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 (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.

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) movie poster

(2001) Hironobu Sakaguchi, Moto Sakakibara

This film is all about photorealistic animation. Marketed as the first film to have totally digital actors (a real misnomer, but there you go), the naturalism of the digital characters is supposed to be so stunning that you “believe.”

And in many ways the photorealism is amazing.

There are definitely shots, if not scenes, that once involved in the narrative, it is easy to forget that the image that you are looking at is totally digital and that the charactes were designed on computers, rather the acted on a soundstage and photographed.

But this, in and of itself, would be a moderately cheap thrill.

I have often noted that “special effects”, particularly digital effects, tend to look dated very quickly. Almost all of their power resides in the initial view, when they are first released, and the “effect” is new. Because digital effects become cheaper and more accessible, these same effects get proliferated in other films (maybe less effectively, but very prevalently) as well as on television, in things as pedestrian and oft-repeated as commercials. The power of their ability to “wow” an audience becomes neutralized and technological advances become commonplace.

Final Fantasy opens up with a great deal of promise.

The lead character is introduced in a dream sequence and is not elucidated through the first piece of action, a search for a lone flower in a deserted post-apocalyptic New York City while hunted by faceless military folk and spectral monsters. It called to mind a more detatched narrative style and character development in which less is known and more must be inferred. A colder style of storytelling, that was more common in some 70’s and 80’s science fiction, maybe really left over from the French New Wave.

Ironically, right after this sequence, it becomes clear that this is by no means the intention of this film to connect its unique visual style to its narrative style, to try and give more separation between character and audience. It does quite the opposite. It turns out that all of the faceless “police” were actually the main set of characters, stock stereotypes really, though voice acted by good actors like Steve Buschemi, Ving Rhames, James Woods, and Donald Sutherland, of all people. The idea is far from the one that initially jumped to my mind about the “coolness” of the narrative, the film wants to create the same types of characters that we, as and audience, are very used to in contemporary science fiction films. It wants to prove, I guess, that the digital characters can be “just like” flesh and blood actors.

This is probably the big weakness of the film. These types of stock characters could easily be played by flesh and blood actors (they are, after all, voiced by them). But this uninteresting character development is as generic as the next film and really plays against the unique qualities available to a film with such striking visual potential. The narrative, too, is essentially pretty standard Hollywood style. The whole thing becomes more and more about the ability to have done this film in digital, looking as photorealistic as possible.

Added irony to this is that in a film like The Mummy Returns (discussed above), human actors play cliche characters with stilted dialog. And even in those films, the action is almost entirely digital. In those films, not only do some “creatures” have to be acted out digitally, but landscapes and sets must also “mesh” with the “real” sets in which the live actors do their parts. Essentially, even in a live-action film, the big sequences are digital anyways, striving to be as photorealistic as possible while actually sharing screen time with actual photographed people and environments.

I guess the thing about this film then is that as a movie, a standard issue Hollywood Sci-fi movie from the early 2000’s, it’s pretty run of the mill, nothing to write home about. Better than some, but not especially interesting and definitely not profound.

It’s the potential that is squandered. The visual sense of this film is stunning at times, and I felt that within this style something is lurking that is quite unlike anything that has come before, or at least to this degree.

On a totally separate note, I liked the idea of ghosts from outer space, a notion, I guess that is echoed in Ghosts of Mars as well, but to a less interesting degree.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Peter Jackson
viewed: Metreon, SF

Lord of the Rings or Fellowship of the Ring, part one of what will be a three year annual trilogy, turns out, rather unsurprisingly to be a pretty fun outing to the theater. It’s big screen entertainment that works.

That said, it’s not Citizen Kane.

I know that the AFI (American Film Institute) has marked it up as best film of the year. A lot of myopic people have called it something “mind-boggling”. It may take an Oscar, though I doubt it. Like that means fuck all.

But it is good adventure fare, digging into the literary bucket that literally invented genre upon sub-genre of fantasy books, films, games, etc. It still works. In some ways, it kind of amazes me in the way that it pushes Dungeons & Dragons gaming universes into the mainstream. It hardly seems like contemporary fare. Like, what about this film is really 21st century?

