Friday, November 28, 2008

#112: Zach and Miri Make a Porno vs. #113: Quantum of Solace


Zach and Miri Make a Porno
Directed by Kevin Smith
Written by Kevin Smith
Released October 31, 2008

Quantum of Solace
Directed by Marc Forster
Written by Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade
Released November 14, 2008

I know, I know: what the hell am I doing pitting these two movies against each other? Really, the main reason for this is the fact that I saw the two movies back to back a few nights ago with a couple of friends.

But I guess if there's a motif to my pairing these two movies, it's the simple fact that one surprisingly exceeded my expectations, and the other disappointingly failed them in a miserable way.

First, let's discuss the redemption of Kevin Smith. Zach and Miri Make a Porno is easily his funniest, best movie since Clerks. Granted, leaping over such a low bar is no amazing feat, but this most recent film taps into the same mixture of profanity and sentimentality that made his debut movie so charming.

Sure, Zach and Miri is nothing you'd want to watch with your mother. EVER. It's about as filthy as an R rated move can get these days, with one particularly unfortunate scatological scene that really stands out as probably taking things too far. It continues the Kevin Smith tradition of juvenile fascination with sex and absurd use of bad language, but unlike with Clerks 2, it actually works to serve a story rather than appease the dick & pussy joke crowd.

The lion's share of the credit should probably go to the cast of the movie. Smith wisely steps outside his comfort zone, combining a few of his own "stars" like Jason Mewes while undeniably snatching from the Judd Apatow casting pool with actors like Seth Rogen and Craig Robinson. The actress who absolutely makes the movie work, however, is Elizabeth Banks as Miriam Linky. If her take on Miri didn't work, the entire premise -- including the potential for a believable love store -- would collapse.

There's one brief moment in particular, with Banks shot from above as she lies on her back in the backroom of a coffee shop, where her facial expression in reaction to something that has just happened absolutely seals the deal on making the audience believe in the romantic aspect of the movie. It's a little piece of acting that is so sincere and believable, you might literally blush because it feels like you're watching something you're not supposed to be seeing. Banks's Miri is the first realistic female character to ever appear in a Kevin Smith movie.

I also applaud Smith for adding a little variety to his directing. He's still no auteur and his camera still remains relatively still, but he does a good job here of using varying angles that show that he's putting thought into his shot composition. If you turned the volume off, you might not even know that you were watching a Kevin Smith movie.

In the same vein, I think if no one in Quantum of Solace uttered the name "James Bond," you also wouldn't know you were watching a Bond movie. Sure, there's the beautiful women and breathtaking locales, but the main thing this chapter in the Bond saga lacks is the simple element of fun. Its exclusion is almost criminal.

I'm not asking for anything that would ruin the more serious, and true to the novel, characterization of Bond as performed by Daniel Craig. I'm not asking for the campy Roger Moore raising of the eyebrows, or to put Bond in space ala Moonraker. I'm just asking that maybe the new Bond movie not need to take itself so goddamned seriously. Give us a bad guy who is actually shown doing bad things (or at least worse things than stockpiling water, for God's sake). Give us a stand-alone movie with its own plot, like all previous Bonds before this one, so I don't have to sit in my seat and think, "What the fuck is going on here?". And I saw Casino Royale!

I wouldn't say Quantum, on its own merits, is a bad movie. It looks and feels like a decent Bourne knock-off. The problem is, as a part of this massive franchise, it's easily one of the most punishing, least fun entries in the series. I've always thought that an action movie that you can watch more than once is a true sign that it's a damn good movie. I've probably seen Die Hard at least 20 times; I can't imagine wanting to watch Quantum of Solace again.

The best thing about Quantum of Solace is unquestionably the hypnotic post-car chase opening credits sequence, designed by MK12, a fantastic design company based out of Kansas City, MO. I would rather have watched another 90 minutes of their work than the movie that followed.

One of the biggest sins in the creation of Quantum is the insane use of quick-cut editing. There is virtually no camera shot in the film that lasts over 4 seconds. Seriously, watch a few minutes of the movie and count "one one thousand, two one thousand" every time there is an edit. You'll go insane. Even some scenes of dialogue and exposition (which you will find yourself longing for) are cut like a fight scene.

If you're going to film in a half dozen exotic locations, give the audience a moment to take in the scenery. That doesn't just go for the locations, though. Seduce us! We're supposed to want to be James Bond, or at the very least, want to be one of his conquests. With Quantum of Solace, the dude is just a damn bummer.

For more on Zach and Miri Make a Porno:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- The official movie site.

For more on Quantum of Solace:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- The official movie site.

The Zach and Miri Make a Porno trailer:

The Quantum of Solace trailer:

Sunday, November 2, 2008

#111: 2001: A Space Odyssey


2001: A Space Odyssey
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C. Clarke (based on Clarke's writings, especially "The Sentinel")
Released April 6, 1968

Someone once said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. In other words, how can you use one form of art to describe another?

I've always felt that saying was a bit silly, but when I think about writing anything about Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, it starts to make a lot of sense.

How do I sum up one of the greatest cinematic experiences you could possibly have, made by a director who had so much faith in his audience (or so much confidence in his film) that he entirely eschewed conventional storytelling and narrative with this movie? I suppose there's a first, second and third act here, but the first contains no dialogue and the third - still with very little dialogue - will just trip you the fuck out completely.

2001 requires participation on the viewer's part. It requires that you take it in, that you think about what it means or what it means to you. If I were to write about the movie tonight, I'd pretty much just be standing in your way. Why don't more movies let you do that?

To honor Kubrick, I'm just going to take a moment to laud the technical brilliance of his film. Before humans had even landed on the moon, Kubrick took viewers on a realistic voyage into the universe and, by film's end, eternity. Every single detail, the haunting and frightening music, the groundbreaking effects, the perfectly composed shots and beautiful lighting, amounts to an absolute masterpiece.

While I've watched 2001 dozens of times, I finally had the opportunity tonight to see it in a theater. I never usually sit as close to the screen as I did tonight, but I just wanted to feel like I was surrounded by this movie. Though the print wasn't of the best quality and the screen was by no means massive, it was an intense, immersive experience. I highly recommend seeing it in a theater if you have the means.

Regardless of how you manage to take it in, the movie is like nothing else you may ever see, one of the most intellectually and philosophically interesting pieces of art ever put to film. In its own vernacular, it is the Monolith: the touchstone for cinematic progress that helped move the medium forward.

For more on 2001: A Space Odyssey:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- The Wikipedia entry for the 2001 novel, written by Clark during production of the movie.
- A very interesting and lovingly crafted explanation of the movie.
- Buy the DVD or Blu-Ray.

The 2001: A Space Odyssey trailer:

#110: Cinemania


Directed by Angela Christlieb and Stephen Kijak
Released June 13, 2002

Anyone who thinks I'm even remotely strange for doing this project will seriously need to recalibrate their judgement scale after seeing the five characters profiled in Cinemania, a documentary about true cinephiles in New York City who watch up to 1,000 movies a year in city theaters. They make databases for the movies they want to see, and then map out the train schedules they'll need to follow, while factoring in theaters with worthy projectors and the ones that are showing good prints, etc...

I think if I lived in a city like New York, with so many theaters and movie options, I could see myself turning into one of these people if the right combination of pathos and sadness entered my life. I can totally understand how people will view this documentary and think that these people lead a sad existence, but there's a part of me that is very jealous of what they do.

There's Jack (the "star" of the movie), who seems the most sane of the bunch because he is also the most reflective personality, able to stand outside himself and discuss in detail the hows and whys of his mania. He defines the line between loving movies and cinephilia is "the point where you pay a price, where there's pain involved." He's incredibly interesting to listen to and probably the one person in this "cast" whom I'd enjoy seeing a film with.

Then, we're introduced to Bill, who claims to have moved to New York initially because the city was showing a retrospective of the work of German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Bill states, "Film is a substitute for life. Film is a form of living." Bill talks about how he has avoided a real career because the work and preparation involved would impede on his ability to see films. His daily preparation for heading to the cinema, which looks like someone preparing for a camping trip, is meticulous, extensive and almost maddening.

Harvey, who appears to be autistic, memorizes the running times of each movie he has seen and must sit in the front row. He has a collection of promotional film stills, along with hundreds of LP soundtracks that he can't listen to because he owns no record player. Jack derides Harvey as fascinating because "will see almost anything you put before him... no matter how trashy or bad."

Eric, an unkempt grey haired man getting by on disability payments, is probably the least socially appealing person in the cast. "Film buffs do not socialize," he says. "Film buffs get together to see movies. They do not get together to have parties, they do not get together to know each other."

Roberta, along with Jack, refuses to watch movies on video or DVD. She is an obsessive collector of everything from programs from theaters where she attends movies, collectible soda cups, and even the train cards she used to get to the theater. She's overly emotional and is said to often be rude to people who work at the theaters. At one point in the movie, a woman whom Roberta attacked at the Museum of Modern Art is interviewed about the incident, and she talks about how Roberta lunged at her and choked her because of how she tore her ticket stub.

The documentary examines the lives of these people and their social intersections at various points, but still only seems to be scratching at the surface of its subjects. By that I do not only mean the five filmgoers, but also the psychological implications of this cinephilia, or how their family or friends perceive what they do or how they spend their time. As for how these people got started down this path, there is only a minor examination by a few of the subjects.

I agree with Jack when he says at one point, "this should be a mini-series." As a document of obsession, Cinemania would have benefited from some deeper digging. If they managed to contact the MoMA employee who was choked by Roberta, why not track down a few of Jack's ex-girlfriends, or Eric's former employer, or talk to Harvey's parents? I suppose the fact that the movie left me wanting much more, even after viewing the extra scenes on the DVD, is a credit to the film makers.

