A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 587 – Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation – October 8th, 2011

This is one of those movies that I’d been meaning to see but it never seemed like a good time to watch it. There’s a definite atmosphere in it that I think I needed to be in the right mood for. The tone of it is so distinct. You can’t go into this movie if you want something light and funny, but at the same time it’s not entirely serious and somber either. It’s a wistful movie, and I need to be in the right frame of mind for wistful. So while I am glad we watched it tonight, I’m also glad I waited.

It’s kind of amusing to me how much this movie is exactly what the title says. I mean, that’s the whole point right there. You don’t have to do any digging whatsoever to see the connection between the title and the entire movie. Every moment of this movie is informed by the situation of its main characters being pretty much on their own in a country foreign to them in both language and custom. Even their friendship is informed by it. When would they ever have met or connected otherwise? It is a friendship initially formed through the bond of being utterly uncomfortable in unfamiliar surroundings. Because other than that, these two people don’t have a whole lot in common. But what they have in common in terms of interests isn’t really the point. In fact, it’s the opposite of the point. The point is that disparate people in similar circumstances bond together because of those circumstances.

Now, the two main characters, Charlotte and Bob, do share a similar enough sense of humor that they can see the humor in the same things. And that definitely helps. But where Charlotte is an unemployed 20-something tagging along with her new husband while he does photography gigs in Japan, Bob is a 50-something actor, well past his prime and filming whiskey ads for some easy cash while his family is in the US. Their actual interests and hobbies and quirks aren’t explored in any great length. You know that Bob is somewhat cynical and uninterested in home improvements. You know that Charlotte went through a photography stage but doesn’t really know what she wants to do with her life. You know that Bob would probably prefer to do a play somewhere than talk about whiskey on Japanese television. You know Charlotte went to Yale and has little patience for shallow people. That about does it. The movie is more about their experiences in Japan than about them.

And it is incredibly effective at showing the experience of being in a place you don’t know and bonding with a person you’d never have otherwise met. I can’t say I’ve had this experience myself. The closest I’ve come was when I decided I’d rather explore London on my own than see the things I wasn’t interested in just to have the company of my classmates. But there was no language barrier there (or at least not enough of one to make it difficult for me to understand people and be understood) and my isolation was self-imposed, not because I was traveling alone or left on my own by others. And yet watching this movie? I felt like I knew this situation. It was so clearly portrayed and communicated that I felt it. Which, I think, is a major accomplishment for a movie. Especially a movie so very spare as this one.

While we watched this, Andy commented on how amused he was that this movie won an Academy Award for its screenplay when there’s really so little dialogue. I can see the humor there. So much of this movie is in the visuals of Bob in the lounge of the hotel or Charlotte alone in her hotel room or the two of them running down the streets of Tokyo after a night spent club hopping. There are some fantastic lines and exchanges, yes, but the actions are what sell the mood and the plot and the whole situation. The thing is, I get it. I’ve never written a screenplay myself, but there’s a reason it’s an award for a screenplay, not a script. Those unspoken moments and dialogue-less scenes don’t just happen out of luck. They’re written to happen the way they happen. The set and the actions and the expressions? I’m sure those were in the screenplay. And that’s fantastic. That the movie can be so effective without every scene being full of dialogue is a testament to how strong its underpinnings are.

I have to include the two lead actors when talking about this movie’s strengths. Bill Murray has done a very nice job indeed of picking and choosing interesting roles in his later career (Garfield notwithstanding). And he is fantastic in the role of Bob. He’s got a dry sense of humor when it comes to the world around him and when it comes to himself. He’s a little lost, but not completely and he knows that. Scarlett Johansson is equally wonderful as the bored and lonely Charlotte. I love that it’s so clear that she loves her husband and that she’s enjoying Tokyo to a point, but is also a little lost and a little frustrated, not just with her situation in a foreign country but with herself for not knowing what to do. And then they mesh so well. I can easily see how it might feel like much of their interactions are simply natural and unscripted. They feel organic together.

I don’t want to belabor this review by going on and on at length about everything. Mostly because I don’t think the movie needs it. This is a quiet and thoughtful movie about an experience. So really the best way to watch it is to let it simply happen and unfold in front of you. It doesn’t need a whole lot of analysis or nitpicking. It’s not that sort of movie. And I appreciate that. I also appreciate that while the specifics of the movie are set in Japan, the message of the movie isn’t so much about Japan specifically as it is about the unfamiliar. Everything unfamiliar. And how much fun it is to explore it but how confusing it can be at the same time. It’s about embracing that unfamiliarity and how much easier that is with someone else to remind you of what is familiar.

October 8, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 586 – The Rules of the Game (1939)

The Rules of the Game – October 7th, 2011

Going into this tonight I admit, I was a little nervous. I’d last seen it in high school for a class and I vividly recall being incredibly taken with it. The problem was I couldn’t for the life of me remember just what about it had interested me. I had vague memories of some of the scenes and I knew most of it took place in a huge hunting lodge in the French countryside. I knew there was a theme of infidelity and that someone died. I knew it was in black and white. I had a mental image of a particular shot of one of the characters. And that was it. That’s all I could remember. So I was nervous that I would watch it for a second time, fifteen years later, and be appalled at my own taste.

Fortunately for me, that wasn’t the case. I’m still not entirely sure what specifically caught that much of my interest, but while I wasn’t as swept away by it this time as I was before, I did enjoy it. And watching it with a more critical eye was kind of fun. I don’t always enjoy watching things critically like this. Sometimes I just want to sit back and let the movie play. But this movie all but invites some critical viewing. It wasn’t made to be an escapist fantasy or an action movie or anything like that. It was made as social commentary. The pity of it is that it’s social commentary on a society and time period I’m not terribly familiar with. So I can make some general comments, but the particulars of the mood of the country at the time aren’t my thing. Some of the finer points of the movie are just sailing right over my head and the best I can say is that I’m aware of it.

