NetFlix Review #12: Tango & Cash

So when I mentioned I'd be writing this review I went so far as to say that this movie may be the most 80s action flick ever. Ray Sawhill expressed interest, Kyle and I might be doing a podcast based off of it, so, with a bit of pressure, here we go.


First of all, let's define our terms here. When I say "most" definitive film in regards to a decade/era, I'm not talking about quality, or "best," nor am I talking about most indicative of the zeitgeist. What I'm thinking of is how movies were made and why they were made. I want a movie that WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN MADE in another decade. For instance, if we were talking about just regular old movies and I asked what movie would be "most 80s" a frequent contender is The Breakfast Club. Now, The Breakfast Club is definitely a very 80s movie, however, if it had never been made and someone pitched that movie at a studio (updating a few cultural references, of course), people would make that movie. However, Adventures in Babysitting is another story. There's nothing you could do to update the trends or cultural references that would make that movie any less 80s, it is 80s in its bones, and they wouldn't have made it the 70s or the 90s or any other era. Only in the 80s.

This means that most of these movies aren't "brilliant." A lot of them are, or at least feel like they are, written by committee. And as we all know, when people do something by committee it usually aims to the lowest common denominator, plays it safe, thinks in terms of marketing as opposed to art and they frequently attempt to be "hip" while actually being as edgy as a guidance counselor. However, fortunately for us, and fortunately for Tango & Cash, sometimes committees also go absolutely INSANE.

How did they go insane in this particular instance? Let's break it down, 80s style.

(1) COCAINE. Tons and tons of cocaine. I'm frankly amazed "Cocaine" does not receive a writing credit on this movie. This is a staple of the 80s. Everything feels rushed and excited and AWESOME and extreme, because everyone had cocaine pouring out of their eyeballs. This also causes movies to feel a little erratic. Or, in the case of Tango & Cash, all the hell over the place.

HOW THIS MOVIE IS MORE COCAINE THAN OTHER 80s ACTION MOVIES: Have you watched it? You can practically hear the coked up pitch while you do. "There's a tanker truck, and a sports car and a helicopter! And then Sly... SHOOTS THE TANKER! And there's COCAAAAAAAINE!!!! And then Kurt Russel punches people!! Probably some Asian dude. And then they get sent to prison and they ESCAPE after KICKING ASS. When they escape, there'll be HUGE FANS WITH ROTATING BLADES and WIRES THEY SLIDE DOWN. And then there's a HOT BABE DANCING IN A CLUB, MAN, YEAH!!! AND THEN A HUGE TRUCK AND GUNS AND A WAREHOUSE AND EXPLOSIONS AND OH MY GOD I CAN'T FEEL MY LEGS!!!!"

(2) WEAPONS ANXIETY. The "Second" Cold War. Russia. Iran-Contra. Rising urban violence. Punk and anarchy. Rising class tensions through economic disparity. In the 80s, people were scared, they were anxious and they were thinking about weapons ALL THE TIME. Who had them? Should THEY get some? Action movies reflected this by loading up their heroes to the hilt. Gone were Clint Eastwood and his Magnum. In were Rambo, Schwarzenegger, the big guns. (Trivia note: in Terminator 2 the gun used in the Cyberdyne scene was so heavy only Arnold Schwarzenegger could carry it!) It was also there in movies like the Beverly Hills Cop series, where Judge Reinhold's character has his gun fixation, and in Stripes, with the awesome Urban Assault Vehicle.

HOW THIS MOVIE IS MORE WEAPONS THAN OTHER 80s ACTION MOVIES: Tango & Cash again steps up the game into parodic levels. So. Many. Guns. Guns in cars, guns in boots, exploding fake dog heads. Weapons weapons weapons weapons weapons. They shove a grenade down a man's pants, then push him down the stairs to his crotch-exploding death. You could argue that Rambo 2 and 3 outweapon Tango & Cash, but we have to look at context. Rambo is in 'Nam, man. You've GOT to weapon up in the 'Nam! Tango and Cash are in L.A., and while weaponing up there isn't a BAD idea, they definitely take it to the extreme. I'd say they definitely take it over Judge Reinhold levels, and if you're topping The Judge, you know you're meaning business.

(3) THE MONEY: The 80s were the era of Wall Street. "Greed is good!" Everything was about the money. In action movies the villains started changing from the punks, the violent bullies and harsh killers and became The Money Men. The bad guy was the guy behind the guy behind the guy. The puppetmasters. In this movie the bad guy is the awesome Jack Palance, vamping it up something fierce, playing the awesomely named Yves Perret.

HOW THIS MOVIE IS MORE MONEY THAN OTHER 80s ACTION MOVIES: Palance isn't a businessman, he's a business, man, and you'd better stay out of his business, DAMN! What exaclty is Palance's business? Ummmm... being nefarious? He's a crime lord with a huge office, a giant facility full of employees and illegal dealings, and he's so good at being so money that, by all accounts, he doesn't even really need a front. The man pays his taxes just so he can put "Evildoer" as his occupation and watch no one be able to do a darn thing about it. He's networking with other money men, one of whom is the great James Hong. He's got the super-chic modern art deco office. So. Much Money. But what puts this one over the top? The hero's playing Wall Street as well! Sly's Tango makes a ton of bank playing stocks. Why is he a cop, then? I'm glad you, and the movie, asked that question. Adventure, my friend. Adventure.

(4) CORNY JOKES: A staple of every 80s action movie, the throwing out of one-liners and lame zingers was actually legally required by 1982. Just look at the Schwarzenegger ouevre, which reached it's zinger-flinging apex with 1987's The Running Man.

HOW THIS MOVIE IS MORE CORNEY JOKES THAN OTHER 80s ACTION MOVIES: First of all, it has the added bonus of being a buddy cop movie where the two main characters start out as antagonists then end up working together, so you've got two good characters who throw zingers at each other, then combine their zinging powers at the bad guys. Secondly, the zingers in this movie... they're... they're really something else. Just look at the way Stallone responds to his captain telling him if he wanted to stare death in the eye, he should have gotten married. "Is that a proposal?" Is it? The joke doesn't make any sense, really, but Stallone sells it SO hard. Possibly too hard. Is he being ironic, parodying the stereotypical movie hard cop quip? Did he think the line was stupid and oversold it to underline how ridiculous it was? Or was he earnestly selling it? This is not the only time this happens in the movie, a line so silly, sold so hard that you have to question the intent. And for that, this movie reigns supreme.

(5) OBTUSE ART VERSUS CONSUMERISM: Just watch any random music video from the 80s and you'll see this. Baroque lighting, overly symbolic imagery, a striving to be serious, thoughtful and "arty" without actually having anything to say. Look at Robert Palmer videos. I'm sure that director felt he was saying something about beauty and Hollywood and conformity and whatever, but really he's just got a bunch of ladies in strange make-up and outfits dancing out of synch while poorly pretending to play instruments to a song about a woman being so fine a man forgot where he placed his money and also being addicted to love.

HOW THIS MOVIE IS MORE OBTUSE ART VERSUS CONSUMERISM THAN OTHER 80s ACTION MOVIES: Actually one of the things that first struck me was how good the movie looks. The film was directed (mostly) by Andrei Konchalovsky, a Russian filmmaker who, back in the motherland, had directed a number of critically acclaimed films, including adaptations of Chekhov and Turgenev, as well as a 4 hour epic, Siberiade, about two families in a small Siberian town. Then he came to America and directed the insane and entertaining Runaway Train, starring Jon Voight and Eric Roberts, and then Tango & Cash. So the guy's got cred. And like I say, the movie looks good. The prison torture scene, the escape, Palance's lair, the club Terri Hatcher works at. It's all SUPER 80s designed, and interestingly enough Konchalsky left the movie near the end of filming over "creative differences" with the film's ending and Albert "Purple Rain" Magnoli was brought in to finish it up. No offense to Comrade Konchalsky, but... creative differences? The ending wasn't fitting his "artistic vision" for Tango & Cash? That's WAAAAY 80s.

(6) BIZARRE SUPPORTING CAST: 80s action movies loved filling out their casts with oddball characters, the zanier the better.

HOW THIS MOVIE IS MORE BIZARRE SUPPORTING CAST THAN OTHER 80s ACTION MOVIES: Check the list - James Hong, Clint Howard, Brion James, Michael J. Pollard, Robert Z'Dar, Jack Palance, Terri Hatcher, Michael Jeter, Geoffrey Lewis, Lewis Arquette and even a brief appearance by Billy Blanks.

