aspect of it is okay. In reality, it plays out more like a cheap “slasher” film or something, with characters killed off one by one with more of a bent toward the horror genre than the “thriller,” per se.

I don’t want to give away the plot twist, in case it happens to really work for anyone else. I will say though, that one could argue that the shallow stereotypes that stand in for characters in this film can theoretically be explained away by some of the film’s conceits.

All I can say is that after having seen this film and America’s Sweethearts (2001) (which I caught on a plane flight in pieces) is that John Cusack may be one of the more appealing and “cool” actors in Hollywood, but he doesn’t at all make very good choices with his roles.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. George Clooney
viewed: 10/03/03

This movie was also surprisingly bad. Well, bad might be a little rough. I had higher hopes for it, that’s for sure.

When I saw that Clooney was directing it, though, my hopes weren’t quite so strong. It may be that, as an actor, Clooney chooses some of Hollywood’s best scripts/productions of the past couple of years (Clooney or Johnny Depp, though Clooney is far more ensconsed in the mainstream). But, rather unsurprisingly, he doesn’t seem to know how to work material cleverly when he’s the one behind the camera, so to speak.

While any given sequence of this film has a polished, yet funky (read: Soderbergh-like) sense of composition, rhythm, and editing, the film as a whole seems simply like a lot of such sequences strung together without a great sense of an overall concept. The film’s narrative is pretty hilarious, the (pseudo-?)autobiographical story of Game Show producer and host, Chuck Barris as both entertainment industry phenom and hired assassin for the CIA. The level of absurdity is so implicit to the story that the film just takes it seriously throughout…which is maybe the intent anyways — I haven’t read the original text to know that.

The screenplay is by Charlie Kaufman, of Adaptation. (2002) and Being John Malkovich (1999) notariety, and it shows his penchant for unlikeable protagonists who are full of self-loathing. In a sense it’s refreshing to see films that have this sort of subversive misanthropy at their heart, but it’s also kind of depressing.

It’s a great notion for a film, but just pretty mediocre as it turned out.

Das Experiment

Das Experiment (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel
viewed: 09/14/03

This is yet another in a string of films that I caught recently that had at their base a really clever concept but only yielded rather middling returns.

Very loosely based on a real incident, the film tells the story of a psychological experiment gone wrong in which a number of men are brought into a mock prison facility with half of them cast as guards and the other half cast as prisoners. They quickly take to their roles and violence and intimidation and humiliation rule the day. Of course, the film excites the story to more sordid heights with rape and murder as some of the ultimate results with science playing god. It makes me wonder, could this be classified as science fiction?

Actually, this film was pretty good. Not necessarily enjoyable-good, but not bad. I kept thinking of Shock Corridor (1963), though this film was a world away from the nuttiness of Samuel Fuller. It was the reporter undercover in some correctional facility-thing, I guess.

Dirty Pretty Things

Dirty Pretty Things (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Stephen Frears
viewed: 09/29/03 at Embarcadero Center Cinema, SF, CA

Stephen Frears is one of those known but not so well-known directors who actually has a pretty good filmography under his belt with films such as The Hit (1984), The Grifters (1990), and High Fidelity (2000). This film has had a pretty good buzz about it. Seemed like a good one to go see.

It was an interesting idea, a thriller set in the London world of illegal immigrants, working multiple jobs to simply stay alive, subsist. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Audrey Tautou star. Ejiofor is very good as the refugee doctor who drives a cab by day and works a hotel’s reception desk by night. Tautou, who was so charming in Amélie (2001), plays a Turkish refugee with a strange accent.

Though the film is pretty decent and well-intentioned with its sympathetic portrayal of the marginalized lives of illegal immigrants, it’s also a little bit silly at times. As the story hits its emotional nadir depicting the sexual exploitation of Tautou’s character, I found some of it strangely cliche and almost comical.

The Kid Stays In the Picture

The Kid Stays In the Picture (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Nanette Burstein, Brett Morgen
viewed: 09/13/03

The Kid Stays In the Picture is a nicely produced almost “autobiography” of film producer/actor Robert Evans, a major player in Paramount in the 1970’s. Evans narrates his own story in his odd voice (which I think was effected by a stroke a couple years before), and I read that the voice over came directly from his book-on-tape of the autobiography that this film was adapted from. If that is true, it’s a clever conceit that works for the film.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1989) movie poster

(1989) dir. Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 09/07/03

I’ve been a fan of director Hayao Miyazaki for at least 10 years, since I originally saw My Neighbor Totoro (1988), though I had realized that I had seen others of his earlier films previously without knowing who he was. Despite a brief phase of trying to see some of his other films, I hadn’t caught up on all of his work. When Disney finally got around to releasing his back catalog on DVD (something they have only started), I snapped up Laputa: Castle in the Sky sight-unseen, which is notably unusual for me since I buy very few DVD’s and hardly ever (ever) ones that I have not actually seen before. Of course, I snapped this up a couple months ago and only just now got a chance to see it.

What is constantly amazing about Miyazaki’s work is his ability to create such amazing sense of location in his animation. The worlds of his films are typically fantastical, but are also amazingly realized. They are also quite typically beautifully rendered.

Many of Miyazaki’s themes are prevalent in this film. Like most of his films, Laputa features a young female protagonist, a subtle but appealing aspect of his narratives. His films tend away from having true “villains,” though often if there is any “evil,” it is embodied in unnatural pollution and those who act against the “environment.”

The most appealing fantasy aspects of this film are the decrepit giant robots and the sky pirates’ dragonfly-like air scooters. Most of his films feature some (or many) transformative fantasy elements.

One thing I can definitely tell you: I will raise my children to watch Hayao Miyazaki films. They are wonderful.

Too Many Ways to be No. 1

Too Many Ways to be No. 1 (1997) movie poster

(1997) dir. Ka-Fai Wai
viewed: 09/12/03

Too Many Ways to be No. 1 is a pretty wacky Hong Kong thriller/comedy that I watched as part of my delving into the Johnny To productions. The visual and narrative approach bore some French New Wave via Wong Kar-Wai sort of influence, featuring a two versions of the narrative playing out in which the gang either goes to Mainland China (in which they all die) or to Taiwan (in which they all become rich and powerful. I have read that this was perhaps a commentary on the then-contemporary hand-over of Hong Kong back to the rule of mainland China. This would be an interesting read on this film, but I wish that I had found time to write about it back closer to the time that I had seen it. Because right now, that’s all I’ve got on it. It was interesting, for sure.