Sunday, January 22, 2006

JOHNNY B HEART NETFLIX! in which I provide some observations and comments on films I've seen lately mostly through the auspices of that most wonderful of online video rental services, but also on TV (marked with **) as well.

At left is the poster for the movie, which I just LOVE. Click to see it in detail. Wish I could find one, and I might just have to look one of these days. Parallax is a 1974 political-conspiracy theory thriller which stars Warren Beatty, giving perhaps the best performance I've ever seen from him, who plays a newspaper reporter who slowly learns about a covert operation which is turning out assassins to shape world events. The image represents a situation at the end, in which a group of people at a political rally are assigned to turn those flash cards which make up images- you've seen 'em. In this film, the presidential candidate whose life is threatened is preparing to speak at a rally, and the card display is part of the show. The cards depict Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln (I think...the classic presidents, anyway), and the candidate himself. But the poster designer used it to beautifully illustrate the underlying theme of the film- the sinister machinations of the shadowy minions that some believe influence world events. The movie also features a great Clockwork Orange-Ludovico treatment type montage that Beatty is subject to at one point in which random idyllic Norman Rockwell-style scenes, horrible violent acts and the like are quick-cut interspersed with words which state "happiness", "mother", "love" and so on. Several times in the succession of images we get a Kirby illustration of Thor, along with a Kirby monster from one of the old Marvel monster books. I suppose Thor is there to suggest the fair-haired Nordic warrior stereotype, which makes sense in that context. Anyway, it's a challenging scene, one which draws the viewer in and forces him to experience the same reactions that Beatty's character does. I thought this was a sharp, smart film, and was very impressed with Beatty. Another '70s film, like Jaws and Taking of Pelham One Two Three, that I can't believe I haven't seen till now. God, I hope they never remake it. Interesting note; one of the screenwriters was none other than Lorenzo Semple, Jr. of Batman TV show fame! A

I've been reading the new Bob Spitz Beatles book lately, and of course part of it deals with the genesis and filming of this. Frankly, it's amazing- not only the complex series of coincidences and events that had to break just right as they ascended to fame, but also extraordinary that, after they had achieved the toppermost of that poppermost and internal as well as external hassles and rancor and strife and drugs and the natural letdown after gaining their goal began to override and affect everything these gifted men did, that they were able to do anything together at all, let alone make some of the most imaginative and satisfying music in the history of popular music. Tour was Paul McCartney's baby, conceived before Brian Epstein died but not realized until after his unfortunate demise, and he rode herd over everyone to get it filmed, much to his mates' chagrin. They mostly couldn't really be bothered and obviously thought it was silly as hell- well, John and George, mostly, Ringo was always game for a film...and they're right. This is a mess, a mish-mash of goofy sub-Pythonesque comedy and red-eyed 60's psychedelica, written and filmed on the fly on a minimal budget on what appears to be Super 8 stock and it shows. Critics savaged it when it aired the day after Christmas in England, another nail in the slow-building coffin of the Beatles story. But this is not to say that it's completely worthless- there are still some wonderful songs like "I Am The Walrus" and "The Fool on the Hill", pastorically lovely despite its self-pitying tone- and these musical interludes are well staged, especially "Your Mother Should Know" which features the boys in white tuxes in a big Busby Berkeley-type production number. The bits with Ringo and "his" Aunt Jessie are hit and miss, but the sequence with John shoveling spaghetti at her in a dream that will remind you of the yet-to-come Python antics. There was also a small revelation for me, in a scene which shows all the men on the tour taking in a strip show, and music is provided by the Bonzo Doo Dah Dog Band, who perform a number called "Death Cab For Cutie"- immediately I cried "Oh my God! That's where that band my son and his girlfriend love got their name!" Overdue epiphanies aside, I think everyone should see this once, and the hardcore will sit through it over and over. This was my second time, in case you're wondering. C+

John Carpenter made this perfectly good low-budget urban crime thriller back in 1976, and since Hollywood can't leave well enough alone, someone got the bright idea to remake it and jazz it up for the Aughts. The original is better still, but this isn't a total disaster, mostly benefiting from nice acting jobs from Ethan Hawke and Laurence Fishburne, who's gonna have to be renamed Laurence Whaleburne if he puts on any more pounds. It's as loud and noisy as all action movies these days apparently must be, but it's at least not dull and if you don't think about it too hard you'll get caught up in it like I did until the ending, which has a few too many twists and doesn't seem to hold together very well. B-

Oh, god, is this a twisted movie. Using the puppet animation from such fondly remembered childhood epic series like Supercar and Thunderbirds Are Go!, South Park masterminds Trey Parker and Matt Stone make fun of anything and everything, liberal left and conservative right alike, and it's just as freewheeling and scattershot as Orgazmo was and South Park can be- and when it hits, it's hilarious. And sometimes it's just gross- never thought I'd live to see puppets performing a hot carl, but it just goes to show ya. This is a bit overlong- I wish the script had been funnier and tighter...but it's the kind of movie that you can go around quoting all day if you're so inclined. B+

This is my first exposure to the work of one Guy Maddin, whose apparent specialty is approximating the look of low budget early-talkie era films from the 20's and 30's. It's got some interesting stars- Isabella Rosselini, Mark (Kids in the Hall, SNL) McKinney- but it's just so steadfastly oddball that after a while it became wearisome. Still, the story is fun- during the Great Depression, beer baroness Rosselini, who lost her legs thanks to the drunken father of McKinney's character, announces a worldwide contest to perform the saddest song in the world. I won't synopsize it further- if you're interested, go here- but I will say that Rossellini gives the best performance I've seen from her myself, and McKinney is excellent as the fast-talking smoothie who has a history with her and ends up representing the US in the contest. It's a fascinating film visually, but like I said it kinda runs out of steam eventually. B

I've never been a big boxing fan; I know that there is art and strategy to it but it just seems like a big circus (especially these days, without a dominant or interesting personality such as Ali or Frazier to humanize it a bit) in which people beat the shit out of each other for the vicarious entertainment and gambling urges of others. Of course, this is less a film about boxing per se; it uses the boxing world as a metaphor for human nature and relationships, and it succeeds with aplomb by making us care deeply about these characters, not only Hilary Swank's pugnacious white trash waitress who yearns to make money by fighting, but director Clint Eastwood's grizzled trainer and his friend and partner Morgan Freeman. This is especially a triumph for Eastwood, who gives his character shades that the younger Clint wouldn't have been allowed, or wouldn't have allowed himself, to have- in fact, it wasn't the tragic fate of Swank's character and the hospital scenes which made me tear up a little; it was Eastwood's haunting talk with a priest that he previously had a sort of antagonistic relationship with. Seeing the crusty, features-chiseled-of-granite Eastwood break down with tears of guilt and responsibility for his injured protege, well, if you didn't get a little misty there's just no hope for ya, that's all. There was very little, if any, of the clumsy foreshadowing that hinders most Hollywood films these days in my eyes, and the temptation to clumsily impart life lessons was also thankfully absent. Once in a while a movie lives up to the hype, and Million Dollar Baby is one of those films. A

I didn't care much at all for the first two of the modern "prequel" SW films; in fact, except for the first two (#'s 4 & 5, actually) Star Wars films in general have left me cold. #6 was OK, especially towards the end, but I couldn't stand those @#!%$ Ewoks. Anyway, by emphasizing the human (and one Muppet) actor, and de-emphasizing the cartoonish CGI that overwhelmed #2, Lucas has finally given me reason to care about these characters, especially the whole Amydala/Anakin/Obi-Wan triangle. It's not easy to impart some dramatic tension to events that people have been aware of for over twenty years. There's plenty of action to be had, as well- I enjoyed the big action set piece as Ewan McGregor's Obi-Wan battled the cool-looking robot with the grievously dumb name, General Grievous- his lizard-stallion was a nice bit of CGI, for sure. It was fun to see Chewbacca in a cameo, and even Jar-Jar Binks- although the setting wasn't quite as much fun. McGregor was fine throughout, even though I keep expecting to hear him break into song ever since Moulin Rouge; Natalie Portman was outstanding, gratifying since her wooden performance in Episode 5 had convinced me she'd never be an actress of consequence until she did Cold Mountain and Garden State; Hayden Christensen did a good job of standing where he was supposed to do, but the lad has no presence as an actor; God forbid he and Orlando Bloom should ever do a buddy pic. Really, until he donned the black armor and was able to wax melodramatic, he was barely there at all. I thought Ian McDarmid did a great job as the prissily malevolent Palpatine; his was probably the best non-Muppet performance of them all, including the normally reliable Samuel L. Jackson, who looked as embarrassed to be there as he did last time out. I was also happy to see that Christopher Lee was a bit more lively and mobile than he was in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory- I was afraid premature rigor mortis had set in on the great actor. Or was that CGI? With these flicks, who knows? Anyway, when Lucas made the first one in 1977, he wanted to give the people a high-tech version of the popcorn-cinema space operas of yore, and had two successes right off the bat. he then floundered with the next three, cutesiness and too much CGI strangled the life out of them. But with Revenge of the Sith, he finally recaptured the magic and went out with a bang. Wonder what he'll do next? Honestly, can you see Lucas directing something like, oh, Glory Road or Rumor Has It ? Neither can I. But I sincerely hope that he will let the Star Wars franchise rest in peace now. B+

OK, that's it for now, more later hopefully. How much later remains to be seen! Coming soon: Fantastic Four, Sahara, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and maybe more.

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