(7) THE PEACEFUL WARRIOR, EXCEPT...: What would now be called "The Seagal Effect," as The Ponytailed One has built his entire career on it, The Peaceful Warrior, Except... effect is when you have the man who is peaceful and never kills anyone, except, you know, when it's awesome. Then he kills EVERYONE.

HOW THIS MOVIE IS MORE THE PEACEFUL WARRIOR, EXCEPT... THAN OTHER 80s ACTION MOVIES: This is hard because, honestly, I don't think anyone will ever do The Peaceful Warrior, Except... better or more extreme than Rambo does in First Blood: Part 2. However, as I said earlier with Rambo, he's a bit of an exception. He's a former P.O.W. with PTSD. These dudes are just cops who are doing their job, they even make a point of it once about how they haven't ever killed anybody, but then, at the end of the movie, everybody's dying. EVERYBODY. They're shooting anything that moves, they're shoving grenades down pants, and they're making wacky quips while they're doing it. This kind of goes along with Obtuse Art Versus Consumerism, as this is a case of people wanting to have their cake and eat it, too. They want to show how much they appreciate the peaceful, thoughtful officer of the law who may have to rough some dudes up on occasion, but then also they want these guys to be the biggest, baddest mothereffers who will kill anyone who looks at them funny.

So there you have it. Those are my arguments. By all means refute them, take issue, naysay. You know me, I love the feedback. In final summation, outside of 80s representational arguments, it's a ridiculously silly and enjoyable movie. It's main strength is Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell, two guys I have a HUGE soft spot for. They are oddly charming dudes, especially Russell. If you're looking for goofy, mindless fun, you certainly won't go wrong.

NetFlix Review #11: Crash (1996)

I largely dislike it when people call a filmmaker brave, because largely what they're rewarding are people who make message movies that are actually fairly safe. "Ooooh, our movie has a main character who is GAY. HOW BRAVE WE ARE." "Our movie shows SUBURBAN HYPOCRISY, can you believe it?" "We gathered up all the courage we could, and made a movie about WOMEN WHO SUFFER! It was basically like war, but with art!" "Speaking of war, I made a movie about how sometimes WAR makes people do BAD THINGS. I'm fairly positive I should get a medal." These films, by and large, are not brave. To me, bravery comes with taking a position that addresses a difficult topic and handling it with a subtlety and nuance that could be misunderstood by people not willing to really sit down and grapple with what you're saying. Cronenberg, I find, is a very brave filmmaker, and a film like Crash is a brave film.

A couple of years ago I went on a Cronenberg run and came to realize that he truly is one of my all-time favorite directors. I find him fascinating, a complete film genius with an unrelenting personal style and a willingness to go places in his films few others would ever dream of, and, perhaps most impressive of all, I don't think he's doing it to be a provocateur. His films are all solidly and thoroughly thought through. They are smart, observant and carefully crafted to explore themes as deep as the human condition can go, and the great thing is he does this largely while still holding true to the conventions of genres such as horror and gangster films, which means the films aren't just smart, they're FUN, a lesson a few auteurs I can name should learn.

Crash, based off the J.G. Ballard novel, centers around a small collection of people who find sexual fulfillment, and possibly more, within the realm of car crashes. There is an irony, of course, regarding the linking of sex and car crashes. It's too easy to get hung up on the literal here. The crash is metaphorical, that compulsion towards self-destruction. This isn't a movie that's actually about people with car crash fetishes, but the very essence of fetishes themselves. Note the character of Vaughn, played by Elias Koteas. He is the car crash fetish philosopher, the de Sade of auto-erotic auto destruction. "The car crash is a fertilizing, rather than a destructive event," he opines. Sure it's a wreck, he seems to be saying, but it's a wreck that teaches us something, that opens doors. Vaughn finds meaning here, in sex, in death, in the combination of the two around the mechanized automation of engineering. He also, as many a good fetishist does, links it all to celebrity. It's not just true, it's something that the rich, the famous, the great and meaningful have experienced. James Dean, Albert Camus, Jayne Mansfield. Even the Kennedy assassination could be seen as a car crash, notes Vaughn. It's meaningful because it's happened to such meaningful people.

All these characters are reaching for something, a spark of life within a cold, postmodern detachment. As Emily was watching it she said to me, "It's like one of those late night cable movies, only really weird." She's correct, but it got me thinking about that connection. Cronenberg keeps the movie cold very specifically. In an early scene where James Spader's Ballard and his wife, played with devastatingly sexy coldness by Deborah Kara Unger, exchange the stories of their latest infidelities, they do so completely dispassionately. They're only way to find arousal is through a calculated dissection. Sex isn't about warmth and understanding, it's about finding something out. It goes back to Adam and Eve. They want that forbidden education. There's a reason it's called carnal KNOWLEDGE, why the Bible uses the word "know" to mean having sexual relations with a person. There is a long-standing tradition of people believing that there is a way to attain higher consciousness, reach some sort of uncharted territory, through sex. Think back on all the classic femme fatales. They're cold, they're distant, and they seem like they KNOW something. That's what makes them alluring. There's a mystery that you want to figure out, and the only way to figure it out is to get as close as possible. To dissect it.

Hence the late-night cable movie feel. Those movies understand the trappings of the dark, cold and mysterious allure, but Cronenberg is aiming for its soul. This is a film about the things we love that are bad for us, and Cronenberg attacks it head on. Many hated it when it came out because it was a film about something so damaging that was also filmed through that sexy, late-night cinema feel that made it seem titillating, but it SHOULD be titillating, in fact it MUST be titillating because, again not to repeat myself, but the movie isn't about car crashes, it's about titillaiton. It is one of my primary annoyances when people get distracted by the dressings of a movie, the architecture of it, and miss its purpose. I'm reminded of a conversation I had with a film student back at NYU that almost drove me out of my mind, where he was arguing that Fight Club, a movie I frequent site as my favorite of all-time, was lying and hypocritical because its message was being down and dirty and rough and tumble, but Fincher filmed it with such sheen and artifice that all these things that should have looked gruff and dirty looked sleek and sexy. The movie, this student argued, should have been shot on a home video camera. Leaving aside the impossibility of actually marketing a major film shot on home video, the movie, especially a movie like Fight Club or Crash, is SUBJECTIVE. The filmmakers are not trying to capture reality, they are trying to capture what these characters FEEL. In Fight Club these men are feeling sexy, strong and empowered for the first time in their lives, so it makes sense to show them as they see themselves. Plus, a major theme of the movie is artifice, constructed reality. The same can be said for Crash. To show these characters the way they would actually be in real life is a lie, because what this movie is about is how they see themselves, about how they feel.

And so what does it all mean? What knowledge do they find, and how do they feel at the end? Cronenberg leaves it pretty open. I find the ending strangely haunting, The Ballards havings sex in the remains of a "failed" wreck off the side of a highway. They're together and they seem happy, the standard ending of a "romance," and yet you can't really feel good about those two, can you? It's an ending that itches my brain for long after I've watched it. What do I want from these characters? Do I want them to "get better"? Do I want them to be punished for their deviancy, for their selfish, destructive thrill-seeking that endangers the lives of others? Am I glad that, after a movie of looking for answers in physical connections with others, this couple comes together at the end, in their own strange way? Maybe a little bit of all of these. Like most truly great films, it offers itself up much better to discussion than it does to analysis. It raises questions and the undercuts those questions with more questions. It is a film that stretches the mind, uncomforts the soul and provides no easy answers. And that's brave.

NetFlix Review #10: Martin

God bless George A. Romero. As I slog my way through the project I'm currently working on it was a joy to watch this flick by a true horror maestro and see him balance good scares and sexy thrills with his usual flare for social commentary. Here we have Martin, a troubled young boy who may or may not be a vampire. He doesn't have the fangs or the supernatural ability, he can walk out in the sunlight, he seems pretty normal. Except that every now and then he gets a little twitchy, and when he gets a little twitchy he likes to go out and drug pretty young women, then cut them open with a razor and drink their blood. Martin, as I'm sure you could imagine, is quite a handful, so he is sent off to Pittsburgh (which really should be renamed Romerosburgh) where his uncle will house him and attempt to save his soul, and then kill him.

