Sunday, July 21, 2002

Time to play catch up again:

Men in Black II (Barry Sonnenfeld 2002) - You know it's going to be trouble when Sonnenfeld doesn't even bother to parody the opening TV show but instead just creates some pseudo-Plan 9 never-world episode. Even worse it just shovels out backstory. Then the whole thing gets worse. I'm wondering now if what we thought was Sonnenfeld's subtle talent was merely luck.

Company Man (Peter Askin & Douglas McGrath 2000) - It's probably politically repugnant to place the Bay of Pigs invasion as a comic misunderstanding rather than the deliberate choice of power-hungry men but this is a pretty amiable satire which if it does lack much real bite is at least, uh, amiable. And actually funny more than it should be.

Stiff Upper Lips (Gary Sinyor 1998) - A comedy made by people with no sense of humor. Oh, a couple of the actors appear to have tongues roving in cheek but probably the combined behind-camera talent couldn't come up with a single gag for a Leno monologue if they tried. And try they didn't: Their idea of a joke is a railroad station sign reading "Ivory's End." Why couldn't the folks from Minority Report prevent these kinds of crimes?

Reign of Fire (Rob Bowman 2002) - Very nearly a genuinely great film but in the end it settles for being a quite good one. It's also one I wished was a novel because the accumlated detail of the changed culture and personality reactions would be well worth exploring. But we'll settle for a bleak drama with unhinged characters, great sfx and a top-notch helicopter-dragon-parachutist battle.

The General (John Boorman 1998) - Tedious, very tedious. Worse, it appears that the source material had real potential. (I watched the B&W version, not the desaturated color one.)

From Russia With Love (Terence Young 1963) - Since I've never seen most of the early Bond films--probably being not a Bond fan of any kind has something to do with that--a couple of years ago I got the idea of watching them all in order. I found a letterboxed tape of Dr. No but the film was so bad and the difficulty of tramping out to the one store with letterboxed tapes didn't appeal much so the idea was dropped. Now I can rent them all on DVD easily so the idea is back in swing. From Russia is a bit more interesting than the first film (I particularly like that it doesn't seem to have occured to the filmmakers that Bond comes across as a tossed-around doofus with little control of his actions) but it's still about 20 minutes too long. The DVD has a decent making-of documentary.

Unbreakable (M. Night Shyamalan 2000) - If I'd read a description beforehand I'd mark this down as pointless art but the film turns out to be far better, more like an actual art film disguised as a genre rethinking. (In fact it's not really a rethinking: compare to Alan Moore, Brian Bendis, Keith Giffen, Greg Rucka, etc to see why not.) Almost perfectly controlled, Unbreakable resonates in unexpected ways.

Tuesday, July 16, 2002

Who was the fifth "fifth Beatle"?


Windtalkers (John Woo 2002)

A conversation. We thought a bit of editing afterwards would make it more clear but instead seems to have only made it non-conversational.

Lang: Well it's taken a few years but Hollywood has finally crushed John Woo.

Julie: Oh, you're just bitter because there's no sex in your violence.

Lang: No, think about it: Anybody could have directed this film. Somebody once said directing a Marx Brothers movie was just being a traffic cop and isn't that true here? Line up the actors and make sure they won't be hit by the explosions. Then give 'em a few moments of down-time to prove their humanity.

Julie: That doesn't bother me. After all, isn't that what all the best directors do? Trust the material and the actors? Of course the problem here is that the material appears to be a script from 1950 only recently discovered. You got your racist, your Greek, your Swede, your Catholic, your generic American, etc. Actually I guess two lapsed Catholics count for one.

Lang: Right. I read some review that complained that Woo as an Asian should have been more sensitive to the portrayal of Japanese who are mostly faceless hordes here. But is it racist of me to point out that Japanese often are portrayed negatively in Hong Kong films? The Chinese Connection is the best-known but you've seen as many as I have. I'm not saying anything about Woo in particular because I don't know, but this doesn't really surprise me.

Julie: Well, I always amuse myself at films like this by imaging other ways to make it. What if the Navaho were the racists? Or Nicholas Cage's character but contrary to Hollywood standards he never reforms? Or Cage becomes too good at killing other Marines? How about filming the entire first battle in long takes, possibly even with a stationary camera?

Lang: Now you're just planning some indie film. There have to be things you could do that still would have been within the boundaries of Hollywood action films, if that's not too snobby.

Julie: Probably.

Lang: Anyway, I might have made more of the soldiers suspicious of the Navaho--subtly but clearly refusing to eat with them, expressing surprise they know the rules to poker--but eventually many (certainly not all) would become friendly of one but not the other. Or that officer who gave Cage the medal: He shouldn't have been confused or taken aback but completely confident and presented as a good, intelligent guy. Those are the people who institutionalize racism.

Julie: How much could you have gotten away with anything like this? Most filmmakers have a deer-in-the-headlights approach to race. They just freeze and say the same things everybody else has.

Lang: I particularly like a trick Christopher Priest used in some comics he wrote where a black character speaks perfect English to whites/authority figures and slang/"street" to other blacks. You'd think this would be pretty obvious but it apparently went unnoticed by many people who complained Priest doesn't know how to write black characters. Which maybe he doesn't though you'd think his actually being black might help.

Julie: Aren't you putting too much emphasis on race, though? This is supposed to be an action film, not The Defiant Ones.

Lang: I don't know. You started this. Isn't race an important element of the real life codetalkers' story? Why else were they not recognized for decades?

Julie: But in a way the movie is hardly about codetalking. That's just a plot device that could almost have been anything. Even in the movie it almost is nothing else considering how little any of this is explained. I've read bits about it over the years and had the impression that Navaho was used because there were so few speakers and because since it wasn't related to any European or Asian language it couldn't be understood. Just look at the scenes where they give out bombing co-ordinates. Why couldn't those have been in English? The Japanese undoubtedly knew what the artillery would be targeting: themselves.

Wednesday, July 10, 2002

Javier Marias When I Was Mortal (1996, English 2000) - I first came across Marias in an essay he contributed to an anthology where he surprisingly mentioned some obscure writer, Count Stenbock I think. The rest of the piece was quite interesting but this collection of short stories is quite not. Marias must have something of a reputation since several of his books have been translated into English and surely only a reputation could have resulted in the publication of such useless work as this. Though at times the stories seem intended to capture echoes of Poe, they instead seem more like tentative sketches of a beginning writer. Nearly all hinge on a first-person narrator in the midst of everyday circumstances who encounters something hinting at much beyond the everyday. Unfortunately hints are not literature either: There's rarely any story, hardly anything resembling characterization, blandly dull prose (fault of the translator?).

Sunday, July 7, 2002

Today's CNN website has the headline "Michael Jackson: Record Industry's Racist" which led me to first think: Michael Jackson is a racist? Turns out somebody was snoozing and it should have read "Record Industry Is Racist" (which is hardly news but there ya are).