For anyone completely unfamiliar with this movie, it’s a French film from the late 1930s, pre-World War II. The story revolves around a number of relationships between various people. There are married couples and affairs and there’s flirting and arguing. Christine and Robert are a married couple living a life of luxury in Paris. Robert has a mistress (Genevieve) but whether or not Christine is seeing someone else is rather a mystery at first. A famous aviator, Andre, opens the movie by very publicly declaring that the woman he loves has disappointed him and as Christine has been rather close with him, well. Assumptions are made. Andre and Christine’s mutual friend, Octave, shows up and eventually everyone (yes, everyone, including Christine’s niece, who falls for Andre) is headed off to the countryside to Christine and Robert’s chateau.

I remember thinking at the time that I first watched this that there was something very Shakespearean about it all. The big house in the country and the huge group of people of various social roles and strata and the interplay between them all just seemed like it belonged on stage. Of course, at the time that I first saw this I’d been taking a course in Shakespeare for most of the school year, so I was primed to see everything in relation to it. Regardless, it did strike me again watching it now. I’m sure this sort of thing is older than Shakespeare and he wasn’t the only one doing it, but still. The setting feels like a cross between Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night but not played so much for obvious laughs. Then too, while I was told by a college professor that the theory of simultaneous plots for upper and lower class audiences in Shakespearean plays is total bullshit (he was less coarse than that, but his meaning was quite clear), I still maintain that regardless of the intended audiences, plays like Twelfth Night did indeed often have multiple groups of characters playing out their own stories at the same time. And that happens here too. While Christine and Robert and Genevieve and Andre Christine’s niece, Jackie and Octave all dance around each other, Christine’s maid is at the peak of an entirely separate triangle.

Lisette, the maid, is married to the game warden at the chateau. It suits her just fine to live in the city with Christine and Robert where she can carry on her own affairs without worrying about her husband’s reaction. She’s very clear about that when Christine asks her about it. Meanwhile, Genevieve tells Robert that he should just tell Christine about the two of them. When Robert declines, saying Christine wouldn’t understand, Genevieve complains that if Robert had married Parisian woman it would be different. Expected. Christine, on the other hand, is Viennese, and it is assumed that she has entirely different standards. The same could be said of Lisette and her husband. She is a Parisian woman married to a man who’s not from Paris and who therefore has different expectations. And when they’re all put back together in a confined space and forced to be a little more honest about their actions than they were prepared to be, well. That’s where the conflict in the movie comes from.

One of the things I find so interesting about this movie is that gender isn’t really as much of a consideration as one might expect from a movie made in the 1930s. Yes, the men do talk about their rights towards women and how they really should just be allowed to have all the women they want. But on the other side of it, the women are just as interested in having as many men as they want. Neither group comes out looking any more virtuous than the other and neither really comes out looking any worse. The only people who aren’t sleeping around as of the beginning are Christine and Schumacher (the game warden) and Schumacher’s the only one who doesn’t want to sleep around and he ends up shooting up the place. It’s an equal opportunity tangle.

It’s a beautifully made movie with an excellent cast and I did enjoy watching it for a second time. I’m so relieved that it didn’t disappoint me somehow. I do idly wish that I knew more about the time period and society on display because it’s clear that the movie is making points about it all and I’m missing them. But even without the specifics of the social commentary going on, it’s still an interesting and enjoyable movie.

October 7, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 582 – The Royal Tenenbaums

The Royal Tenenbaums – October 3rd, 2011

You know how you can tell this is a Wes Anderson movie? Because of every single thing in it, from the cast to the characters they play to the story they tell to the set dressing to the camera angles to the soundtrack and score to the titles and chapter cards. It is Wes Anderson from top to bottom. It would be impossible to see it and ascribe it to anyone else out there. I think the only thing missing from it is a panning shot of a diorama-type set. That’s it. It’s really very impressive.

This, like most Wes Anderson movies, is a story about a broken family full of miserable people. The mother is cool and calm and collected but somewhat aloof. The father is wild and unpredictable and has alienated the rest of the family. The kids are adults who have never really let go of their childhoods. The family comes together due to some sort of oddball scheme hatched up by one member or another and since even the best laid plans fall apart and these aren’t even close to the best, things go wrong and there are disasters and arguments and medical emergencies. Eventually, post-crisis or post-crises, there is reconciliation. Of course nothing ends up perfect, but the family comes through a little stronger and a little more aware of themselves and each other.

Yes, I am aware that I just described The Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited and even Fantastic Mr. Fox. Not so much with Rushmore, mostly because I don’t remember it well enough and I don’t recall being all that interested in watching it again. But really, that’s pretty much what Wes Anderson does now. That being said, the particulars are always different and I do enjoy his style, so I’m willing to allow for the same story being told over and over maybe two or three more times. We’ll see what Moonrise Kingdom holds next year. Maybe it will be something completely different! Maybe it won’t have the calm and collected mother. I don’t see Anjelica Huston on the cast list, so it’s possible. I do see Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman, however, so who knows. My point is that Wes Anderson is a very gifted storyteller and he has a knack of coming up with odd situations and combinations of characters and making movies that feel like they should be magical realism but aren’t. But he’s become predictable. Fortunately, when I went into this movie he wasn’t predictable yet.

The specifics here are about the Tenenbaum family. The family patriarch is a man named Royal. He’s shown with his family while the children are young, paying somewhat callous attention to the two boys and excluding his daughter. His daughter’s adopted, you see, and he makes certain to tell everyone. Eventually his wife kicks him out and he ends up living at a hotel, being cantankerous and certain he’s the aggrieved party. His children grow up and move away and their mother starts a new career. When Royal is kicked out of the hotel, he concocts a story about being deathly ill in order to convince his wife to let him move back in for a time. One by one the kids come back too until they’re all in the house together, dealing with their issues.