One of the most ingenious parts of the documentary comes at the end, as the subjects of the film watch themselves in the movie about them. As they hilariously deconstruct everything they see, you can't help but wonder if the fact that the movie was made using video and not actual celluloid is the ultimate slap in the face to them.

For more on Cinemania:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD.

The Cinemania trailer:

#109: The Call of Cthulhu


The Call of Cthulhu
Directed by Andrew Leman
Written by Sean Branney (based on H.P. Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu")
Released 2005

Aside from the obvious drawback of having virtually no audience interest (and therefore no box office draw), I've often wondered why no one attempts to make a "silent" movie anymore.

It's the disregard for the financial/box office slavery that bogs down most movies that proves that Andrew Leman's dialogue-free homage to silent movies of the 1920s, the black and white 2005 adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu," is an obvious labor of love for both the director and the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society.

In watching The Call of Cthulhu, I realized one of the major problems in trying to duplicate or mimic a style of film that has been gone for many decades: technology. One of the biggest problems with the movie is that it just doesn't look old. The charm of watching a movie like Vampyr partially lies in seeing how people back then made due with the limitations of their technology. Even though many of the special effects shots may be obviously faked, it's that element of trickery that makes it appealing.

The best example I can think of is comparing the original Star Wars trilogy with the films George Lucas has made in the past decade. While the digital effects and in his newer movies may be more seamless and less man-made, they wind up reducing the impact of what's onscreen. The collapse of one of the walkers in the Hoth battle sequence in The Empire Strikes Back is far more memorable than any of the countless flashy space battles in the newer trilogy.

A similar problem inhabits Cthulhu, in that you can tell it must have been shot digitally and then made to look aged after filming was complete. While this technique can sometimes work with films like Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror, he was only trying to reach back to the 1970s and '80s. To make Cthulhu seem almost a century old, you'd almost need to dig up some ancient cameras and film stock to really duplicate that kind of film making. I realize that making such a decision would be economically unfeasible. It's ironic: it would cost you far more money to make this movie with shitty old equipment. There is admirable use of things like models, stop motion animation and miniatures, but there are little obvious digital intrusions that can't be ignored.

It's not that I don't respect The Call of Cthulhu for being a low budget tribute to both H.P. Lovecraft and those classic old silent films. For fans of the writer, this movie is probably a must-see. For the casual viewer, it's a curiosity and a fairly successful Film School type of exercise. Unfortunately, it's that limitation that will turn away most viewers.

For more on The Call of Cthulhu:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- More on the Lovecraft story on Wikipedia
- The official movie site
- Buy the DVD.

The trailer for The Call of Cthulhu trailer:

Saturday, November 1, 2008

#108: Psychomania


Directed by Don Sharp
Written by Julian Zimet and Arnaud d'Usseau
Released March 1973 (U.K.)

I had to work on Halloween night, so my tradition of sitting on my ass and watching bloody, gory, scary movies was cancelled. So, this weekend I'm tying up the loose ends and getting a few more Horror flicks in before I settle into November.

From the grainy, washed out footage during the opening credits of the 1973 British cult classic Psychomania, which features a motorcycle gang called The Living Dead driving around through foggy, Stoneheng-ian surroundings before causing an accident which kills a motorist, I could tell this was going to be the kind of '70s "grindhouse" horror movie I'd been searching for all month.

Tom (Nicky Henson), the leader of the biker gang, wants to commit suicide with his gang and return "even better" to cause trouble and raise hell. He believes that frogs - and his mother - are somehow linked to some sort of bizarre witchcraft that can bring him back from the dead. You know, the kind of insane logic that only a cult flick from the '70s can pull off.

It doesn't take long to figure out that Psychomania is batshit craziness that is both mindboggling and yet hilariously enjoyable. There's a funeral scene about a third of the way through that is pure, laugh out loud comedy, with a hippie singing under a tree and Tom's body propped up on his motorcycle in a grave not even deep enough to cover his head. I'm not giving anything away by telling you that Tom's faith in frogs turns out to work to his benefit, and he rises from the dead looking exactly as he did before. Soon, the members of his gang are dying to join him.

Get it? See what I did there? DYING to join him! Is this thing on?

Don't let my enthusiasm fool you into thinking Psychomania is a great movie, because it is decidedly not good. It is, however, bad in a great way. It's comically anti-establishment (the gang wants to become immortal so they can start murdering cops, judges and teachers... though the gang spends most of its time attacking grocery store carts), and it makes me wonder if "authorities" felt honestly threatened by this movie back in the day.

This should have been prime material for "Mystery Science Theater 3000," or at least for a great time yelling at the screen in a midnight movie, especially once you see the "special" effects at the film's climax.

For more on Psychomania:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD (there is currently only 1 used copy listed).

Footage from Psychomania: