Sun May 03 2015 08:43 April Film Roundup:
Sumana spent a lot of time out of town this month, so I took the opportunity to clear out a bunch of items on my "movies I want to see but Sumana doesn't" list. But there's also plenty of movies we saw together. How can you tell the difference?... I think you'll be able to tell.
- Chappie (2015): Dev Patel lives up to his name in this story of a really poorly run technology company. Tetravaal produces two competing products, each run solely by the lead developer, and the lead developers don't even have offices. Each has a cube right next to the other lead developer, for maximum bad blood. The security policy is terrible, and employee safety is not a priority. I guess this is how the film industry works. I mean, you write what you know, right?
The robot is cute. I was expecting some violence but not Robocop level violence, which maybe made it inappropriate for a date night. I was expecting to see more than two South African actors in this movie from a South African director set in Johannesburg. Seems a little weird?
Speaking of Robocop, there are a couple obvious movies you could compare this to, but I'd like to bring your attention to Robot and Frank (2012), a really wonderful movie we saw shortly before I started Film Roundup. I'm not bringing up Robot and Frank because I think it's better than Chappie (although I do think this), but because it takes a much different approach to the same basic premise. They'd make a great double feature.
- Kundo: Age of the Rampant (2014) A.k.a. "Kundo: min-ran-eui si-dae". Not to be confused with Transformers 6: Age of the Rampant. This was a fun movie with many of our favorite martial-arts elements: heists, Robin Hood type gangs, women and Buddhist priests kicking ass, etc. I especially liked the Faceman of this particular A-Team, who turned to a life of crime after acing the civil service exam but getting civil service-blocked due to a lack of family connections.
- War of the Arrows (2011): The museum's martial arts curator was really psyched about this one, but although archery is technically a "martial art" I don't think it's one of the more cinematically exciting ones. In terms of dramatic structure, I liked how the brutish loot-and-pillage villains of the first act all got killed and were replaced by a squad of cooler-headed villains.
This film is especially un-recommended for fans of doesthewhaledie.com sister sites doesthedogdie.com and doesthehorsedie.com. In a Korean movie, you can kill four dogs in the first scene and not even be the bad guy!
Oh yeah, also, all of these Korean historical action films have a village getting burned. Even The Pirates, which despite some notable missteps is supposed to be a lighthearted romp. Village gets burned in the middle of the film. It's awful! I have a pretty high tolerance for watching film violence, but it has to be coded kind of cartoonish for me to enjoy it, and burning villages I just can't watch. Why is that scene even in the movie? Most of the time it's just to make us hate the villains. C'mon, it's a silly action movie. I'll stipulate hating the villains.
- Ed Wood (1994):
As an afficionado of cheesy movies, the worst we can find (la la la), I didn't expect to learn much from this heavily fictionalized biopic. But it surprised me! This movie makes the really interesting argument that Ed Wood wasn't an abnormally bad director; he was an abnormally good producer. Obstacles that would have stopped other people from putting out a bad movie, didn't stop him. Ed Wood looks like the worst director in the world due to survivor bias. He's actually the worst director whose movies were finished and released. (And let's be honest, Coleman Francis is worse.)
If Ed Wood were as good a director as he was a producer he'd be Roger Corman, the SyFy Original of directors, a guy who consistently delivers mediocre B-movies on time and on budget. But the movie Ed Wood, like last month's Bowfinger, is a celebration of the drive to actually get a movie made, damn the quality. And that's the producer's job. The conversation between Wood and Orson Welles really drives this home. They're talking about producing, not directing.
I don't know what to think about Bill Murray's portrayal of Bunny Breckenridge. It's so over the top campy in a way that should have been on its way out in 1994, but after researching Breckenridge's life a bit I'm willing to believe it's an accurate portrayal.
- The House of Hate (1918): Another lesson I learned from MST3K is that it's okay not to watch all of a serial. That's why I felt perfectly fine leaving during intermission when the museum showed The House of Hate, long thought totally lost and newly restored from a Soviet print that cut it down to three hours from its original seven—a story more interesting than anything in The House of Hate itself. It has some decent silent-era action, but I didn't get the feeling I got during Reds, that I was leaving just as things were getting good. It's like watching characters bounce around a Markov chain. There's a lot of silent film I love, but the immaturity of the medium + the narrative constraints of a serial = bleh.