Many of said issues obviously stem from Royal and his relationship to the kids, though not all of them are since the kids started out somewhat idiosyncratic anyhow. Sister Margot has grown up isolated and ended up marrying a man many years her senior. Brother Richie is in love with Margot (it’s okay, she’s adopted, as the movie makes sure you know, over and over) but when she got married he had an epic meltdown in the middle of a tennis match, ending what was a promising pro tennis career. Brother Chas lost his wife in a plane crash and has become paranoid and neurotic about the safety of his two children ever since. They all come home and many of these issues come to a head very quickly. One theme in the movie is that the kids never really grew away from where they began. They move home and into their old rooms and deal with old rivalries. A friend of the family returns and unpleasant truths surface about everyone and it would be silly to go through it all in detail.

The characters in the movie are all these ridiculously quirky people who would seem goofy if they weren’t so miserable and trapped in their quirks. They’re not even super successful. Margot writes plays, but she hasn’t had one in years. Richie hasn’t played tennis since his meltdown and Chas is doing well financially but emotionally he’s a mess. They’re not perfect, which is what I enjoy about Wes Anderson’s characters. They are immensely flawed and interesting because of that not necessarily because of their quirks. They’re also played well. I like the entire cast in this movie. Even if I haven’t always liked them elsewhere, I enjoy them here. All of the kids seem so raw and all of the secondary cast seem so baffled at this bizarre family that is unlike anything else they know.

Wes Anderson tends to have a crisis situation where everyone suddenly has to get serious about what’s going on. In this movie there’s an attempted suicide. And it is striking, with bold colors and no uncertainty as to what’s just happened and why. And it does exactly what it’s meant to do, galvanizing the rest of the family. I will say, much like the other live action examples I can think of, it does not hold back. But more than the others, I find this one difficult to watch. Perhaps it’s that it’s not an accident. Perhaps it’s that it isn’t a death during an emergency. It is a purposeful thing, done by one person to himself and I think it hurts more because of that.

While it is true that one could pop in one of several Wes Anderson movies and see much the same story, enacted by much the same cast, with many of the same quirks and signature notes, I don’t really mind. It would be nice to see him turn out something different and not just keep rehashing this one over and over. Much as I enjoy both The Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited and much as I adore Anderson’s version of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, I have to wonder why the same story? He got it right here, as far as I’m concerned.

October 3, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 581 – Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane – October 2nd, 2011

I almost feel like it’s not worth reviewing this movie. Surely, it has to be the most reviewed movie ever. It’s the sort of movie people bring up whenever the topic of film classics gets mentioned. Hell, take out the classics and just say “filmmaking” and people will mention Orson Welles and this movie. I first saw it back in high school, for a class on filmmaking. I saw it again in college for a film class. Perhaps this is sacrilege but I don’t think I’d have ever really sought it out to watch a third time if not for this project. I’m pretty sure we bought it expressly for the project, but mostly because it felt silly having a movie review project without having this movie on the list. Like it was incomplete without it. But still. Does it need another review?

It’s been too many years for me to remember writing about this movie for the classes I saw it in. I suspect that for the first class my focus was more on the technical aspects (which are impressive) than the story or acting. The class was about filmmaking, after all, not film criticism. We were watching classic films and then making our own shorts, not analyzing the messages and meanings. Though with hindsight (and Marshall McLuhan in mind), I now find it difficult to separate the medium and the message. After all, it should be obvious that this movie was carefully crafted, and any movie so carefully crafted is done with intent. So of course the shot composition and the lighting and all of the technical aspects were part of how Welles wanted the movie’s message to come across.

Now, I know the story is supposed to be this big deal and I get it. I do. It’s the story of a man who rises and falls. And I realize that this movie is a classic and all, but I feel like the rise and fall thing isn’t really all that revolutionary. It’s not the story that makes this movie striking, though, so I suppose that’s not really a problem. Coming out of the movie tonight, however, I realized I had very little in the way of sympathy for the character of Kane. I mean, there’s some. It’s supposed to be a somewhat pathetic story, after all. He’s a man who had everything but yearned for a lost childhood he could never regain. There’s something sad about someone who lives their whole life feeling empty for a reason they can’t define. But at the same time, what does he do? He makes terrible choices, hurts his family and alienates his friends.

Just in case you don’t know the basic story of this movie, I’ll give a bit of a refresher: Charles Foster Kane is born to a couple who run a boarding house. When a stroke of luck leaves Charles’ mother in possession of a gold mine, she signs it over to her son and sends the young boy off to school away from home, wanting him to grow up safe and sound and away from his father (I’ve always assumed there’s some implied abuse there), with everything he might ever need at his fingertips. And he does, but he also grows up resenting the man put in charge of him. Upon reaching his majority and coming into control of his own finances he buys a newspaper, thinking it would be a fun thing to do, then sets about making it bigger and better than its competitor. At first it all goes well. He’s an idealist in his youth, all about writing stories of substance and reporting real news. Soon, however, it’s more about the headlines and the number of readers. His ideals fade in the face of selling more papers. And it’s all down hill from there.

He’s married, but his marriage starts to suffer as he and his wife grow distant from each other. He starts seeing a young singer – not necessarily in a romantic way but certainly at the time it was improper for him to be visiting her rooms at the boarding house she was living in. When he decides to run for office his opponent fights dirty, using these visits to the singer as blackmail. The scandal that results when Kane refuses to give in ends up ruining any chance he had in politics. His wife divorces him and he eventually marries the singer and becomes a champion of her career. The thing is, she’s not that great, so when he buys her an opera house and builds her a company to perform with, well, she knows she doesn’t deserve it. And so another relationship crumbles, but not before he’s started building her a palatial estate that she never really wanted.

It’s very much the story of someone who doesn’t know how to be happy. He has high ideals and dreams, but when they aren’t easy to achieve he tries to buy his way into them and ends up corrupting them and himself in the process. To be honest, I feel worse for the people around him than I feel for Kane himself. His fall is tragic, after all, but ultimately he’s not a terribly nice person. I’m working under the assumption that that’s part of the message though. The rest of the message has to do with how well Kane seems to have shut himself off from everyone around him. And that part is definitely emphasized by the style the movie is presented in.