The basic gist of the movie is that there are three different realities being subscribed to. Uncle Cuda, played with gusto by Lincoln Maazel, is old school old world. He believes that Martin is full-on Nosferatu, from a family curse that shows up every few generations to turn one of them into a bloodsucking child of the night. He covers the house in garlic and crosses and brings priests over to try and cast out the evil spirits living within Martin. Then there's Martin himself, who believes that all his uncle's superstitious mumbo jumbo is ridiculous, but still gives his age as 84 and calls up a local disc jockey to complain how vampire movies get him all wrong. And finally there's Uncle Cuda's daughter, Christina, who doesn't believe any of this nonsense.

Romero has a really rich set up here, and mines it as best he can. The film, made in 1977, does a great job of exploring generational tensions and the shifts in religious beliefs happening in the 70s without ever getting to overtly preachy or didactic. The film also has a great sense of place and time, which comes from a director working so closely with a town the way Romero has with Pittsburgh. Everything feels dingy and real, from the train station Martin arrives at for the film's beginning to Uncle Cuda's cluttered home and shop to the fields just outside of town where Martin takes an awkward yet successful date. One of Romero's strengths, in my mind, has always been taking something fantastic and making it feel creepily mundane and real. I remember when I first saw Night of the Living Dead. That opening scene with Barbra and her brother in the graveyard is so chilling and creepy to me because when the first zombie shows up, he kind of just looks like a drunk. He doesn't run up and attack, he just sort of ambles clumsily over, and as a viewer I sat there thinking, "No way. No way is that the zombie. What the hell is going on? IS that a zombie? OH MY GOD, IT'S A ZOMBIE." I enjoy a lot of the new zombie flicks, and I don't think there's one right or wrong answer in the Fast Zombies versus Slow Zombies debate, as both have their different spook factors and etc. etc. But one of the big plusses to the Romero zombies is that they really do look like us on a bad day. Their eyes don't glow red, they don't bare their teeth and howl and run at you with attack faces. They look sad, drunk and down. If you ran across a 28 Days Later zombie, you'd know that thing was bad news and you'd start running. Romero zombies would just look like another homeless person on the subway, until of course they bite you, and that's effin scary.

But those are zombies, and we're talking about vampires now. OR ARE WE? Romero plays fast and loose with reality here, and he does it in fantastic ways. As much as Martin whines to the disc jockey about how movies get vampires wrong, and yet in the absolutely hilarious "flashbacks" we see to his "youth," everything looks like the most overwrought of old school vampire flicks. They're shot in black and white, and even though Martin claims to be 84 years old in 1977, which would make him a teenager around the turn of the century, everything in the flashbacks look Victorian. Except, you know, the modern sinks in the bathroom and such, which COULD be low-budget filmmaking, or could be Romero having a laugh. There's also Martin's approach to picking and attacking his victims. He chooses beautiful women, and then drugs them with a needle. Afterwords he strips them naked, and whether he simply lays with them or actually has sex with them Romero leaves ambiguous. However, what happens next is not ambiguous. Martin takes a razor, opens a vein and drinks.

Romero does a great deconstruction of the vampire mythos. First of all, he casts John Amplas as Martin. He's skinny and awkward, with hair that always falls into his eyes and a young yet hangdog face, he's not your typical vampire, but he might be your typical kid who would spend too much time at Hot Topic wanting to be a vampire. Then there's his dysfunctional relationship with women. When he talks to the disc jockey he complains that he just doesn't seem to understand "the sexy stuff," and no girl has ever seemed too interested in him, which is why he has to drug them. However, when we see his "flashbacks" we see a beautiful young woman calling for him. Martin is that typical surly teenager who broods and mopes and then cannot understand why no one falls in love with his brooding, mopey nature. He thinks its romantic, but everyone else just finds it frustrating. Except a certain unhappy housewife who Martin makes deliveries to for his uncle. Again, Romero brilliantly contrasts Martin's poseur-despair with the housewife's actual urban angst. Martin believes that they're kindred souls and cannot understand why she still seems unhappy even after they've made love. The movie undermines the romantic vision of the vampire and examines what a person who actually sneaks into girls' rooms at night to seduce and destroy would really be like. The answer: pretty creepy.

Unfortunately, one of Romero's greatest strengths is also his greatest weakness. He's great because he's so DIY and low-budget, but there are also times where you can really feel that low budget creeping up on you. The place where this really hurts the movie is with the comedy. Ideally, this movie is a laugh riot, and Romero knows this. He's populated the movie with site gags and wacky shenanigans, but for all the great set-ups, there aren't that many actual laughs in the movie. I know what I'm seeing is funny, but its not moving me to laugh, and I'm a pretty easy laugher. There are so many scenes where I feel like I could describe them to you and they'd be hilarious, but they just aren't on-screen. Martin dressing up as a stereotypical vampire to plague his uncle, the deadpan "exorcism" scene which Martin disappointedly walks away from, the incredibly well-conceived chase scene in which Martin finds one more victim than he expects and the whole thing becomes a sort of Keystone Cops/slamming doors chase scene throughout a house while the slow-acting poison takes its time working on its victims. Romero ran into the same problem, I felt, with his most recent film, Diary of the Dead. Conceptually the movie is brilliant, but the execution is kind of horrendous. I'll give Romero credit, even though he's been pigeon-holed, not just as a horror guy but nowadays as an explicitly zombie horror guy, he's tried to reinvent himself and investigate something new and current with each film. However, regarding Martin I will say that very rarely would I ever profer a movie up for a remake, but in the right hands Martin could easily be redone to be a gut-busting dark comedy.

But the movie itself, my brilliant remake dreams aside, is pretty great. Good ideas, fun storytelling and Romero rocking it as only he can. Speaking of which, fun trivia notes! Romero actually acts here, playing the first priest to visit chez Cuda. Romero's wife plays Uncle Cuda's daughter, the sympathetic and ever-suffering Christina, and her boyfriend is Romero staple and horror legend Tom Savini! So if you're a fan of horror, or Romero in particular, check it out. It's a fun flick.

Here's a question to possibly start some discussion in the comments section: Do you think that Romero may just not have the film skill set to make the comedy work, or do you think comedy is implicitly more difficult than horror, or most other film elements? I'm thinking about Steven Spielberg, a master of cinema, who claimed after 1941 that he'd never do another comedy again. He's certainly got moments of humor in all of his movies, but he's vowed to never return to the genre straight-up again. A similar thing occurred with Martin Scorsese and After Hours. The closest Coppola ever got to a comedy were Jack and Peggy Sue Got Married, both of which I kind of hate. In fact, the only of the big modern American film geniuses I can think of to successfully pull of a comedy was Stanly Kubrick with Dr. Strangelove. I'm sure I'm forgetting someone or some film, or someone's going to come here and ask me why Mel Brooks or the Zucker Brothers or Mike Nichols aren't modern American film geniuses, but you see what I'm getting at, right?

NetFlix Review #9: La Strada

Finally! Not only did this take me a while to watch, but then last week was Commencement Week at Columbia, and then Emily's grandfather got ill and so Memorial Day Weekend was spent at a hospital in Annisquam, MA. So it's been a bit of a ragged week and change, but now that I've got some breathing space, here's La Strada.

I think that La Dolce Vita kind of ruined me. When I watched it the whole thing felt so fresh and new and alive, so idiosyncratic in a delightful, heartfelt way. La Strada is wonderful, but in a very standard way. The minute that proud, uber-tough Zampano, played by Anthony Quinn, purchases innocent Giulietta Masina's Gelsomina from her widowed mother to be his apprentice in his one-man carnival act, we see where this is going, and we know where it will end. Roger Ebert believes La Strada to be the first movie you could truly call "Fellini-esque," and I can see that, but I feel like it is also a film where you can still see some growing pains. The main issue, I believe, is that the greatest interests I had in the film were in the small, aside moments. I found the relationship between Zampano and Gelsomina troubling, which I'll discuss later, but every time there was a diversion, like their stop at the church, the wedding scene (especially Gelsomina's visit to the little boy upstairs) and The Fool's tightrope walk all so much more engaging. It seems to me from what little I know about Fellini that later on he started crafting movies more out of those moments than the sort of standard "love" story like the one we see here.