- The Godfather, Part 3 (1990) The triple threat of movies Sumana doesn't want to see: a really long movie about man-pain that she's already seen. I came in expecting it to be a disaster, and I don't think it needed to be so long, but I liked it. It's a disaster compared to the original Godfather, but I don't like Part 2 as much as everyone else, and this was just one step below that—still pretty good! It was great to finally see some bits of continuity with the New York I know, like the zeppoli stands at the Italian festival. I also loved the machinations in the Vatican.
I suspect part of people's dissatisfaction with this movie vis-a-vis part two is they want to see Michael Corleone acting like a badass, calling in hits, going out like Tony Montana at the end of Scarface. Instead the whole movie's about Michael being tired of this shit, which is probably a metaphor for the franchise but is a good topic for a film.
- The Wrestler (2008): Another movie Sumana wouldn't want to see, and not one I'd normally choose to see, but I remembered there was a fictional NES game in this movie, and I was in the mood to have something on in the background while I did computer stuff. Probably not what Aronofsky wants to hear, but this movie was great at being on in the background. If I had to give it my full attention I would have been annoyed at the by-the-numbers plot structure, but Mickey Rourke gives a great performance and the NES game is all it's cracked up to be.
According to IMDB trivia, "The film reportedly moved wrestler Roddy Piper so much, he broke down and cried after a screening." Big respect for that.
- Gentlemen Broncos (2009): The forgotten response to the surprising success of Napoleon Dynamite, it's as if Jared and Jerusha Hess decided to turn all the quirky nerdy rural Mormon humor sliders as high as they would go until everyone got sick of it. And... this is the point where everyone got sick of it. I didn't even know this film existed until I read about it on Boing Boing. And those sliders are a little high even for me, but overall I liked this movie and I'm really close to saying I really liked it. It presses one of my less-often-activated cinematic buttons of showing multiple adaptations of the same basic idea, a la The Five Obstructions.
This movie went on my no-Sumana list as soon as I saw "The vomit-soaked story..." in the Boing Boing review. It's too bad there's so much gross-out because I think Sumana would like it otherwise. It's got a very strong Garth Marenghi's Darkplace vibe. You've never heard of Garth Marenghi's Darkplace? Great, now I'm the blog telling people about visual experiences they've never heard of. Wait, that's good, because now you know that Garth Marenghi's Darkplace is hilarious and you should check it out.
- Night Shift (1982): A not-that-funny romantic comedy about the unionization of sex workers. Some classic Visicalc action doesn't redeem the lack of laughs; it's like they put the primal elements of comedy—sex, death, money—in a beaker and expected comedy to form spontaneously. I guess it's better than Pretty Woman, but I haven't seen Pretty Woman so I'm just going on my mental stereotype of the politics of that movie. Michael Keaton acts like he's in a totally different movie, a movie that also wouldn't be good if you were watching it, but glimpses of it come as a relief.
- The Best of Everything (1959): Absolutely amazing office dramedy with snappy banter, glorious NYC location shots, genteel sleaze, struggles of modern women, etc. I didn't like how the movie picked the least sleazy of all the sleazeballs for the heroine to hook up with, when her friend was able to find an actually decent guy, but I guess a girl's got to play the hand she's dealt. Definitely going on my best-of-the-year list.
There seems to be a strong connection to 9 to 5 (1980) in that the newly-minted secretary comes in to her first day of work drastically overdressed wearing a big ridiculous hat, but according to IMDB trivia, Jane Fonda talked to women who'd been in that situation and learned it was a common mistake, so both movies are based on a now-vanished reality.
- The Americanization of Emily (1964): Also going on my best-of-the-year list thanks to its almost-perfect script by Paddy Chayefsky. If Billy Wilder had directed this he would have sanded down the rough edges and this would be one of the greatest films of all time. But why look a gift horse in the mouth, it's really really really good. Snappy dialogue, a farce/fiasco/farce double-twist, and a brilliant core concept. And, hell, if Chayefsky had brought this script to Billy Wilder he probably would have said "Yeah, I fled the Nazis, I'm gonna take a pass on mocking D-Day," and that would be totally fair.