The whole conceit of the movie is that Kane has died and his last word was a mystery: Rosebud. What does it mean? A few reporters get together to try and track down everyone Kane ever knew to find out as much as they could about him and figure out the meaning of that word. After all, if they can figure it out, that’ll be a scoop. So every section of the movie is a flashback spurred by someone telling one of the reporters about how they knew Kane or about a specific episode in his life. It’s not quite epistolary, but it comes close. There’s interview after interview and at one point the main reporter even gets permission to read some unpublished memoirs of another man. And despite all of that research, the point is lost on the reporters doing the research. The audience finds out the meaning of “Rosebud” and there are hints if you know what to look for, but it’s a mystery to everyone else. None of the movie’s characters get to know because Kane himself never told anyone.

In terms of execution and skill, this movie is incredible. It’s well filmed and well acted and well everything. I don’t love the story and I never have. I prefer my tragic downfalls to have more hubris and more sympathy by the end. I want to feel sad about the fall but also that it’s justified. But then I want to like the person in the end. The end of this is just sad and, as I said, pathetic. I will always recognize the skill and artistry of this movie, but it’s not something I love and would watch over and over. Not that every movie has to be something I love in order to want to own it. After all, I knew what my reaction to it would be and we bought it for this project anyhow. Because it is that good and it is that classic.

October 2, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 577 – Battlestar Galactica (miniseries)

Battlestar Galactica (2003) – September 28th, 2011

Watching this tonight made me angry. And I find that annoying in turn. Because I typically don’t get angry about television shows. I ignore the ones I don’t like and I enjoy the ones I do like and when the ones I do like go downhill (i.e. Heroes) I just stop watching. And you know what I did with this show when it started to go downhill and bore/irritate me, and I started to suspect it wasn’t going to end at all satisfactorily for me? I stopped watching it. And I was happier for it. My mother, on the other hand, kept watching. I feel a little bad about that since I’m the one who got her hooked and in the end she just couldn’t stop. She chided me for “quitting” and not seeing the show out to the bitter end. And then when it ended she told me she didn’t want to talk about it. She likened it to The Prisoner (the ending of which she also hated). And she never again called me a quitter.

I was doing just fine in regards to Battlestar Galactica, the show, until we decided to put this in following Caprica last night. We’d planned on Caprica and Battlestar Galactica: Razor because they were both movie-length specials. But then Andy suggested we add this in between them, since it was a miniseries special that acted as a pilot for the series that followed. It was on the long side, yes, but we’d had theatrical releases that were longer, so why not, right? And then I realized it was going to make me angry, because rewatching the beginning of the reimagining of Battlestar Galactica just served to remind me that it started so very strong. It came out swinging and for the first two seasons it didn’t let up and watching it again, seeing it start and seeing all of these characters that I became fascinated by and knowing where it’s headed? That made me sad and angry.

This miniseries held such promise. It begins with an explanation that the humans created the Cylons, a race of thinking machines, to serve them. But then the Cylons rebelled and when the war between humans and Cylons ended, the Cylons left. They’ve been gone a long time when we come in, but now they’re back. We meet them by seeing a couple of shiny centurion models, and then we meet Six. She’s a blond bombshell in a red dress and she’s a Cylon and she destroys the station she’s on. Gut punch right there: The Cylons look like humans and they’re going to try and kill the entire human race. Which they attempt to do not long after, detonating vast numbers of atomic bombs on the surfaces of the twelve colonial worlds. They exploit a back door in the defense systems of the colonies and the ships of the colonial fleet, left there for them by one of their own.

The Battlestar Galactica, an old military ship due to be decommissioned and turned into a museum, survives the attacks because its computers were far too old to run the new (bugged) software. It’s a holdover from the first war, when networking meant being vulnerable to Cylon attack. And by the end of the first section of the miniseries we know that the Galactica is going to have to stay in fighting form for the foreseeable future. The miniseries is largely interested in setting the stage for the rest of the show, but as it was the very beginning and done in three installments, each section does have a beginning and end and a point. We see the Galactica’s crew form up and work to return the ship to readiness. We meet the characters who will fill the series and discover some of their issues. There’s Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace, an excellent pilot but prone to violent outbursts. There’s William Adama, the ship’s commander and his first mate, Colonel Tigh (who has a drinking problem and longstanding enmity with Starbuck). There are more pilots and officers and a few civilians. There’s Gaius Baltar, a brilliant scientist who was also responsible for unwittingly allowing the Cylons access to the defense systems. And there’s the imaginary Six who shows up only to Baltar, the apparent ghost of his former lover. There’s the new president of the colonies, Laura Roslin (formerly the secretary of education but everyone above her is now dead). The miniseries introduces all of them in bits and pieces, showing them instead of telling about them. And the acting from each cast member is superb.

Looking back on it, I’m amused to see how some of these people started out. Tigh, in particular, has an amazing character arc that starts here with his drunken belligerence and ends somewhere totally unexpected. As we’re shown how everyone works (or doesn’t work) together, we’re given a good sense of how some of these relationships are going to shake out, at least in the short term. The show’s big strength there is that it becomes clear even midway through the miniseries that things will not always end up going in the direction that the show seemed to be pointing. I loved that. I loved it so much. Because I felt like the show did an amazing job introducing these characters and making me care about them and then throwing them for loops that did interesting things to them without being gratuitious.

Take Starbuck, for example. I love her. Watching Katee Sackhoff in this, seeing her character develop strong right from the start where she’s jogging through the ship, I absolutely fell in love with her again. She’s so central to the whole thing and I adored her. And knowing that in the end all the things they did with her just seemed so… lacking? That’s frustrating, at the very least. But it’s still impressive to me, how well this introduction works. It lays everything out and makes it clear that there will be hard decisions and people will die. Faced with the choice of standing and fighting a losing battle or running and hiding and protecting the rag-tag group of civilian ships that survived, Adama seems torn. And the trouble is that no matter what choice he makes, there will be consequences. He ends up going with saving as much of the civilian fleet as possible, but notice I didn’t say all of it. And it’s all the product of the combination of people who are there to influence him, along with who he is as a person. Beautifully done.