But we're not talking about those movies, we're talking about La Strada, which does in some way contain a "love" story, so let's talk, shall we? First of all, it seems odd when I went and read up on the movie after watching it that everyone seems to think of Gelsomina as being simple, some saying she has the intelligence of a 10 year old, that she's mentally deficient, etc. I didn't see that. Certainly she's innocent - one gets the feeling that life with her widowed mother was sheltered at best - but there seems to me to be an undeniable perception that she has that is more than just some "eyes of a child" type wonder. For instance, in the scene where she is brought up to meet the disfigured boy at the wedding, my favorite scene in the whole film, she performs two acts which show a worldview far more advanced than childish. First of all, when she is brought into the room, she does not gape and stare at the child. It seemed to me that the children were bringing her up there to shock her, to show off the weird creature living upstairs, but Gelsomina does not see it that way, i.e. a "childish" way. What she begins doing, instantly, is performing. She wants to show this child the same respect, care and due dilligence as the other children. After she performs for a minute she sees the child is still withdrawn and afraid, and she commits her second non-childish act. She stops the show, walks over to his bed, and gives him one of the warmest, beautiful and heartbreaking smiles ever captured on celluloid. It is a magical moment, but not a childish one. The way she deals with Zampano throughout the movie also bespeaks of an intelligence and a wit that puts to rest, to my mind, the idea that she is "simple." Plus, if she's simple, what are we to think of the other characters?

To my mind, Zampano and The Fool are far more childish and mentally deficient than Gelsomina. Zampano seems to be operating largely on animal instincts. He beats up anything he feels threatened by and then spends most of the rest of his time eating, drinking and picking up women of the night. The Fool, although obviously patterned after the fools of Shakespeare and Commedia del Arte, never really speaks that much truth to power, as those classical fools are known to do. He winds up Zampano in the basest of ways for no reason other than to wind him up, and then the one time he does give advice and spout a little philosophy, it's to tell Gelsomina that she should stay with Zampano, which should seem like a pretty roundly terrible idea to anyone with any sense, and indeed proves to be so in the end. If you had to ask me who to go to for any sort of councel, Gelsomina, Zampano or The Fool, I'd take Gelsomina for pretty much anything.

And that's where I grew frustrated with the movie. It seemed like Fellini wanted to have his cake and eat it, too. Gelsomina has to be smart and perceptive, but not THAT smart and perceptive, and we never really get to see any dimensions of Zampano that would make anyone stay with him. It becomes that circular logic where the tail ends up wagging the dog, where we feel like Gelsomina is perceptive about some things, so we wonder why she would stay with Zampano. "Because she's simple!" Ah yes, but what about how she handles the boy upstairs, or the many times she trumps Zampano at his own games? "Because sometimes simple people can be perceptive!" But if she's at all perceptive, why does she stay with Zampano? "Because she's simple!!" These things bother me. The greater problem is that my issue with these elements of the basic narrative setups of the movie cause me to have a disconnect with all the action that happens further within the film. What do I make of the two deaths that occur? What about the ending, with Zampano writhing angry and alone on the beach? It's a moment fraught with dramatic potential, but, to my mind, comes up empty because the character himself has come up empty, and is at best grovelling in self-inflicted misery. (Incidentally, one could read the ending of La Dolce Vita as revisiting this ending, a helpless man alone on a beach, but I felt a true, expansive weight to the scene in La Dolce Vita that I did not feel here, and the contrast only makes it sharper.) I understand on some artistic theoretical level why these things occur, but I could neither feel anything for them, nor did they play as anything realistic or insightful. They just seemed like story elements that are playing out because those are the story elements that have to play out because that's the story, you see? Which is a shame, because in the weighty scales of art this movie comes down much more solidly on the "awesome" side than on the "bad" side. The film is beautiful, the music is stunning and there are many singular elements throughout the story that are brilliant. But with all great art there is an entry point that one must walk through to really embrace it, and I felt myself denied entry to this movie based on how it sets up its characters.

Which is also a shame, because the actors are all good in their own ways. Quinn plays a great brute, his curmudgeonly bad humor, his swarthy gate and his impenetrable meanness (stealing a silver heart from a church that housed him! Nasty!) make him a definite scoundrel, which is always fun to see. Richard Basehart's work as The Fool has a breasy, fun feel. His patter during his act is fantastically doofy and the simple sight gag of watching him taunt the large, looming Quinn is a joy. And then there's Giulietta Masina, who is both the best and worst of the film. When she is allowed to go full into Harpo Marx/Charlie Chaplin dafiness, or when she is just allowed to be, she is a discovery. I cannot stress enough how charmed I was by just that scene of her with the child. There is also a scene where Gelsomina is waiting for Zampano to be released from prison and there are some children playing, and a little girl comes over to the distraught woman, hands her a present of some knicknack or other that's just lying around, and then sits down beside her. These moments are brilliant. However, when they try and milk her for pathos, or play up her simplicity, it all falls apart for me. Also, none of these characters seem to come together intertextually. I feel like someone could argue that this unconnectedness could be "the whole point, man," but then I'd be forced to stare at that person with a devastatingly arched eyebrow.

All-in-all, though, I definitely recommend checking it out, especially if you have any interest in Fellini. There is way, WAY more than enough good stuff just lying around this movie to make it worth a watch, even if the whole thing doesn't come together.

NetFlix Review #8: Zodiac

I remember seeing this in the theater when it first came out. When I left I remember saying that I knew it was a good movie, I just wasn't sure if I liked it. Then later that year I was doing my annual Top Ten of the Year Roundup, and I gave Zodiac the special award of "Movie That Will Most Likely Grow in My Estimation as Time Goes By." That hypothesis was both true and not true, as was confirmed by this rewatching.

Let me say, to begin with, that I think David Fincher is brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. I frequently tell people "Fight Club" is my favorite movie of all time. I love The Game, I think Panic Room is a brilliant, fun thriller, Se7en, on could argue, was one of the most influential movies of the past twenty years, plus the dude did some absolutely astounding music videos back in the day, so when I go into a Fincher movie, I'm looking for brilliance. I will also say this possibly quite controversial little nugget: I think Fincher is the closest filmmaker we currently have to Kubrick in regards to his technical mastery and his distance, or "coldness," in his relation to his characters. Also like Kubrick I think that, usually anyways, Fincher has an incredible understanding of project choice as fits his talents. However, lately he appears to be trying to stretch himself out a bit, get a little more humanity into his movies, and it's an interesting thing to watch. It definitely started here in Zodiac, and from what I hear (I have not seen it yet) The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons also attempts to tell a more human story than Fincher has in the past.

The key word, of course, is "attempts." I'll be the first to admit, in Zodiac it doesn't entirely work. Fincher is throwing in a lot of human elements, but he's still not making them the focus of the story. This is still a procedural, just like Se7en, at its heart, was still a procedural. The crux of this can be seen in how Fincher deals with the home life of Jake Gyllenhaal's Robert Graysmith. We see Gyllenhaal dealing with his children in a warm, parental way that is, while brief, very human and real, as opposed to how Fincher dealt with the mother and daughter in Panic Room, which was to bluntly use the familial love and Kristen Stewart's wounded bird quality as a way to racket up the tension. He's showing more investment in this human element of family life than he ever has before, but it's still not a driving force in the film. The same can be said for the relationship between police partners Anthony Edwards and Mark Ruffalo. Their relationship is certainly more levelled and human than the mentor/mentee relationship between Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman in Se7en, but Fincher still only allows us glimpses. He's incredibly smart and fortunate in that he's got a cast of absolutely incredible actors filling out even the smallest of roles. Of course Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards are going to be able to eek out some real emotions and feelings from their workaday moments because there are very few actors today that can portray that "I'm a good guy just trying to do my job" vibe like Ruffalo or especially Edwards. And Robert Downey Jr., let's talk about that gift to cinema for a second. He's today's best scene-stealer, with a true gift for finding the heart of every character and the injecting it with amphetamines. In any other movie his character would be the intrepid reporter fighting back against ineffectual police and curmudgeonly editors, but here he's a mess, a danger to himself and a questionable talent as a reporter. But he sure does have flair, doesn't he? You can see why you'd keep him around, if only just to go have a drink with after work.