One little quibble: despite the title, the movie doesn't really focus on Emily.
- Reservoir Dogs (1992): The ultimate showdown, years in the making. I don't like Quentin Tarantino, but I love love love Steve Buscemi. Who will win? And hey, this movie's good! It's more restrained than Pulp Fiction, probably due to the tiny budget, but see above re: gift horses. The nonlinear narrative makes a lot of sense dramatically. The way Mr. Orange's "commode story" is dramatized is damn impressive. I could do without the graphic violence, but I knew what I was in for. The performances are good, but especially noteworthy is America's sweetheart, Steve Buscemi. He's so good he got the part Tarantino wrote for himself, meaning that although Tarantino still acts in the movie he's only got about three lines. Let's lift a glass to Steve Buscemi, savior of Reservoir Dogs.
(3) Tue May 12 2015 07:00 The Future Is Prologue:
I'm experimenting with writing a prologue for Situation Normal, to reduce the thrown-into-the-deep-end feeling typical of my fiction. I say 'experimenting with' rather than 'just doing it' because I wrote something and it wasn't a prologue. I'd just turned back the clock to before the book started and written a regular scene.
I don't like prologues for the very reason I'm trying to write one: they're introductory infodumps. I usually skim them, unless they look like the Law and Order style prologues where the POV character dies at the end of the scene. But this book has so many POV characters already, I don't think I should go that route.
I talked it over with Sumana and she gave me the idea of pacing the prologue as though it were the first scene of a short story. That's something I've done before, so I know I can do it again, and it doesn't mean big infodumps, just more internal monologue.
I'd like your suggestions of genre fiction books with effective prologues. Prologues that made you say "yes, I want to read a whole book about this stuff." I can't think of many examples but I admit I'm blinded by prejudice.
Sun May 31 2015 17:55 May Film Roundup:
This month features some interesting foreign films, an old-favorite blockbuster, and an awesome new blockbuster with a surprising connection to one of my all-time favorite films. What are these nuggets of cinema gold? I don't know, I'm just the intro paragraph, you'll have to ask the bulleted list:
- The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001): I know this movie pretty well by now, so I watched up to "Fly, you fools!" (my favorite part) and then left the theater and got some dinner. It was interesting to see the expanded editions on the big screen (and in a real digital print, not the DVD projected onto the theater screen like the museum sometimes does). I don't know how often I'll get to see that.
Dunno what else to say, if you've been reading this blog you know my feelings on Tolkien, both book and film. In fact this is one of the few films I reviewed when I first saw it, thirteen years ago, and I stand by everything in there.
MinecraftMoria looks good, the elves are limpid, the large creature CGI now looks terrible. Hell, Peter Jackson, go ahead and pull a George Lucas, clean up that motion capture. It was all done on an SGI machine to begin with, you're not disrespecting anyone's craft. Although... to be honest I think the Hobbit movies had the same problems. All the mo-cap characters are constantly milking the giant cow. I don't think it's a solved problem yet.
It was really weird being in a theater seeing a movie that a) has been the basis for major Internet memes but b) the whole movie isn't a meme a la Rocky Horror/The Room. There was a lot of snickering at Boromir saying "One does not simply walk into Mordor" and it felt awkward, like people snickering at Ginger Rogers saying "Aren't we gay?" or Groucho Marx saying "Making love to Mrs. Claypool is my racket." They didn't know how we'd read that line!
- The 39 Steps (1935): Sort of a dry run for the much better North by Northwest. To be honest I forgot I even saw this movie until I saw it in my notes. It wasn't bad, the handcuffs conceit was solid, but there were just too many betrayals. It got old after a while. I also think this scenario (ordinary person on the run, in over their heads) demands spectacle, and the budget wasn't there.
- Black River (1956): aka "Kuroi kawa". Good drama about the corrupting effects of being under military occupation. It's pretty amazing how visually striking it is for all the signage in a Japanese movie to be in English.
