a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Musolini's prey, William Shatner's precursor, Mikhail Kaufman, and post-Franco Spain

Two belated items: Rep has been up since Tuesday night; and farewell, Hunter.

Make that three: last year's Top Ten (and etc.) is on the way.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Gotta give the people something good to read. On a Sunday...

My stuff in the Weekly includes an A-list on a double bill of the 1972 doc Malcolm X (a 2nd-disc bonus feature on the Spike Lee DVD) (of course, it's better than the Lee) and a talk by Amiri Baraka, organized for the 40th anniversary of the former's assassination. (And, yes, I'm aware of the typo. My bad.) And, as ever, as though I even had to mention it, there's Rep.

Geeks: the Hitchhiker trailer is finally up. I dunno, man...

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Thirty Minutes of Jokes in Nine

James Burke was right: everything is connected. Or at least on the BBC it is, a corporation which always seems to have at least one dynamite new show being cranked out. The reason why? Incestuousness. However improbably, the new breed of shows appears to begin with Ali G. Sacha Baron Cohen introduced his ninkompoop creation on The 11 O'Clock News, a show which also featured the first appearance of Ricky Gervais. Gervais threw a couple excellent Ali G jokes into The Office, while Martin Freeman popped up in the (allegedly not awful) Ali G Indahouse. Freeman also contributed a blink-and-you'll-miss-him cameo in last year's Shawn of the Dead, passing alongside his Office crush Lucy Davis. Dead, meanwhile, was the first mega-feature from Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, the brains behind Spaced -- an indescribable show that mixes Star Wars geekdom, broad characateurs and Nick Hornby-style brooding, all under the guise of a Three's Company-style plot. Surfing the IMDb is rarely this maddening.

Somehow, this all leads into Look Around You, a 2002 mini-show currently making the rounds on BBC America as an interstitial filler in between the traditional 40-minute blocks. The connection? Edgar Wright pops up as an actor in a couple episodes, while one of the show's creators/writers (and actors) happens to be Peter Serafinowicz. Who? This perfectly normal-looking thespian has three distinctions: 1) he played the smug bastard who cuckolded Simon Pegg on Spaced; 2) he was Pegg's zombified, white collar roommate in Shawn of the Dead; and 3) marking a sizeable victory for the Lucas-obsessed Pegg, he was the voice of Darth Maul, perhaps because, as X-Men proved, Ray Parks can't read lines.

It's strange thinking of connections in Look Around You, which seems to exist in a vacuum, cranked out in secret and with little to no money. The gyst of the show -- which runs 9 minutes, or 15 here in the commercial-happy realm that is America -- is that it's a dead-on parody of educational films, complete with impossibly dry narration from narrator pro Nigel Lambert. Each episode touches on one of the basics: iron, the brain, germs, sulfur, etc. Played completely straight, they manage to make up outright, and highly surreal, lies. In "Maths," man-on-the-street interviews find people telling the camera what they think is the highest known number. The show claims it's 4,000,000,000. But is it perhaps something higher -- like 4,000,000,001?

To complete the vibe of state-sponsored stoner humor, quiz questions abound (cut to a student calmly jotting down notes). Sure enough, Serafinowicz (and cohort Robert Popper) try to come up with the most ludicrously impossible SAT queries, piling one non-sequitur after another. One of the brain teasers in "Maths" goes like this: three women are going to a party. One of them has 40 dresses. Another has 40,000 dresses. The third has one dress, but it can mutate into whatever dress she wants. What are the odds they'll wear the same dress? Another, from the same episode, features 8 women trying to equip 8 spiders with "spider shoes," but only with 8 pence. Will they have enough to make it home on the bus? Somehow, the answers -- revealed quickly at the end of the show -- are even funnier than the set-ups.

Serafinowicz and Popper claim in an interview they were trying to cram 30 minutes of jokes into 9 minutes of TV time. Sure enough, some of the best jokes are tiny. During the "module" on Water, ants are shown building an igloo (!). Once they're done, the narrator says, "Thanks, ants" -- then, a couple seconds later, and for little reason, "Thants."*

Naturally, the show was a smash (cult) hit, meaning that it's been renewed and, inevitably, expanded: the forthcoming season will now be 30 minutes, with the writers taking sympathy on its audience by claiming they'll calm down with regards to the insane bits-per-minute ratio. Too bad: anyone who's seen shows by the aforementioned James Burke -- particularly, Connections -- knows that while brains can melt at the dense amount of detail being jettisoned out, that's a plus. You've at least been somewhere once it's over. (And you have so many new tidbits to impress strangers at cocktail parties.) For now, only a couple episodes of its first season have aired (which total at the very un-BBC eight) stateside. At least we Yanks have awhile to wait before the probable disappointment sets in.