And work is what it's all about here. Everyone is consumed with their job, and their job, whether its what they're actually employed to do or not, becomes The Zodiac Killer. It seems to me that David Fincher is a man who understands being consumed by work. This is, after all, the man who had someone actually fill in all the journals found in John Doe's apartment in Se7en and has been chasing the project Rendezvous with Rama for years. If anything, perhaps he knows such compulsion almost too well. The movie mirrors that tragectory of obsession. It begins with a bang, a graphic, horrifying piece of violence that represents that initial spark that grabs a hold of someone. There are a couple more scenes of violence, but then the film levels out and we're left with half-clues and starts and stops. It's the making of every true obsession, that hook that lands solidly and then the constant chase of that same fulfillment. We know when Graysmith's wife, played by Chloe Sevigny, asks when it will finally be enough, Graysmith's answer of "when I can look into his eyes" is a lie, perhaps just as much to himself as to his wife. If they'd caught the Zodiac the next day and Graysmith got to book the man himself, it wouldn't be enough. He'd still need to collect information, write the book, talk about the case with the parties involved. It's obsession, and just like phobias it's unreasonable, it has a life of its own. Which makes it fascinating that Fincher choses to both open and close the movie NOT on our protagonist. The movie's obsession literally has a life of its own, the movies opening murder and closing with a victim identifying the primary suspect out of a line-up both exist outside of our main character's experience. But again, who is the main character? Is it Jake Gyllenhaal, or is it that lingering, just-hidden-out-of-plain-s

ight answer that hovers over the lives of everyone in the film?

Hitchcock coined the film term the MacGuffin, which is basically the item that drives the plot of the movie, for example, the Ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark. However, one of Hitchcock's other caveats about the MacGuffin is that the audience doesn't have to care about what it is. Does it matter that Indiana Jones is chasing after the Ark of the Covenant? Obviously not, since we've also been just as invested in him chasing after three sacred stones and the Holy Grail as well. What is important is that it matters to Indy. The curious thing about Zodiac is that it undermines the MacGuffin on multiple fronts. First of all, it blatantly lets you know who it thinks dunnit. Secondly, we all know that the Zodiac case went unsolved. So we know who they THINK did it, and we also know that they're never going to catch him. So where is our investment? Perhaps that's the question the movie is hoping to pose to all of us.

The movie seems to be purposefully undercutting the typical Hitchcockian thriller in many ways. Graysmith is neither a naif "in the wrong place at the wrong time," nor is he the clever, unassuming investigator. He's smart, but not overly clever. He doesn't help anyone or solve anything; he only seeks, he never finds. Another famous Hitchcockism is that he filmed "every murder like a love scene, and every love scene like a murder." Zodiac has no love scene. Graysmith's relationship with the Chloe Sevigny character is even, at times, played for laughs regarding how NON-passionate it is. Also, the killings that are shown are, in my opinion, some of the more upsetting murders in cinema, as they are filmed so dispassionatley. The murder at the lake is absolutely horrific because it is done so simply, so straightforward. There's a quiet immediacy to it that forces to the front of the viewer's mind that THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENED. In any other film the moment where the killer begins stabbing the couple would be accompanied by hard cuts and blood squirts and soundtrack stings, it would excite the viewer into a frenzy of terror. I don't believe any blood is seen in the lakeside killing. There's certainly no soundtrack, and the camera just watches. It's not like early Wes Craven, where the violence is given a documentary feel to make it look "real," partially in that this movie doesn't need to fake you into thinking its real, as the events here actually took place. Also, there's something even more offsetting in seeing something presented so cleanly, so familiarly, yet dropping the bottom out of the normal tinges of escapist excitement or the shock of "Holy crap, that looked so real, how'd they do that!" and forcing you to really watch what's taking place on-screen.

I put this movie on the NetFlix cue because I was showing Emily the Korean film Memories of Murder, which I own, and explained it to her as "The Korean version of 'Zodiac'," and when she said she hadn't seen Zodiac, onto the cue it went. I think Memories of Murder is a better movie, I'd recommend it to anyone who likes Zodiac - in fact, I'd recommend it to just about anyone - but there is something beautifully mysterious about Zodiac that I find thrilling. It's imperfect, but its flaws, many of which seem intentional, are also part of its strange charm.

NetFlix Review #7: The Five Deadly Venoms

If you're going to talk chop-socky films, at some point you're going to be talking about The Shaw Brothers. Sir Run Run Shaw and his brother Runme began their film studio in the '30s. They produced a huge number of films, but truly found their place in the 70s with their run of grindhouse chop-socky flicks, such as The Five Deadly Venoms and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. They kept running their studio on the old Hollywood model, keeping a stable of actors on exclusive contracts and establishing creative teams, chop-socky Rat Packs (The Whack Pack?) of actors who would frequently work together with a director to establish a brand within the brand. They were sort of the Roger Cormans of Chinese Cinema, putting out a ton of low-budget fair, running a hefty amount of distribution and giving a lot of big Chinese stars their start. Sir Run Run Shaw is an interesting character, he put together a huge and varied business portfolio, made a ton of money and has given a huge portion to charity. He was knighted in 1977, and is still alive and kicking today at the ripe old age of 101.

What does any of this have to do with the actual film The Five Deadly Venoms? Not much, but it's interesting, no? Fine then, on with the film.

The Five Deadly Venoms has a fairly standard, if somewhat muddled, set up. An old Shaolin master is dying. He had five prized pupils who were trained in five different fighting styles, The Snake, The Toad, The Lizard, The Scorpion and The Centipede. He worries that his pupils may have turned out poorly, and sends his current student, whom he has trained in all five styles, but who has mastered none of them, to warn an old friend with money that he may be in danger from the Venoms, and then to seek the Venoms out and either befriend them so that they may help him train and give him the mastery he needs, or destroy them. Then, exuent the master.

Shenanigans happen as the master's old friend has concealed his identity, as have all five of the deadly venoms, who are also not all known to each other. The Centipede and The Snake are a team, The Toad and The Lizard are a team, and the Scorpion is the loner wild card. All the identities except for The Scorpion are learned fairly early by the audience, but not the other characters. The movie is one of those old-school thrillers where we know who done it, we watch to see how they get their come-uppance, a style I much prefer to the more modern "whodunnit?" where, as Roger Ebert once rather wittily noted is always someone you've seen before, so you grow to expect the person you're supposed to least suspect. Just once, Ebert wrote, he'd like to see the killer be someoen we've never seen, just some dude. It's fun to watch these guys sweat, trying to outfox the crooked cops, the bought judges, the shoddy witnesses and each other. The characters are also well-drawn, The Five embuing their names not only in their fighting styles, but movements, personality and costuming, none of which is overdone to the point of ridiculousness, but just shadowed in enough that I can easily remember which ones were which. The young apprentice, played by Chiang Sheng, is 50% Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name and 50% Charlie Chaplin. He bumbles through the town with a goofy grace, but observes better than people think he does and manages to stay free and easy amidst two warring factions.

But enough with all this character and plot nonsense, let's talk about some chop-socky!! The fights here are a lot of fun, it's great to see each fighters Venom Attack in action. While none of the set-pieces are as outlandish and jaw-dropping as today's martial arts movies, you do get great bits like The Snake trying to find The Toad's Achilles heel by using his two-fingered snakebite attack to test out various areas of possible weakness, or The Lizard's introductory footage of him standing perpendicular on a wall and using the force of his attack to blow out candles. I think the main feature in a Shaw Brothers fight scene is the sound design. It's incredible how you can close your eyes and just listen to a Shaw Brothers fight scene. In Five Deadly Venoms the fight scenes to listen to are the ones involving The Centipede, whose fast attack (as though he's coming at you with a hundred hands, get it?) is punctuated with a SWOOSH! THWACK! sound effect for every move. It's fantastic, and it's a lesson that Quentin Tarantino learned well. There was a day where I came home from work and Emily was watching Kill Bill 2 (it should be noted, the opening of the first movie has the "Presented in Shaw Scope" logo and Tarantino actually filmed segments at the Shaw Brothers Studio), and all I needed to hear was a second of the sound effects editing on the Beatrix vs. Elle fight scene to know what she was watching, it's that distinctive, clear and effective. I also think back on Riann Johnson's brilliant film Brick, where there is a foot chase that is actually built around sound design. I'm no film studies scholar, but I feel like this use of sound effects to build the entire rhythm and feeling of a scene in these Shaw Brothers films, and some of the other Chinese Martial Arts classics, has been extraordinarily influential in film design.