The imagining of the hobbit’s shire is like a projection through dreamy lenses of medieval England, in a pre-industrialized, pre-Rennaissance state. Yet it imagines it in a pristine, earthy form, in which peace and ease seem to be the way of life. Ugliness and evil are all personified in cartoonish forms. The bad guys are bad guys because they look scary. They are not cute like hobbits or beautiful like elves.

Of course, the threat to the hobbit’s shire is the core of the story. The eventual destruction of the Edenic world looms behind the motivation of Frodo and others of the “fellowship.” But it is a fantasy world, not one of “real”, literal world history. It’s an escapist vision of an ideal that never existed, though a concentrated yen for a time before the infiltration of technology.

How ironic then, that such fantasy now finds its most elaborate depiction via the latest special effects that all come straight out of a computer? (Actually, I think there was a lot of costume, make-up, and set design that was created by far more artisan filming means.) Some of the shots that really bugged me were the swooping cameras speeding along the heights and depths of the “evil world”. All these “fantasy shots”. Camera shots that are so clearly digital because they are absolutely impossible in the natural world, so dramatic, flying miles and miles all around a fully conceived digital landscape. It gives a new meaning to the idea of omniscient perspective.

I won’t belabor the point, because I am sure that this film and novel and world is over-analyzed as it is. And I am more of a casual passer-by. I read two of the books as a kid, but punked out in the final installment despite the impending finale. So, I look forward to the sequals, as the films seem to portray the books fairly literally, and will finally fill me in more fully.

I have liked Peter Jackson’s other films, namely, Heavenly Creatures, Dead Alive, and The Frighteners, the latter of which I thought was pretty under-rated fun, though maybe it was a little more Robert Zemeckis (who produced it) than Peter Jackson. I have never seen Bad Taste, so I am not a full-fledged inductee into his full oevre.

My final comment on this movie is that I found it a little too hectic in its pacing. I think it was trying to squeeze too much of a fairly long book into a pretty long movie. It wound up not having a great sense of “storytelling” as it tried to execute as many parts in its time-frame so to have left as little out as possible. Maybe this is an invariable trait of “adaptation”, but I felt that this was definitely a short-coming of the film.

All in all, though, I was pretty entertained. I am sure for some younger viewers, this series of films may turn out to be their “Star Wars“. Which is ironic, since Star Wars‘s latest incarnation is competing with a trilogy that both influenced and has been influenced by the first series of Lucas films.

Abre los ojos

Abre los ojos (1997) movie poster

(1997) dir. Alejandro Amenábar

After seeing The Others which I thought was excellent, I was definitely up for catching up on the prior work of the director, Alejandro Amenábar, and Abre los ojos seemed like a perfect rental. It was also playing in the theaters in its American adaptation as Vanilla Sky, which I wouldn’t be too hot to see since I care not for Mr. Tom Cruise. Anyways, it had a lot of connections.

It was pretty good, actually. Certainly, not great, but good.

It has this strange low-key surrealism that unfolds in a muddle of flashbacks. The films addresses issues of time and place and reality in a Twilight Zone meets Spanish language soap operas. The whole tone of the film gets a little lost in its centering in the melodrama of the mundane tv film-like pieces. Visually, as well, this film looks pretty soapy. It’s very light and modern and not overly cinematic.

But at the same time, the story has some interesting turns and keeps you interested. And the payoff comes as the story pieces itself back together.

I had the added surrealist experience of deja vu during this film, as having seen the trailer for Vanilla Sky, I had a pretty good synopsis of the entire storyline, including a few master shots that are copied film to film. It’s quite weird seeing a film in a totally different language with (almost) totally different actors that echoes so heavily with a film that I have never even seen.

It just goes to show how much of the story they give away in that trailer.

Also, this was my second Penelope Cruz film. I had seen her first in All About My Mother, but then all of her hype and stuff came along and then she was the ‘it’ girl of 2001 and now she is history…Go figure. Anyways, she wasn’t all that great in this film, though she didn’t have much of a part. Attractive? Yes. As an actress? Don’t know.

As for Abre los ojos, mixed feelings as well. Defintely not as strong as The Others but not bad. Better than the trailer for Vanilla Sky.

What the hell does Vanilla Sky mean anyways? At least this title made sense.