what i watched last week

Adventureland (Greg Mottola, 2009). A story of twenty-somethings that gets just about everything right. Which doesn’t mean it’s a great movie … it insists on the low-key revelations of real life, and the result is a movie that is itself a bit too low-key. Still, it does for 80s nostalgia what American Graffiti did for the early-60s and Dazed and Confused did for the mid-70s, including a spot-on soundtrack.

Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki, 2008). The best part about watching this in the theater, even though it was the English-dubbed version, was listening to the kids in the audience. They were enjoying the movie very much, right from the beginning, when the Studio Ghibli logo came on and a kid sitting behind me said to his parent, “it’s Totoro!” You see, I had forgotten Miyazaki makes movies for kids. I assume they’re more like Fantasia, movies for acid heads to enjoy while tripping. Ponyo is neither the best nor the worst Miyazaki movie, which means you should see it.


what i watched last week

Appaloosa. Takes its time getting where it’s going, and where it’s going isn’t all that interesting. Some good acting, some not so good, with Jeremy Irons playing the bad guy as if he thinks Daniel Day-Lewis’ John Huston impression in There Will Be Blood was over-baked. Farts around with the traditions of the western without doing much more than farting. Amiable, but dull.

Pinocchio. Its technological/artistic breakthroughs are taken for granted now, and later, less impressive Disney animation efforts have dulled the luster of the early classics. Until you start watching, and then you are transported into a remarkable world that, among other things, is far more dark than you might remember. I mean, what ever happened to those kids who were turned into donkeys and sent to work the salt mines? #346 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the 1000 greatest films of all time.

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what i watched last week

Apocalypto. The final chase scene in The Road Warrior remains one of the great action sequences of all time. Mel Gibson, the star of that movie, who has in the years since become a major international movie star, a director, and an all-around crackpot, works backwards from that scene (he has said he wanted to make a car chase that took place on foot). To get to the chase scene, Gibson has us sit through close to two hours of historical fiction about the Mayan civilization, piling up more gore than you’ve likely ever seen a movie before. Imagine if Spielberg had been serious when he had the goofy religious guy pull out people’s hearts in that Indiana Jones movie … Gibson has several such scenes, not meant to get the kid in us to squeal in delight but to make the grownup in us want to vomit. From the much-remarked-upon scene of a man eating the testicles of a just-killed wild boar, to beheadings that end with the remains bouncing down a long stairway while the masses shout their approval, Apocalypto has a kitchen-sink approach to violence that is impressive, if also revolting and essentially stupid. When the chase scene finally arrives, it’s a doozy … Gibson learned a lot from George Miller, there are some very exciting moments in this movie … but it’s all wrapped in a package that promises far more than it can deliver (even the title is overwrought). Whatever Gibson thinks this movie is about, and it’s not clear even he knows, the result is pornographic, for better or worse.

Gigi. There was an interesting mini-discussion of nostalgia in the comments thread for a post last week, and watching this movie felt like an addendum to that conversation. I give Gigi 10 out of 10 … the average rating at the IMDB is 7.0, at MovieLens the average is 3.62 out of 5. Suffice to say, I rate this higher than most people … they like it, I love it. My love is hard to explain, though, without admitting to a feeling of nostalgia, because Gigi was one of my parents’ favorite movies. They owned the soundtrack album and played it often, and while I was grown and out of the house by the time VCRs made their appearance, I believe Gigi was one of the first movies they owned. The movie, of course, has nostalgia built right into it, culminating in Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold singing “I Remember It Well.” Makes sense that the older I get, the more charmed I am by that song, if “more charmed” is possible when I was totally charmed the first time I heard it as a kid. Here’s the thing, though. Gigi came out in 1958, and I assume my parents saw it in a theater … it wouldn’t have been on TV for some years, there was no tape to buy. And they, like everyone, loved “I Remember It Well,” which so perfectly captures old lovers as they look back. Like I say, I liked the song when I was a little kid … you don’t have to be an old lover to appreciate it … but it clearly carries more resonance the older you are. When I was a kid, my parents loved that song a lot more than I did, and I do recall how much it meant to them, how they loved to sing along. But here’s the thing: in 1958, my dad was 34 years old and my mom was 30. That seems pretty young to be already “remembering when.”

Coraline. In the mid-80s, I wrote short fiction for a couple of years as part of a series of creative writing classes. In one story, a hermit-like woman lived in an old house, with no contact with the outside world except for the mail that came each day. Her mail box was a slot in the wall at the front of the house … the mailman would open a flap and drop the mail through the slot onto the floor. One day, a letter got caught in the slot, and as the woman tried to pry it free, she discovered that the mail slot had an opening. She reached in, eventually working her whole body into the crevice. Finally she fell through a hole on some other side, and found a room full of the people whose names appeared on the junk mail she received. The story ended when all of the people filled the room … it became so crowded the woman fell to the ground, where she was trampled to death. In another story, a young boy whose father died found himself in an odd relationship with his widowed mother. She would give him sadomasochistic porn and they would act out the scenes ... she would burn her son with cigarettes, stuff like that. Coraline is arguably a kids’ movie, but if you’re wondering whether to let your own kids watch it, know that the stories I wrote would fit right in to Coraline. It’s an extremely disturbing movie. In the end, I was impressed without really liking it much. It’s quite an achievement, there isn’t much else like it out there, and it’s certainly better than Kung Fu Panda. So I guess I better give it a higher rating than I did for that dud.


what i watched last week

Kung Fu Panda (Mark Osborne and John Stevenson, 2008). I was looking forward to this ... in retrospect, I can't imagine why. Which doesn't mean it was a bad movie, just that it wasn't a movie for me. There are good movies out there for kids ... I guess this is one of them ... mostly, I'm not interested. I'm not a kid, and I never quite understood why kids couldn't just watch grownup movies in the first place. I need the over-the-kids'-heads stuff, like something Jay Ward would have done. Kung Fu Panda is, in essence, completely predictable. Anyone who has seen a movie in the last 100 years can tell you that an American animated feature called Kung Fu Panda is going to be about a young panda with a dream to be a kung fu master, and after many hardships, the panda will achieve its dream. There, I've spoiled the movie. The animation looks good in Blu-ray ... probably looked great in IMAX ... and there's a great scene that replicates a typically intricate kung-fu battle, only this time the weapons are chopsticks and the goal is to grab the last pork bun. I really don't have any complaints about this movie, except that it wasn't for me.

The Fall (Tarsem Singh, 2006). I allow AI software to choose a lot of the movies I watch. I've entered my ratings for 1216 movies (and counting) into the MovieLens database, and it makes recommendations based on my past ratings. (It's probably no better or worse than the Netflix system ... the point isn't which system, it's that I use them at all.) I confess that sometimes I wonder why MovieLens thinks I'll like a movie. The Fall is one of those movies. It's a ripe fantasy by a director of commercials and music videos whose previous feature, The Cell, was, to be kind, not one of my favorites. Well, I found The Fall rough going at times ... it's kinda like The Princess Bride without the jokes ... but the emotional ending, simultaneously self-flagellating and vengeful, sucked me in, and the performance by young Catinca Untaru is remarkable. It's still an odd, one-of-a-kind movie ... and I don't necessarily mean that in a good way.


oscar run xvii: wallace & gromit: the curse of the were-rabbit (nick park and steve box, 2005)

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is an enjoyable movie, very British in its humor, with plenty of in-jokes that don't come off smarter-than-thou. Gromit, a dog, is an especially delightful character. While it's not my cup of tea, that barely matters, and I recommend it to anyone.

One thing I noticed reading reviews of the film is how often the reviews fetishized the method of creating the movie. It uses stop-motion animation, which among other things is painstakingly slow in the making. More than one reviewer noted that you can occasionally see fingerprints on the clay characters, which they took as evidence of the movie's greatness: the film makers loved their work so much, they left their mark on it in a literal sense. I suppose an argument can be made that the amount of work that goes into animation like this results in a loving touch, but me, I think the movie's good (or bad, if you don't like it) because it works, not because it was hard to make. Every modern action film features plenty of CGI work that is difficult to produce ... that doesn't mean every action film is good. Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is enjoyable because of the characters, because of the lovely visuals, and yes, it's nice that the creators were willing to work so hard and so long for our enjoyment, but ultimately, it's what's on the screen that counts, and by that I don't mean you can see the fingerprints.


oscar run xiii: corpse bride (tim burton and mike johnson, 2005)

Another movie that I'm unlikely to fully appreciate, Corpse Bride shares many of the strengths of Tim Burton at his best. It's unusual and idiosyncratic, different than most other movies you've seen other than Tim Burton movies, it reflects painstaking work, it has a look that is unique, it effectively blends a dark side into the lighter aspects. And I liked it ok, but that's faint praise considering everything that works in the film. I generally admire Burton's movies, but I rarely enjoy them ... my favorite period for his films would be the early-90s, when he did the fine, gross Batman Returns, Ed Wood, and the goofy Mars Attacks.