All in all, it's a fun flick. Now here's where I'm probably going to bring down some fire. I brought up Tarantino earlier on purpose. I've gotten into some arguements with people about Q.T. which largely center around them thinking he's a fanboy hack and me thinking he's a brilliant film culture collagist who makes something better than the whole of its parts. I like the Shaw Brothers and Sonny Chiba and Bruce Lee and Gordon Liu and Lady Snowblood and etc. etc., but you know what, I don't think they have the feeling or emotion that a Quentin Tarantino movie has. Enter the Dragon is great, but does it get me choked up like the end of Kill Bill, vol 2 does? Is Han as nuanced a character as Bill? Is Lee as conflicted, regretful and as deeply emotionally realized as The Bride? Not to me. I feel like Tarantino makes meditations on not only film, but a broad range of human experience. Movies such as The Five Venoms are like fables, with good guys and bad guys and big battles and cool stories. And frankly, there ain't nothing wrong with that.

NetFlix Review #6: Chocolat

So here's quite a premise for a movie. A Thai mob moll and a Japanese yakuza have an illicit romance in Thailand, but are found out and the man is sent back to Japan, but not before impregnating the mob moll with an autistic child who can learn kung fu by watching old movies and the boys at the dojo next door. THEN the mob moll, who has fallen from grace with the mob, gets deathly ill and the child is forced, with the help of her friend, to collect money the mother is owed by beating the living daylights out of half of Thailand. Oh, and get this, the autistic fight master's name? Zen.

Sound ridiculous? Well, of course it is. Is it entertaining? You bet. The outlandish premise is basically there as a frame to hang a bunch of over-the-top fight scenes on, and frankly, at least to this film fan, that's ok. The movie is put together by the minds behind Ong Bak, but instead of the mind-blowing Tony Jaa as the star, we have the delightfully charming JeeJa Yanin. Although she doesn't have the mind-boggling skill sets of Jaa, Yin more than makes up for it in charisma. While she's certainly not giving the most accurate, realistic portrayal of autism ever, she also never milks it or makes it cloying or cheesy. Given the level of hyperbole some performances in this realm of cinema achieve, Yanin is practically understated. For her first film performance she exhibits an extraordinary understanding of how to act on film. Her character is built through small moments and mannerisms, she plays perfectly for the camera in both the action sequences and the melodramatic family scenes that tie the film together.

And to say that she doesn't have the physical dynamics of Tony Jaa is like saying a comedian isn't as funny as Groucho Marx. Well, of course they're not. The fight scenes are still exciting and a ton of fun. The designers on the film deserve a heap of credit, from the set designers who give Yanin some incredible set pieces (the abbatoir! The multi-level building exterior fight!) and the costume and make-up people who let Yanin be shaggy, bouncy and lanky, letting her movements be cartoonish and dancy all at the same time. But I cannot stress enough how great a calling card this is for JeeJa Yanin, who I cannot wait to see in something new. Sure, you can tell when they've sped up the film a bit to make the moves faster, and they definitely have to reset a lot of fights by having Yanin frequently run from one section of a fight to another and then adopt her "ready" stance, but these faults lay not solely with Yanin but with the director and editor as well. The fights are all pretty derivative, but they work because Yanin attacks them with the fervor and zeal that only a freshman can have. And the movie does have a couple fun tricks up its sleeve. The moment when Zen meets the Thai mob bosses spastic son is as hilarioius in its payoff as it is bizarre in its set-up. This is an auspicious debut, and here's hoping that Yanin can follow it up with bigger and better things. It's a fun flick, full of old-school chop-sockey high kicks and high melodrama. Check it out, so you can hopefully say you saw the next big international martial arts star back when she was new.

NetFlix Review #5: Kiki's Delivery Service

This one will probably be a little less controversial than the last entry, but it's also a little weaker a review. I apologize. They can't all be winners.

Growing up as the son of a minister who also happened to be addicted to films and television, I was privy to a lot of conversations about why it was that there were no nice movies around where no one died and no one was in any real danger and people were just nice to each other, but could the movie also not be super-dopey pandering drivel. Well, here's the answer to that conversation: Kiki's Delivery Service.

The film is about a young witch named Kiki who turns 13 and must, according to witch code, go far away from home and learn how to survive on her own. So off she goes on her broom with her snarky black cat familiar, in search of new adventures. She proceeds to get a job, meet a boy, befriend an artist and enjoy all kinds of wacky shenanigans. Within all the adventures lies a message about finding your calling, being true to yourself and, oddly, a bit of a parable on writer's block.

The whole movie is about as light as the air the titular witch rides her broom through. All the characters are funny and likeable outside of the occasional cranky sidecharacter. Most of the drama in the script comes from Kiki imposing somewhat nonsensical rules on herself and from that most horrific of film villians, raindrops. I worry that perhaps I've been spoiled by Hayao Miyazaki's later works and am asking too much of his earlier fare. I remember watching Princess Mononoke in college and not being terribly impressed. However, Emily adores and owns Spirited Away, and one day had it on, so I sat down to watch it and completely fell in love with it. I later bought Emily Howl's Moving Castle for her birthday, and thought that one was absolutely brilliant as well. So when we got NetFlix, some old Miyazaki was on of the first things to go up on the list. The movie is certainly entertaining. The animation, as per usual with a Miyazaki film, is beautiful. The movie moves at a quick clip, the characters are charming, the American voice acting, including the late, great Phil Hartman, are all a lot of fun. It's just that there's not that much meat to the story. There are some set-ups that could go somewhere, such as Kiki's occasional moodiness, her love interest's geekiness, the two strange old ladies who patron Kiki. All of these characters seem to offer up possible interesting avenues to take a story down, but any real drama gets washed right over. It keeps such an airy, easy tone that it's frankly a little difficult to write about.

I understand the appeal, though. If I had a kid, this would be a fun movie to just plonk down and watch with them on a rainy day. The movie is a good deal of fun, and I'll be there are plenty of little girls out there who watch the movie and then ride around the house on broomsticks and talk to their cats and think about opening up a delivery service of their own. As much as the film coasts along pretty easily, it also never panders and never talks down. The movie certainly isn't a waste of time, and would definitely be better than, say, the new live action Alvin and the Chipmunks or the twentieth Land Before Time sequel, but it's hard to get too excited about it when you've got masterworks like Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle that you could be watching.

NetFlix Review #4: Superbad

Movies about adolescence are extremely easy to do, but terribly hard to do well. First of all, barring the super-young crowd, everybody’s had an adolescence, and they all go through similar things, but in entirely different ways, so whenever you make a movie that tries to get your audience to relate with your story by saying “Hey, remember adolescence?” you’re running into problems. I remember MY adolescence in Gainesville, Florida in the mid-to-late 90s. YOUR adolescence, however, is outside of my world of experience, so if you’re going to talk about how great it was to rock out to Rush in the early 80s you’ve lost me for a number of reasons. Secondly, you’re necessarily working through some sort of massive distortion. Either you are (a) writing the movie from an adults perspective looking back on those events, OR (b) you write the movie FROM that place of turmoil and disruption, a la the movie Thirteen. Usually approach (a) leads to some sort of hazy, wistful idea of childhood at best, or mere pandering at worst, and (b) usually leads to something melodramatic, dissonant and juvenile.

Superbad, when working at its absolute best, transcends these problems through the intriguing fact that its co-creators, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, started writing the movie when they were 13 and continued working on it off and on through adolescence and into adulthood. This way, at times, we get the immediacy, goofiness and raw sensitivity of two boys about to enter adulthood, but we also get some perspective and hindsight from an older, more mature worldview. This is best seen in the way the movie smartly downplays the whole “dudes trying to get lucky” storyline and puts the focus on two childhood friends facing splitting up for college and not knowing what to do without each other. The movie’s great strength isn’t so much that it takes this “bros before hos" approach, but that it lets us watch the characters sort out this very real set of priorities in a way that felt, at least for this viewer, very real and truthful. There is a great moment, I wish I could recall the actual words, where Jonah Hill's Seth yells at Michael Cera's Evan that he's wasted so much of his time on him instead of becoming cool or getting girls or doing any other number of awesome things. But what both characters realize later, although it's never so much stated, is that they wouldn't be who they are if they'd spent time with anybody else. I liked how the movie didn't follow the typical road towards having these characters be total outcasts or part of a set clique within a school full of cliques. I have never known anyone who has had a high school experience like that. Seth and Evan might not be the most popular kids in school, but they're not really outcasts either. People know who they are, they get invited to parties, maybe not to every one, but to some. The fact they haven't been out partying that much isn't that they're unpopular as that they're usually off doing other things by themselves, and having a good time doing it.

It's moments like the one where that last point is illustrated, when Evan hyperbolizes his previous weekend's adventures to his love interest while the audience sees what actually happened, that show the sleight yet perceptive ways in which the script and director Greg Mottola undermine the conventions of the genre. These nerdy loners aren't really that nerdy, or lonely. The joke of the scene is two-fold, first in that Evan is making grandiose claims against the mundane silliness of his actual weekend, but there's also the joke that, quite frankly, that weekend looks like a lot of fun. Evan's got nothing to be ashamed of, but he feels like he does because he, just like Seth in the later confrontation scene between the two, has bought into the strange cultural belief that high school is The Best, Wildest, Most Awesome Time of Your Life, and if you weren't living it up in some big, awesome way, you were doing it wrong. The film, of course, has its main characters living it up through scenes of wacky misadventures, but then uses those adventures to underline how good their normal lives already are.

Another way in which the film is somewhat subversive in regards to its genre is in its portrayal of Evan as "the good guy." The movie takes this archetype to task, showing that the "good guy" frequently isn't so much good as he is scared, and his deference to women comes not out of an appreciation, but an anxiety. Listen to how Evan justifies not asking out the girl he fancies because he "respects her too much." In one of the film's most biting, hilarious and uncomfortable moments, at the party of the film's climax Becca, the object of Evan's affections, is fall-down drunk. She asks Evan to drink with her, which falls right in line with Evan's plan of getting her drunk to have sex with her, and Evan's toast before downing shots with an already-intoxicated young girl is, with ironic earnestness, "to the respecting women!" Evan later sees how his worldview might need some readjustment, but only after he fully confronts his desires and recognizes that the women he so respects have those same desires as well.

Of course, the movie isn't all some deconstructionist analysis of the teen sex comedy, it's also just plain funny throughout. The b-plot with Christopher Mintz-Plasse's great McLovin character taking the town with two cops, played by Bill Hader and Seth Rogen, is an unending joy to watch. And although there is a certain amount of taking the air out of the genre tropes, there is also more than a little bit of playing along with those tropes as well, perhaps none moreso than the massive nerdy wish-fulfilment of Jonah Hill's slovenly, crass Seth ending up with Emma Stone's gorgeous, put together Jules. But in the end we're fine with it because we have, in many ways, come to care about these two main characters, not just because they're young, like we were once, but because they are so earnest, confused and real.

When I saw this film in the theaters it was at a special screening where both producer Judd Apatow and writer Seth Rogen were in attendance, as they were in town to start doing publicity for Knocked Up. Afterwards they did a Q+A, and it was a hilarious treat. The screening was at a 42nd Street theater, and the best moment of the night was when a man stood up who looked was a type you see often at these screenings, an urban black guy, probably early 30s. When he stood up he didn't have a question to ask, he just exuberantly thanked Judd Apatow for the movies he'd been making. He was there with his girlfriend, or I believe possibly fiancee, and he was saying that they'd been to every one of his films and couldn't wait for Knocked Up. The guy probably didn't see much on screen during the preceding two hours of modern young, white suburbanites as far as the actual trappings of his adolescence went, but he felt something, as had most of the other people in the audience, who cheered the man's comment. It's strange to think how many of these adolescent coming-of-age stories come out every year, and how few of them are ever any good. They're like horror movies, I suppose. Easy and cheap to make, with a guaranteed audience and built in, paint-by-numbers tropes, but extremely hard to find the actual emotional center of. As far as Superbad goes, it's not a brilliant filmI think they got some things right, and for that I take my place beside the man from the screening, and thank them.

NetFlix Review #3: The Last Temptation of Christ

I feel kind of bad, because I’ve led of all of my reviews thus far talking about things I don’t like. I talked about Jane Austen books in the Emma review, lazy uses of the Cad character in the La Dolce Vita review, and here I am, opening up the review for a movie I absolutely adore, The Last Temptation of Christ, and I’m going to start it off talking about a movie I kind of hate, The Passion of the Christ.

I remember when The Passion came out everyone was either going nuts for it or absolutely hating it. I really wanted to like it. I’m a big Jesus fan, and I dig Mel Gibson as a director. However, I should have known it was not meant to be, because the commercials themselves annoyed me. You remember the commercials? Where they’d pull people coming out of the movie and they’d be crying and saying things like “You know, it all suddenly seemed very real for me. I understood for the first time what Jesus’ suffering truly was.” And I thought, “Really? Honestly, this is just hitting you for the first time? All those Good Friday services you sat through where the minister would read about them beating and whipping Jesus, then forcing a crown of thorns on his head, then making him drag his own cross up a mountain, then nailing him to it, then forcing him to drink vinegar, then stabbing him with a spear, and finally, since he was TAKING SO LONG TO DIE, they broke his legs which caused his body to collapse and essentially had him suffocate on his own blood, you heard ALL THAT and thought, ‘Eh, it’s not THAT bad.’ But then it happened on screen to Jim Caviezal and you thought ‘Oh no, not Jimmy!’” Maybe I just have an exceptionally active imagination, but I never really had any trouble grasping the suffering of Christ. What I wanted to hear about was the meaning of the whole thing. I want the existential crisis. I want to see the conflicted nature of man and God sort itself out into a message of love and understanding. What I want, basically, is The Last Temptation of Christ.

What works about the movie, to my mind, is that it does what so many people seemed to feel like The Passion of the Christ did – it made it all real for me. The pain I get, the pain is easy, but it’s the other stuff, the theological stuff, the God-in-man, the love everybody stuff, that’s the stuff that really boggles my mind. What Scorsese’s movie does, with the help of a great Paul Schrader script from the Nikos Kazantzakis novel, is bring out the very real, very human Jesus. In the great God-man spectrum of Jesus it’s very easy and comfortable to put him firmly in the God side, because that way he’s not really struggling. When he gets tempted in the desert, he knows exactly what to say and it’s not a problem. When he hangs out with Mary Magdalene the prostitute he doesn’t see her as a prostitute, he just sees her as a lost soul. When he prays that this cup be taken from him, he’s not asking to go against the will of God because he is God. There is no doubt, there is no inner turmoil. But when you see him as a man these things become troublesome, AS THEY SHOULD. The true agony of Jesus should not be the physical agony, but the spiritual agony. The body will endure what the body will endure, but the spirit is a matter of choices and considerations much more complex.

Willem Dafoe’s Jesus, particularly at the beginning of the film, is played as a bit of a cowardly neurotic, but perhaps it should be considered what he’s up against. He’s plagued not only by fear and doubt and demons, but also by God. He wrestles with God, at times physically, writhing on the ground trying to tear himself free of his heavenly duties. Jesus’ possible weaknesses in these moments are countered brilliantly in the script through the character of Judas, played with brilliant ferocity by Harvey Keitel. If you start to feel upset at the weakness and insecurity of Jesus, just ask yourself, “Would I rather have Judas?” Judas, being a Zealot, makes a more stereotypical leader. He’s strong-willed, steadfast, a man of action and determination. A good man to lead a revolution, maybe, but not the best choice to usher in a regime of love, consideration, empathy and understanding.

What really got to me watching the movie this time was how relatable they make Jesus, especially to someone my age. I just turned 27, Jesus started his ministry when he was 30, so when we meet him at the beginning of the movie he is ostensibly 30, maybe a bit younger, which puts him right around my age. As he talked to Judas, the mystics, John the Baptist, as he worked out his path, I found beneath all of the talk of him being the son of God something strikingly familiar, a young man grappling with who he is and where his life is taking him. This is a Jesus who truly knows what it means to be human. Although I have not personally felt the true spiritual weight of Jesus' destiny, I've felt his confusion, his worry, his questioning over whether or not he is truly up to what he believes is his future, if he is doing what is is meant to do. The movie takes the contradictions and dissonances within the stories of Jesus and examines them through a realistic psychological model. It gets to heart of the contradictory lessons one hears in church that we should all be like Jesus, but that we can also never be like Jesus, as he was something so far beyond us. These messages used to confound and annoy me, "You cannot possibly know what it was like to be Jesus. But try to be like Jesus." This film gives me a Jesus that still feels Holy and God-like, but who also has a part of himself that I can sympathize with.

Within all these ruminations upon the essential nature of Jesus and spirituality, the movie is also beatiful and incredibly entertaining. The on-location shooting in Morocco is a beautifully stark and surreal landscape. I like how Scorsese keeps the whole movie visually fascinating while never making it too pristine or polished. It looks dirty, earthy and real. The performances are roundly excellent. So much so that you look past the strange mish-mash of accents and see them as being a collection of very disparate individuals uniting around a charismatic leader, which is precisely what they were. Outside of the brilliant central performances by Dafoe and Keitel there are a number of other stand-outs. First of all is Barbra Hershey doing some dynamic work as Mary Magdalene. Her first appearance in the movie, where Jesus waits while she finishes her day's business and then asks her to forgive him because he knows he has turned her from God, is one of the most uncomfortable and affecting scenes in the film. The film makes allusions to Mary having become a prostitute because Jesus denied himself her for God. She represents the ultimate temptation for Jesus, expanding the typical "temptation of the flesh" to mean not just lust, but the temptation for Jesus to deny his Godly side and indulge fully in his human, fleshly nature, i.e. raise a family, work a trade, live to old age, etc. This temptation is not rendered through some easily spotted devil or Scarlet Woman, it's brought out by the very real and very sympathetic Mary Magdalene.The temptation is not the woman, but the denial of your true self and your path.

Also great is the phenomenal David Bowie as the sadly disaffected Pontius Pilate, Harry Dean Stanton as the rabid Saul and Polly's good friend Andre Gregory as the divinely mad prophet John the Baptist. And one would be lax to discuss this movie without mentioning Peter Gabriel's brilliant score. The music throughout the film is pulsing, primal, celebratory and tinged with sadness. It's the kind of spiritual, affecting music that makes someone like Gabriel such a treasure. Who else would have thought to use the instruments and arrangements that he did for the story of Jesus, yet it works completely.

The film's ending is one that never fails to make me tear up. The smash cut from Jesus at the end of a long, seemingly happy life giving it all up to go back on the cross, that moment where you truly feel both the ultimate triumph and sadness of Christ on the cross, how much it underlines the choice, the sacrifice of Jesus. It's also one of my favorite "Hollywood Legends" that the final shot, where the film burns through, was unintentional. Rumor has it the camera was faulty and exposed the film to light just at the moment Dafoe's Jesus expires. Mistake or not, it's a moving ending to a film that, almost literally, burns through with passion.

NetFlix Review #2: La Dolce Vita

Movies, by their nature, are fantasies. They edit time, they select viewpoints and compositions, they use lighting, sound and scripting in fantastical ways to make even the most mundane of situations into a narrative of some ilk. This is, by and large, why we go to see movies. We embrace that fantastical element completely as soon as we pay our ticket, or in this case our NetFlix fee. However, this knowledge of the fantastic nature of film can be used for good and for evil, because as much as the nature of film is fantasy, the essential quest of film is truth. This is why we can happily watch a movie about men fighting laser battles in space a long time ago in a galaxy far far away as long as it obeys internal logic and expresses inner truths, but we get upset and annoyed when a film about a banker in Detroit has its main character make small decisions that do not make any logical sense.

One genre of film in which the fantasy frequently lies is the story of The Awesome Cad Versus the Uptight Straights. This kind of movie sets up a false “truth” that anyone who claims to be happy with their middle-class, work-a-day existence is a liar, and there’s a freedom loving, free-loving, swinging dude out there who is totally ready to break down their cheap façade. These movies are cheaply didactic, as they also contain within them the inelegant and idiotically circular defense that “if you don’t like it, you’re one of the squares.” Then, of course, there’s the other side of the coin, the films that show The Cad as being the ruiner of all things, the great destroyer, the beast. Follow down his path of sexy outfits and indulgence in alcohol and doobies and you’ll end up selling your body for Big Macs in some Abel Ferrara-inspired hellscape.
The problem with exploring the life of the cad, the lothario, the brigand, is that it is hard not to break it down into an “us versus them” story of one ilk or another. Rarely ever do we get to see a movie that simply presents the cad to us and shows him to us for what he is, which is one of the reasons why La Dolce Vita is such a brilliant film. Make no mistake, Marcello Rubini, played by Marcello Mastroianni, is a cad. He chases women, he won’t settle down with his ever-suffering girlfriend, he lives the fast life of a tabloid journalist and enjoys his alcohol. However, the film refuses to truly judge him. This isn’t the kind of non-judgment that is equivocal to minor undertones of either condoning or condescension. This is a non-judgment that simply allows this man to be who he is, for better and for worse. You can love him or you can hate him, and the movie understands both positions. He’s certainly charming. Marcello Mastroianni is brilliant, Cary Grant with an edge of sadness and existential angst. The movie shows the man at his worst, arguing with his girlfriend and kicking her out of the car or drunkenly abusing guests at a celebration. It also shows him at his best, his tender affections towards the wounded bird played by Anouk Aimee and his deep, resounding love for his friend Steiner. Fellini does not ask you to choose one Marcello over the other; they are both presented as two contradictory parts of a whole.

Speaking of parts of the whole, it’s astounding that the film works as one entire story. The film is structurally episodic, but doesn’t feel that way. It’s a testament to Fellini that the movie feels like an organic whole. The secret, I believe, is also the secret to why the Marcello character doesn’t descend into either satire or moralistic fable- the story isn’t so much about Marcello the man as Marcello the moment. The character is a man completely of his place and time, and he's engaging with every piece of it. It’s important that the film is called La Dolce Vita, The Sweet Life, and not, say, The Tabloid Reporter or Marcello. This is a film about The Life. This is also why it’s important to note that Marcello is a tabloid journalist. He’s not out to get facts or create any meaningful exposes, he’s out to capture the glitz and glamour, the beautiful sheen of the carefree life of the rich. The tabloids feed that dream of the rich, while the film ironically brings out its actuality.

The scenes themselves are astounding, each one crafted beautifully to build towards dramatic, revelatory conclusions. Each scene shows us a small, new corner of Marcello’s elaborate and complex personality. My favorite, perhaps, is the whole section of the film revolving around a surprise visit from Marcello’s father. The movie once again sidesteps dull, easy drama by avoiding a rote my-father-was-never-there-for-me scenario. The interplay between Marcello and his father is one of two men who may not know each other on a strong personal level, but they certainly understand each other on a level as basic as blood. Each scenario is also brought out by its stunning location. There’s the wild nightclubs of Marcello’s father’s visit, the wild outlands where the children are claiming to see the Virgin Mary, the ornate fountain where the stunning Anita Ekberg is wooed to distraction by the vivacity of life, the stark modern apartment of Steiner, the old, decadent house in which Marcello confesses his feelings for Anouk Aimee, they all tell the story just as much as any of the words or performances do.

It’s not just the landscapes that are gorgeous. Fellini fills the movie with some of the most stunning actresses ever assembled. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could ever neglect a woman as pretty Yvonne Furneaux, but then you get a glimpse of the sensual Audrey-Hepburn-cum-Sophia-Loren Anouk Aimee and the complete bombshell that is Anita Ekberg and you begin to wonder how anyone could keep their head around so many pretty women. That’s not even getting into all the bit players, like Marcello’s dancer ex and Nico! Nico, as herself! Looking darn good back in the day.

But a whole lot of good all those good looking ladies are going to do our protagonist. One of the film’s main themes is a breakdown of communication. The film opens and closes with Marcello being unable to hear someone, specifically adorable young women, over the din of a roaring helicopter at the beginning (boy, how about those great helicopter shots!) and the breaking of waves at the end. In perhaps the most heartbreaking scene in the movie Marcello confesses his feelings for Anouk Aimee within an echo chamber, only to have Amiee, who is out of sight, take up with a stranger. However, in keeping with the movie, Marcello doesn’t view it all as a total loss. In the final moments of the film Marcello sits on a beach, all the former partiers marveling at a strange beast brought up on the shore by local fishermen. Across a little inlet from Marcello is a young girl who worked at a restaurant Marcello sat at while he tried to write his abandoned novel. The girl, looking more than a little angelic, tries calling out to Marcello, but he cannot hear her. She pantomimes typing, calling out to him to remember what he once tried to be, but Marcello can’t parse it and ends up giving her a wry smile and a shrug. The girl smiles back, and Marcello goes to rejoin his party. The ending is valuable for what it is not. It is not a harrowing morality play, it is not a joyful exaltation. It is life, and in its own way, if not wholly sweet, then perhaps bitterly so.

As always, please respond. I just sort of brain-vomit this stuff out, so I'd love to hear what other people think!