There's a laugh line where the protagonist is confronting a gangster:
Protagonist: "Who are you?"
Gangster [flicking away cigarette]: "Godzilla."
It's funny and topical but also accurate, because the gangster is planning on tearing the protagonist's house down. Within this movie he is, effectively, Godzilla. This is notable as the only cinematic Godzilla joke I can think of that's not a Japanese character in an American disaster movie running away from the disaster screaming "This is worse than my encounter with Godzilla!" Which always struck me as a weird joke to make, because it puts your movie in the Godzilla universe, where the UNGCC exists and governments should be prepared for, or at least accustomed to, large-scale disasters.
Other Japan-specific plot points: obsession with knowing everyone's blood type, the near-uselessness of personal seals as a form of document security.
- Max Max: Fury Road (2015): I'm just glad that we as a nation have finally moved beyond Thunderdome. (Actual review starts now.) This was a good movie that became great at the beginning of act three, when it used my favorite action-movie plot twist—"let's turn around and go directly into the danger"— and revealed itself as an update of my third favorite film of all time, The General (1926). Pure infernokrusher fun.
As always, the worldbuilding is incredible (and understated), but expression of character is limited to everyone's individual post-apocalyptic fashion statements. Other downsides: every time there's voiceover or text on the screen it's embarrassing. The whole premise of the series remains silly. But c'mon, it's a canonical Mad Max movie featuring Megaweapon. Best of the year list for sure.
Doubting the The General connection? Here's director George Miller (h/t Sarah): "[T]he best version of this movie is black and white, but people reserve that for art movies now." And:
A while after this talk, during a post-film reception, I spoke with Miller about his affinity for that black and white version of Fury Road. He said that he has demanded a black and white version of Fury Road for the blu-ray, and that version of the film will feature an option to hear just the isolated score as the only soundtrack — the purest and most stripped-down version of Fury Road you can imagine.
Maybe you'll believe when you finally see Fury Road as a silent movie. Or just watch The General now. No other movie puts so much work into creating a nonstop thrill ride. Gravity (2013) does a good job keeping the adrenaline pumping, but it's got a totally linear narrative. (I'm guessing you could say the same for Speed (1994), the other big Sandra Bullock vehicle, but I haven't seen it.) Fury Road uses the double-back twist to turn all the ideas used in the first part of the movie on their head. And The General does all that while also being funny as hell.
- Rashōmon (1950): My verdict on this movie is that it's done its job and is now mainly of historical importance. I understand what it was doing but it had a really awful message of "gee, the rapist and the rape victim have conflicting testimonies, I guess we'll never know the truth!" ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I also don't think the movie wanted me to feel the moment of maximum tension right at the end. What's going to happen to that kid? After all that I'm supposed to believe that kid is going to be okay? Don't you know how foreign films work?
I feel like this is a rare example where the Mel Brooks spoof would convey the appropriate points just as well, and age better than the actual movie.
- I Can Quit Whenever I Want (2014): aka "Smetto Quando
Voglio". A decent Italian comedy that's... a huge ripoff of Breaking Bad on every level, from plot to cinematography. I guess the character arcs are different. I'm not really unhappy about this, because there is one major twist in the formula: the drug the disgruntled chemists make in this movie isn't actually illegal. Changing that one variable and leaving everything else the same makes the movie feel more like a scientific experiment than a ripoff. It is in fact still a huge ripoff, but I had fun.
The main source of my fun was watching the non-chemists in the gang of academics bring the mindset of their fields to drug dealing. The one laugh-out-loud moment for me was seeing how they acquired guns for their heist. There was a lot of laughter in the theater, though, even for jokes previously found only on the Buzzfeed list "Only Real Italian Academics Will Get These 25 Jokes About Hyperfragmented Leftist Politics." There's some ethnic stereotyping of Roma which I didn't really pick up on because they used a specific Italian sub-group of Roma I'd never heard of, but I looked it up afterwards and yup. Pretty uneven overall, but if you wanted Breaking Bad to stay a comedy the whole way through, I think this is the current frontrunner.