The miniseries ends on a potential high note. The survivors have supplies, they have some cohesion. There’s a military presence to help with defense and a political presence to keep things organized. They’ve identified not only the external threat but at least some of the internal threat. And Adama ends by giving a rousing speech to the fleet, telling them that he’s going to lead them to the mythical thirteenth colony: Earth. And everyone cheers “So Say We All” and it’s all very heartening. Except, as we learn after the speech, it’s all made up. He has no idea where they’re going. It was a morale booster. That’s all. The threat is still out there and they apparently have a plan whereas the humans really don’t. And someone we know is something entirely different than we’ve been led to believe. It’s a hopeful ending, but a tense one at the same time, promising difficult decisions and shocking reveals that seem to be leading somewhere. I just wish that they had led somewhere better and I’m angry that the vast and amazing potential on display in this introduction wasn’t squandered by the middle of season three.

September 28, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 576 – Caprica

Caprica – September 27th, 2011

Back when the reboot of Battlestar Galactica started showing on what was still Sci Fi at the time, Andy and I watched it every week through the first three seasons. We stopped midway through season four. Andy kept up with it longer than I did and I still regret getting my mother hooked on it because she’s not the sort of person who can just walk away from a show, even when it’s clearly going downhill. So by the time Caprica started airing we just couldn’t handle starting to watch it. Why bother when we’d been so badly burned by BSG? We never tuned in and I only got bits and pieces of the show’s particulars from friends who were valiantly trying to stick with the franchise. Nothing ever really convinced me it was worth getting sucked into.

Because here’s the thing: I loved the first two seasons of BSG. I loved them passionately. And I knew that if the beginning of the new show was done half as well as the beginning of BSG, I would be suckered right in. The whole conceit of it is to show how everything began, introducing the key figures in the history of Cylon development and telling the story of how the Cylons came to be and where it all went wrong. And I love prequels! I love seeing the background to a story. Where it started, what happened, all the bits and pieces that resulted in a story that came much later. BSG itself was full of such a huge amount of background and history and up until late in the show’s run it was superbly written. So, toss me some backstory and write it to the same standard? Yep. Sold.

Except I don’t know. This is the pilot for the series and it has some good material in it, but I don’t know that it really left enough room to head towards BSG itself. Without going into specific spoilers for the end of BSG, the whole concept of the development of the Cylons being a big breakthrough in human technology is kind of off for me, knowing what I know. And having seen Battlestar Galactica: Razor, which has some flashbacks to the first Cylon war, I know even more of what’s in store than just the regular series showed. What, precisely, is going to be revealed here that we don’t already know? What I loved about the earlier seasons of BSG was that it was a show that messed with its audience. By the end of the miniseries that started it, there was a huge reveal about a major character and it totally changed things. And the show kept doing that. The big dramatic moment in this? Was when the Cylon body wakes up. But I was expecting it. I wasn’t at all shocked by it. And that made me doubt that there were any real surprises in store for me.

All that being said, I did enjoy this. It’s not bad by any means. I do like backstory, after all, and seeing the development of the Cylon as a military project, the shared online worlds developed in secret, the tensions between the colonies, the religious issues, those are all interesting. And at least in the special we watched, there’s nothing really there that spoils anything later in BSG, which I’m sure was difficult. Instead there’s a distinct focus on the roots of what divided the Cylons from the humans in the first place. And at least as far as this first installment is concerned, it appears that a hefty dose of social injustice as viewed by a religions zealot is the key.

Anyone who’s watched a significant amount of the BSG series (and why would you be watching this if you hadn’t watched any of the other or if you weren’t planning on it?) knows that the human colonists are polytheistic, believing in their own interpretations of what we identify as the ancient Greek pantheon. The Cylons, on the other hand, are monotheistic, believing in a single omniscient and omnipotent god. Caprica provides background on that, revealing that there’s a growing underground movement amongst the youth and young adults on the planet of Caprica and likely other planets, rejecting the pantheon of their parents and peers and embracing a single god and more rigid definition of right and wrong. Our main character, Zoe, is a convert. She’s also a computer genius and has managed to create a self-aware copy of herself in a virtual world created by her father. So when her father discovers the copy after Zoe is killed in a terrorist attack he attempts to resurrect her, downloading the copy into a Cylon body that he’s been working on for the government. It does not go as planned.

What complicates things even more, beyond the religious and moral issues, is that Zoe’s father has befriended another man whose daughter was killed in the attack: Joseph Adama. Joseph agrees to let Zoe’s father try to use Zoe’s code to create a copy of his own daughter. Unfortunately, the copy created is self-aware enough to seem real, but also to realize that she’s not really alive. She doesn’t have the knowledge of how she was created because she’s not the one who did it. When she realizes she can’t feel her heart beating well, it isn’t a good outcome by any means.

Add into all of that some political wrangling and mob influence on the government and corporations struggling for contracts and the like and you’ve got the start for a series. Which is, after all, what this is. It’s fairly obvious that this wasn’t meant to be watched on its own. It ends with a “shocking” reveal that’s clearly meant to herald in the major storyline for the series. It opens up possibilities with the prejudices between the colonies, sets up rebellious youth out of control and introduces a host of characters. The trouble is that it really is supposed to lead into the series. So as a stand alone piece it doesn’t quite work for me. I would hope that in future episodes Adama becomes a little more sympathetic, seeing as he is the father of a major sympathetic character in BSG. I would hope that more is done with the virtual world, since that would help explain some of the things that happen in BSG. I would hope that the show was able to weave together all of the threads it introduced here, but I’ve been burned by BSG already and I’m not intrigued enough by this intro to make Caprica worth the risk of another burn.