It's not that I think Burton is overpraised for things like the idiosyncratic nature of his movies in what sometimes seems a cookie-cutter film world, or his attempt to keep alive the tradition of stop-motion animation. But myself, I tip my cap to him for those things without falling in love with the movies that result. I like this movie a lot more than I liked Big Fish, at least.


oscar run xi: shrek 2 (andrew adamson, kelly asbury, & conrad vernon, 2004)

I liked the first Shrek movie, but Shrek 2 is much weaker, enough so as to make me question my enjoyment the first time around. The animation is brilliant, but the attempt to make the humans look "real" is a mistake ... the animation is close enough to catch your eye, but ends up making the characters look like humans played by bad actors, with slightly exaggerated gestures. (This doesn't affect the non-human characters, of course.) The film has funny parts ... it's not that I didn't laugh ... but it seems to think all that is necessary to create humor is to drop a reference to some pop culture artifact. There seems to be several hundred such references, which is pretty impressive, I guess, but eventually you realize the only reason they exist is so we can say "hey, I get that one!" The musical interludes are mostly crap, and mostly filler, for that matter ... you could leave most of them out without changing the movie at all, except to make it better. What's left are some good vocal characterizations, a few laughs, and some interesting animation, which isn't nothing, but isn't much of anything, either.


spirited away (hayao miyazaki, 2001)

Soot

Seemed to take me forever to finally watch this movie, and it was well worth the wait. I'm forever searching for films that reflect what I think of as the world of Philip K. Dick novels. Movies based on Dick books rarely meet my approval, but once in awhile, some other picture will find the psychedelic spirit of Dick's best work. You don't expect to find it in a "children's movie," for sure, but I take what I can get.

There are a bunch of astonishing creatures in Spirited Away, and most of them would make sense as intergalactic beings from a PKD novel. My favorites were the little soot thingies ... that's what they are, soot with arms and legs ... but there's plenty more where that came from.

It's a wonderful movie, accurately described by Andrew O'Hehir in a Salon review:

To those who want to ask practical questions, such as whether "Spirited Away" is an appropriate movie for children, I have no answers. Arguably it isn't an appropriate movie for anybody.
I give it a 9 on a scale of 10.

[Edited to add Letterboxd list of Studio Ghibli movies I have seen]


oscar run xii: ice age (chris wedge, 2002)

Pretty dreadful. The worst possible combination: boring AND sappy. It's pretty much guaranteed that I won't like movies like Ice Age ... I'm not much of a fan of feature-length animation, I detest cheap sentiment, and I really really hate cheap sentiment coming from an animated character (it's such an insult that I'm supposed to become tearful over the stupid, formulaic touching moments of a cartoon, much less a human actor). I read one review that compared Ice Age to Shrek, because both movies feature big giant characters followed around by smaller annoying sidekicks. The difference is that the sidekick in Ice Age is never anything other than annoying, while Eddie Murphy in Shrek was funny.

Here's my ratings for several animated productions, on a scale of ten:

Rabbit of Seville: 10
Waking Life: 8
Shrek: 7
Powerpuff Girls: 6
Jimmy Neutron: 5
Ice Age: 3


oscar run x: spirit: stallion of the cimarron (kelly asbury and lorna cook, 2002)

I don't like movies like this ... animated features, for kids, sappy. Spirit isn't bad for the genre, though. I liked the animation, which is old-school (i.e. usually not CGI) and often lovely. It's a nice touch that the horses don't speak English (a touch that's ruined, though, when Matt Damon does a voiceover narration as the title horse) ... (and why do the Native Americans speak English in this movie?). It's interesting that this "family" film takes the side of the Indians versus the expansion-minded American soldiers.

But ultimately it's just another sappy cartoon feature for kids. Worst offender: the Bryan Adams songs on the soundtrack.