(Oh. Here's my stuff in the Weekly this round. The "-" on the grade for Singin' in the Rain is, of course, a typo.)

*For those who care, the original example pointed out the show's opening, in which I wrongly thought a guitar tuner measured a guitar sillily going out of tune, rather than in. I'm really mentioning it because Jeremy disproved me on the comments board, and I don't want anyone being confused. Sigh.

Monday, February 07, 2005

The deluge continues...

[Continuing from here...]

Bad Education (Pedro Almodóvar)
Okay, so it wasn’t a fluke. Could spend the rest of this blurb waxing hyperbolic on the structure, which is at once impossibly snaky and even more impossibly confident -- as Edelstein noted, you don’t realize you’ve been drinking in a neo-noir until the third act. On the other hand, you’re never lost and, furthermore, the whole thing doesn’t degenerate into smelly blob of incoherence. Still. As thrilling as it is to follow Almodovar’s bread crumbs, there’s the sneaking suspicion that it doesn’t add up to much -- or rather, that its choosing of empathy over analysis doesn’t do that much for me. (“Passion,” which devours the frame during the finale, apparently equals “empathy,” by the way.) Again, still -- it’s not like I wish to denigrate the movie, which has me goosed for the next offering from a filmmaker by whom, as of 2002, I was mildly distracted at best. (I don’t even much get the femme-love-in All About My Mother, his alleged turning point.) Like Sam Raimi’s 2004 entry, it proves that Almodóvar’s undergoing the most ideal kind of maturation: the only thing’s that changed is the seriousness of his subject matter. Otherwise, everything’s the same and, furthermore, his old bag of tricks is seeming, in retrospect, more impressive, more filled with goodies. If this delirious exercise in truth-seeking doesn’t add up to much, as I said, it still doesn’t up to a Rashomon-like thesis -- if anything, Enrique’s simply irritated to be tangentially caught up in a thorny soap opera. And needless to say, its technique puts to shame the likes of (presumably) The Woodsman, which mistake patness for sympathy (again, presumably -- I mean, really, this can’t be far off). There’s nothing pat about this one, and at its best -- the song that drives the priest into quivering; the pool scene; even the fumbling about with the passed-out john’s wallet -- it evokes an ethereal quality that cuts right through the bone. Besides, Gael Garcia Bernal’s finally terrific -- all six or so of him. Grade: B+

The Village (M. Night Shyamalan)
[Spoilers -- as if you don’t already know them] Great. So the Shyamalan I skip in theaters turns out to be kind of interesting. The Twist™ of M. Night’s unsolicited riff off of A Chronicle of Corpses was spoiled for me back in July, but I reckon I could have guessed it about forty minutes in -- Shyamalan’s just doesn’t come up with enough ways for his cloaked beasties to show their stranglehold. What it does have, and which the others don’t, is a twist that actually expands on the film’s themes rather than, you know, twist the audience. (The mind still reels from the one in Signs.) The second gotcha smacks of reactionism and the archaic dialogue’s atrocious (“What is your meaning?” being a personal favorite). But Shyamalan evokes Val Lewton admirably and he isn’t quick to paint his baddies as baddies: he makes sure to show the consequences of their decision, making Hurt (alive for the first time in ages, even if one of his tortured lines begins with “What matter of spectacle is this that...” and proceeds to never end)...anyway, making Hurt, et al. sympathetic and vaguely human. And, of course, there’s the whole topicality issue. Speaking of which, am I the only one to notice the townspeople’s total lack of religion? Shyamalan seems hesitant to criticize their decision, as though it’s not such a bad idea. (Actually, it’s as though it’s Shyamalan’s utopia: nothing’s present that will get drive a wedge between people, the banter’s slow and drawn-out, and everyone’s on edge all the time.) He’s getting a little trickier with the way he maintains his little corner of the world: he doesn’t oversell anything and he rarely springs for the obvious scenes, excising confrontations that would happen in anyone else’s movies. Bryce Dallas Howard’s suitably intense -- the fingers shake with anticipation of Mandalay -- but why no love for Adrian Brody? His fumbling during the murder scene was killer stuff. Grade: B-

Hotel Rwanda (Terry George)
Pretty mediocre stuff, and not just because it’s a PG-13 movie about genocide. You might as well start with that one, a decision I applaud on an intellectual level but find, at the end of the day, pointless: with all the talk of machete chopping -- not to mention the year’s creepiest bad guy, the man on the radio -- its excision feels like willful ignorance, not to mention a way to pack the theaters full. Still, what really irks is the whole patness of it, the way it likes to pass glib, first-thing-that-pops-in-your-head solutions off as probing analysis. The whole thing feels like getting a small percentage of a story from someone who thinks they’re giving you the whole caboodle. Now, now: Don Cheadle’s effectively non-heroic and the movie springs to eccentric, gallows humor life during the scenes detailing his attempts to keep the place running have a nice gallows humor to it. For a stronger, but also more irritated, take, catch this guy. Grade: C+

Shwaas (Sandeep Sawant)
What this is is a kid has some questionable problem with his eye. His grandfather shleps him out to the city, where the doctors are really overextended and really distracted -- the bastard’s trying to make dinner plans and eyeballing his computer and over-cheerfully bouncing his head when he meets with them. Turns out the kid -- a Moppet, of course -- has to undergo an operation that will render him blind, which means he’ll have to wait in the overcrowded hospital before the radical operation. But how can he wait when he needs to see the beauty of the world (presented in retina-stabbingly hideous DV)? It’s actually a good subject, this exploring the medical crisis in India, and the first reel or so suggests a black comedy’s a-brewin’. But Sawant likes his targets made of straw and so avoids the prevalent topics that even dye-in-the-wool liberals are bound to make defenses for the film’s (and our) villains. Naturally, it was India’s official entry in the Oscars. (Didn’t make the cut.) Grade: C-

Oasis (Lee Chang-dong)
Essentially, and totally, a South Korean remake of The Other Sister. Comes with the requisite pluses: strong acting (Sol Kyung-gu particularly, who delivers the least predictable turn in memory); strong camerawork; wild tonal shifts that occasionally meld nicely; truth not Truth. But also the requisite negatories: lurid, patently SoKo twists mistaken for rawness; the fact that it’s still The Other Sister, griminess or no. Still, I can see why people have gone gaga over it: as a love story, it’s dizzying and unusual, with Moon So-ri never officially declaring her affections -- it’s more like a case of necessity (or settling for what you can get) than unbridled passion. But you know what? It’s still The Other Fucking Sister. Grade: C+

Zatoichi (Takeshi Kitano)
Kitano’s signature image, at least this time around, seems to be of Kitano himself, hunched over, giggling at something the other characters (and we) can’t deign to understand. But make no mistake: this is as generically crowd-pleasing as the Kitano will ever get, which means that as amiably goofy as things get, there’s still the elliptical editing, the persistent deadpan humor, the pretzeled structure, and the occasional discombobulating touch. (The arterial spray is the single most weirdly beautiful CGI ever.) Unlike other times at bat, Kitano doesn’t stretch past his reach: it’s a loopy romp with the year’s coolest-looking gore, and that’s about it. Underline and bold “loopy,” make that: even moreso than Moolaadé, this has to be the most toe-thumping film that’s not a musical of the year; the finale has the power to trick you into thinking you saw a truly life-affirming film. Grade: B

Just quickly, and smolderingly hot off the presses: yeah, I liked Constantine. What of it? Apart from being pretty well-crafted (Francis Lawrence, who has nothing but Will Smith and Britney Spears vids to his credit, is surprisingly confident and reasonably restrained), it has to be the most subversive Hollywood juggernaut in memory -- and I mean that entirely from a religious point of view. The idea is that, yes, there’s a heaven and a hell, a God and a Devil. However, both of them -- and their minions -- aren't terribly appealing. Talk of an annoying “rulebook” and the inanity of people living as though they're bestowed with “plans" are inevitably bandied about. But there's also the notion that, if you know what's up, the sole reason to go to heaven is because it's better than being in hell. But even there you have reams of hypocrisy and decidedly un-holy tactics: it's not every movie where [sigh...Spoiler Ahoy] the devil showing up is a relief, given that Tilda Swinton’s Gabriel turns out to be the bad guy. What's more, if Richard Dawkins’ treatise on the paranormal can be considered (paraphrasing from memory: “If someone manages to see a fairy right in front of them and isn’t drunk and has a working camera, I’ll believe in fairies”), it’s a worldview even atheists can get behind. Be prepared for uber-scenery chewing from -- literally, of all people! -- Gavin Rossdale.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

It's Wednesday

And with Wednesdays comes this. Also, this hunk o' crap finally opens Friday.

Additionally, I was remiss in announcing, last Friday, this here blog has turned a full year old. Number of posts (not including this one): 99. Doesn't seem like much -- that's something like 1.9 posts a week on average. I'll add that slim workload to the pile.