September 27, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 574 – Barbershop

Barbershop – September 25th, 2011

Oh, I am so full of mixed opinions on this movie. I didn’t buy it and it was purchased after this project got underway. But it was also purchased before we set a hard rule about not purchasing things without getting the explicit approval from each other. The “To Buy” list is exempt, since by its nature it’s all things we both want to get. But anything picked up by one of us needs to be okayed by the other. Andy, however, bought this after we had a general conversation about how while the collection does have a fair amount of drama and a number of foreign films, much of the rest of it is pretty homogeneous. And that was something we were both sort of uncomfortable with. We talked about how we might want to consider buying things that were very clearly not marketed towards 30-something white guys and try to expose ourselves to things outside our own lives but still in the realistic genre, as opposed to fantasy and whatnot. Cause goodness knows my personal experience doesn’t involve any sea monsters, talking lions, vampires or Jedi. And then Andy bought this and Diary of a Mad Black Woman without speaking to me first.

On one hand, I honestly don’t know what I would have picked. It’s been years since I worked in a video store. Currently I work in a children’s library. My knowledge of current movies is fairly limited to things I went to see in the theater, which really disqualifies something from the “not in my wheelhouse” category, or children’s movies. I can tell you what’s coming out based on children’s books! Still, that would definitely fall under “aimed at me” by dint of my profession. So really, what’s my problem here? My problem is that I feel like I have very little right to be reviewing this movie. It is so emphatically not aimed at me and I am so very much not a part of the cultural experience that this movie is based in. What right do I have to critique this? If I say I dislike part of it, how much of that dislike is based on my own ignorance? I am ill-equipped here and very leery of stepping on toes. I’m sure I will and I apologize in advance and will try my best not to tread too heavily.

All that being said, I hated the first half hour or so of this movie. And I feel no qualms about stating that. I hated it and I hated it for a very particular reason. And that reason is that an enormous amount of the comedy in the beginning of the movie is of the “aren’t women crazy sex objects?” variety. I honestly don’t care why that’s a thing. All I know is that for the first half of the movie, the only woman treated with any respect is the main character’s wife. That’s it. And you know what that is? Tiresome. Frustrating. Irritating. It gets better later on, once the main plot starts coming to a head, thank goodness, but the beginning of the movie has a series of “look how insane women get! So wild and crazy! And look at their asses! Women are crazy and will beat up your car! Or you! But they have great asses!” I don’t care who’s saying it. I don’t want to hear that. It’s weak humor at best.

Fortunately for this movie’s sake (as well as my marriage’s) it does get better as the plot goes on. It’s largely a comedy, but with a serious core that’s three quarters Empire Records and one quarter It’s A Wonderful Life, strictly speaking plotwise. Calvin Palmer is a barber who’s inherited a barbershop from his father, who inherited it from his father. And Calvin is struggling to make ends meet. The barbershop does do some business, but Calvin has started to see it as a bit of a financial vacuum, with people coming in just to hang out and folks asking for free haircuts. He wants to provide something more than what he’s got for his wife and the baby she’s going to be having soon. So he’s had scheme after scheme to make more money. And when a local businessman, Lester Wallace, offers to buy the barbershop from Calvin for twenty thousand dollars, Calvin seriously considers it. Of course, when he does take Wallace up on his offer there’s a catch and it looks like the barbershop will end up being closed and reopened as a “gentleman’s club” called “The Barbershop.” Calvin looks around at the community his barbershop is in and realizes the importance it has for people in the area and then has to find a way to get it back from Wallace.

Meanwhile, a couple of guys have smashed into a nearby convenience store and stolen the store’s new ATM, hoping to crack it open for the cash inside. This is the comic relief. Now, there’s also comedy going on in the barbershop, which is where the vast majority of the movie takes place, but it’s very talky comedy. The ATM plot is almost all slapstick. And I can appreciate that. Of course, as soon as someone mentions that ATMs can often be turned in for rewards worth more than the ATM would have in it, I knew where that was headed. Or I suspected, because up until the very end the two plots don’t seem at all connected, aside from the local police eyeing one of the barbers in the barbershop because he’s done time in jail before.

Now, I say it’s a cross between Empire Records and It’s a Wonderful Life for two reasons. One, it’s about someone trying to save a business that has more than financial meaning to a community that needs it. Two, it’s got a focus on the owner of the business realizing not only that his business is important to the community, but that he himself is important to the community. And I’m a sucker for that sort of story so I’m on board there. I do think that the whole thing with Wallace and the cash happens very quickly, forcing Calvin’s change of heart to happen even quicker. And that’s too bad, because it’s a good story and I genuinely like Ice Cube as Calvin. If, say, the sale had already happened and he’d spent the money on things for the baby, like setting up a nursery in the apartment or something, there would be more dramatic tension there. Having him take all the money right back an hour later and be told “No, now you owe me double that, by 7:00” isn’t precisely unrealistic for a loan shark, but with no legally binding contract and one enforcing heavy shown on screen? That just doesn’t make me feel like there was as much of a threat until the very end, and by then the conclusion is only a few minutes away.

I did like the side plot with the barbershop’s one female barber, Terri, and her eventual rejection of her scumbag cheater of a boyfriend. It doesn’t quite make up for the whole apple juice rant at the beginning, but it definitely helps the end. All the little plots end up tying together rather well, even if it does happen much faster than I’d like. I’m still not thrilled with the beginning. I found it unpleasant to watch. But I didn’t hate it by the end, thanks to a solidly developing story and some good performances. I doubt I’ll end up watching the movie again, but I don’t regret owning it as much as I did fifteen minutes into it.

September 25, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 568 – The Taste of Tea

The Taste of Tea – September 19th, 2011

Several months back when we hosted a member of Loading Ready Run before PAX East, we got to talking about movies with her. Now, this is not unusual for us. Even before this project we enjoyed talking about movies. We like movies. That’s why we own over 600. We explained the project to her and she gave us a couple of suggestions to add to the list. This was one. And I forget her precise description of it, but I know she said it was bizarre and slow. And that’s pretty spot on. Bizarre and slow. But also sweet and thoughtful at the same time. Long, too. So we decided to put it in for a night when we had time, but not a whole lot of energy. We were up to reading subtitles but not up to following a complex plot. This seemed perfect.

And oh, it was perfect indeed. I need to remember to thank Kathleen if she attends next PAX East. It’s a very dreamy movie, taking place over the course of several weeks in the life of a family living in the countryside in Japan. There’s no huge overarching plot that sweeps up the entire family. No real action or massive drama. Instead there are a number of smaller dramas, little stories in the lives of the family members in the time span of the movie. And for the most part their stories don’t really connect directly with each other. They touch on each other, but it’s more that it’s the story of a family living together and interacting. So when young Sachiko becomes convinced she has to complete a back flip over a bar in a playground, her grandfather sees and it impacts his own actions. But the back flip isn’t his story. When Sachiko’s father, Nobuo, plays Go with his son it’s not because he’s trying to help his son find something in common with the girl he likes, it’s just that father and son play Go together. And that’s how the movie goes, with each story involving the other, but not intentionally.

There are six members in the family, five of whom are living together in the house in the country when the movie begins. There’s Sachiko; her parents, father Nobuo and mother Yoshiko; her older brother, Hajime; her grandfather, Akira; and finally her uncle, Ayano. Uncle Ayano is only visiting, there to take a break after some undisclosed difficult times in Tokyo. And off in the city is another uncle, Ikki, who draws manga and produces what is likely the oddest thing in the movie: The Mountain Song. But we’ll come back to that. I promise. Uncle Ikki is very much a side note to the rest of the family. His story involves Uncle Ayano and Grandfather Akira, but none of it takes place at the family home and once his music video is done he’s not really touched on again. The focus is definitely on the family home and the people who live there or have lived there.

We begin with Hajime watching the girl he had a crush on leave by train. Right from the outset the movie makes it clear that it’s veering towards the magical realism side of things by showing the train exit from Hajime’s forehead. Now, I’m fully willing to accept that many of the magical realism type things that are shown on the screen here are the visual representations of the imaginations and thought processes of the characters. I think that’s probably a good way to interpret them. But the fact remains that there’s little division between imagination and reality in this movie. We don’t see every single bit of thought in the characters’ heads and we don’t even see any from some characters. But there are things we do see, such as the train and the giant version of Sachiko that appears (but only to her) from time to time. It’s not fantasy, but it’s not all reality either.

Hajime’s trouble with girls is his story. He finds it hard to talk to girls and is scared of relationships. But his Go playing ends up being they key, getting the attention of a couple of older students at school who invite him to join the Go club, which a new girl whom he’s been interested in but too intimidated to talk to has also joined. They play together, they talk, he gives her his umbrella and things seem to be looking up. On the other side of things, Sachiko has decided that to get rid of the giant phantom Sachiko who’s following her around she needs to complete a backflip over a horizontal bar. This is because of a story Uncle Ayano told her about how when he was a boy a phantom Yakuza followed him around until he did a backflip. Meanwhile, Yoshiko is busily working on a hand-drawn animation project with the aid of Grandfather Akira and Nobuo is spending his time going back and forth between his hypnotherapist job in the city and his private life at home. Elsewhere in the countryside a group of what seem to be gangsters are running around and a couple of cosplaying anime fans are working on a photo shoot. And yes, it all does work together. It’s all woven in with little scenes between the various characters. Hajime and Nobuo see the guys in costume doing a photo shook on the train home, then Sachiko asks for their help when she finds one of the gangsters buried in the mud near where she’s practicing her backflip. And Uncle Ayano hits one of the gangsters in the head with a rock – totally by accident.

If I had to pick one storyline in here as my favorite, it would be Ayano’s. I don’t recall it ever being explained exactly what happened in Tokyo that led to him needing to take some time off in the country. It just happened. He hangs out with his niece and nephew and wanders around town, watching people, talking to an old girlfriend, then befriending a dancer who’s practicing at a camp site near the river. He observes a lot, and tells stories. And eventually he goes back to work as a sound engineer for his brother-in-law Ikki’s “birthday song.” His reaction is pretty much precisely what I think everyone’s reaction is: “Listen to it long enough and your brain will melt.” Don’t believe me? Take a look: Oh, My Mountain. Let me make it clear, I love that song and the video. The guy with the gray hair is the grandfather, and he is a marvelous part of the movie. Easily my second favorite character after Ayano. He also observes everything, but injects bizarre comments into his observations. Things like asking why his granddaughter is a triangle. Apparently most of his lines come from things the director said while drunk. Of course.

It all sounds like such a busy movie, with music videos being made and anime showings and the Yakuza fighting in town and Hajime’s girl troubles and Sachiko’s phantom troubles and everything else, but it comes across as a slow and peaceful, meandering through the stories as they naturally flow into each other. Even the ending, which is sad in its way, feels like a natural part of where the movie is going. I suppose the movie could be shorter, but shortening any of the scenes in it feels like it would force the movie to sacrifice much of its tone and mood. And that would really be a pity, because the tone and mood are much of why it works as well as it does. It’s certainly on my short list of favorites now and I don’t think I’d change a thing about it.

September 19, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Up

September 12, 2011

Up

Oh, Pixar. How you love to make me cry.

I suppose there are plenty of movies about irascible and lonely old men, but most of them don’t go to such lengths to explain how he became so lonely. The opening of this movie shows our hero Karl as a young boy and how he meets his wife to be. Then – mostly in simple pantomime with a brilliantly simple but touching score – it shows highlights of their entire life together. It shows their marriage, their plans to adventure abroad often foiled by the usual events of real life, their inability to have children. Eventually they grow old together, never having been able to travel abroad as they had wished in their youth, and when Ellie dies it leaves Karl all by himself in the house they lived their entire lives in.

It’s one of the most heart-rendingly touching scenes ever committed to film, and it’s the opening to a children’s movie. This starting sequence is the reason that I now do not go to see a Pixar film in the theater without tissues in my pocket (a policy I was glad of when we went to Toys Story 3.)

You need this scene here, too, to make Karl a sympathetic character. As an old man he’s bitter and angry. He’s being pressured by a sleazy real estate developer to sell his house so it can be demolished to make way for a new high-rise building, and when it seems like he’s going to lose the home he instead opts to strap thousands of balloons to it and float it to South America. His behaviors and attitude would seem irrational and incomprehensible if you didn’t know already about Ellie and their life together.

Of course this movie is no all poignancy and meditations on lost opportunities and lost loves. It is, after all, a children’s animated movie. It features a disarmingly optimistic foil for Karl in his stowaway sidekick the young scout Russell. There’s also a loony cartoon bird and lots of talking dogs (given voices by a translator box on their collars. Indeed the movie’s very tenderness makes these more comedic elements that much more precious.

As is so often the case this movie wonderfully illustrates the brilliance of the geniuses at Pixar. Pete Docter understands how to use his medium to get inside his viewers. This is effective storytelling, plain and simple. I feel drained after watching it because it’s so emotionally taxing (and how many kid’s movies can I say that about) but it’s a good kind of emotional trip. Validating and affirming.

We have been somewhat avoiding watching this movie for a while now because I knew how taxing it would be. Although we wept through most of the film I have to say that in the end I’m delighted to have this in our collection. My one regret is that after having seen it twice in the theater in 3-D I have been unable to get it in 3-D Blu-Ray. Not that the 3-D effects are essential to watching the movie – it just ads a little bit to the experience that I miss now.

September 12, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Pan’s Labyrinth

August 15, 2011

Pan’s Labyrinth

More than a year ago, when Amanda and I first embarked on this movie a day project, we randomly chose a movie from our stacks and that movie was Hellboy 2. (Because we wanted to watch movies in order we instead watched Hellboy first of course.) It was through those two beautiful movies that I first discovered the work of Guillarmo Del Toro, and from the first time I saw Hellboy in the theater I was a dedicated fan of his vision. (I had seen Mimic and Blade II, but I didn’t really begin to pay attention to his name until I saw Hellboy.) This movie is probably the most purely Del Toro one we own – it shows just what kind of film he can create if allowed to do something completely original and completely in his own way. The result is absolutely one of the most beautiful movies we own.

This movie has been pitched as a fairy tale for adults. I have to admit that I’m somewhat resentful that such a film should be so very rare. Yes, it is a beautiful fairy tale with fantasy creatures, a fairy princess who has been re-born as a human, magic and fairy tale tasks. Yes, it also contains scenes of violence, blood, torture and oppression which are wholly inappropriate for children. In my mind however there is no rule which states that a fantasy film has to be appropriate for a young audience. Adults need fantasy too, perhaps even more so than children.

What Del Toro has done here is wrap a young girl’s fantasy adventure up inside a stark tale of war in Spain during World War Two. Young Ofelia has come to the Spanish countryside with her pregnant mother to live with her wicked stepfather. He is a captain in the army tasked with quelling a local communist underground and he is petty, bureaucratic, violent, egotistical and thoroughly evil. Near the mill he is using for a base of operations there is an ancient labyrinth, and one day Ofelia is led by a fairy deep into the maze where she meets a decrepit old faun who greets her as the long lost daughter of the king of the underworld.

The faun tells her that she can re-gain her immortality and join her father in the underworld if she can complete three tasks before the next full moon. These are fairy tale tasks like retrieving a key from the belly of a toad which has polluted the roots of an ancient fig tree or recovering a dagger from the lair of a child-eating pale monster which is simultaneously emaciated and bloated. She also wants to find a way to help her mother, whose pregnancy is not going well and naturally she loathes her wicked step-father.

Meanwhile Captain Vidal has been clamping down on the local populace in an attempt to root out the rebels. There’s a vivid scene where he brutally murders an elderly hunter and his son because he thinks they might be in cahoots. He is becoming paranoid and desperate. Things are made worse by the fact that several of his trusted staff members are working against him, such as the kindly house-keeper who cares for Ofelia while her mother is ill and the local doctor. Vidal is absolutely the worst kind of petty tyrant and his only real concern is that Ofelia’s mother bear him a healthy son to carry on his line. Del Toro has him obsessed with his dead father’s cracked pocket watch and living in the mill surrounded by gears and cogs – he’s very much a man of the mechanical future.

That’s the kind of gorgeous, detailed visual feast that this movie is. Guillermo Del Toro has used the familiar tropes of fairy tales and given them vivid life. It’s like taking a trip into his dreams, or maybe into his nightmares. As with most authentic fairy tales there’s a darkness here. There’s blood and danger, and monsters. You can see Del Toro’s hand in everything here – it’s like his sketchbooks made real and it’s fantastic to behold.

Also fantastic to behold is Doug Jones both as the faun at the heart of the labyrinth and the sinister “pale man.” He’s such an expressive actor, able to communicate so much with an intricate wave of his hands. Even delivering his lines in unfamiliar Spanish he has a fantastic flair, it’s always a delight to see him at work.

After saying all that, however, I have to admit that I am slightly disappointed in this movie. It’s visually stunning, and it does a wonderful job of giving life to fairy tales, but I’m not sure I like the way that the fantasy fits into the real world around it. Only Ofelia ever sees anything fantastic in this movie. Everybody else is trapped in a nightmare world of violence and death. The conclusion of the movie is left very much open for interpretation but I can’t help feeling that the fantasy in the movie is more of an escape for Ofelia and not something that really makes a difference in her life or changes her circumstances. Does she learn anything or gain any strength from her adventures? I like to believe that fantasy and magic are there to improve our lives and act to make us better people, not just to offer a refuge.

That is a small quibble and a mater of interpretation more than anything else, though. This is a powerful, beautiful, magical movie, and an absolute masterpiece. It makes me sad that Guillermo seems to have concentrated more of his energies on producing of late and hasn’t directed a movie since Hellboy II. I love visiting his sad, dark, fantastic worlds and long for another chance to do so.

August 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment