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3 Stars Movies

11’09″01 – September 11

A series of short films inspired by or in reaction to 9/11 made by directors from nearly every continent.

At first, I thought for sure I would be giving this one more than three stars, but the quality of the short films takes a steep dive after the first two. The first in particular, by Iranian filmmaker Samira Makhmalbaf, is excellent. It opens on an entire Afghanistan village emptying their well in order to manufacture bricks to build shelters for when the US will bomb them. A female schoolteacher rounds up all the children and attempts to explain to them what happened in New York, and why the Americans are about to kill them. Step one: try to illustrate the concept of a skyscraper.

The short from Egypt is quite bad, and almost laughable (dig the ghost of a buff American Marine killed in Beruit, walking out of the ocean, soaking wet and topless). And unfortunately, Sean Penn’s contribution was over-edited into oblivion. But a late high point is Ken Loach’s documentary about the US-instigated overthrow of Chile’s democratically-elected government on… wait for it… September 11, 1973!

And a bit of trivia: Mira Nair’s short was written by an old roommate I had back in film school.

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3 Stars Movies

Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory

Ever know you’ve seen a movie, but can’t really remember it? So after seeing the Tim Burton remake, I decided to put the original on my Netflix queue because I just couldn’t spark the brain cells that contained my recollections of it.

This is the first of two posts that are bound to upset friends… this one will surely hurt the feelings of H the Mean Teacher. First I come down hard on Nirvana, and now I am ambivalent about one of her favorite movies! For that I’m sorry, but I think I can mitigate the damage by briefly explaining my rating system.

In a word, it’s subjective. I’m not trying to be a film critic (or rather, what a film critic ought to be, in a perfect world), whose job it is to evaluate a film’s quality and achievement in light of a deep knowledge of world cinema and then leaven it with a personal perspective. Rather, my ratings are the inverse: the personal response first, and then a consideration of the movie’s history and general critical consensus. I wouldn’t necessarily give an acknowledged classic a high rating if I personally didn’t care for it.

So, I gave this one 3 stars even though it enjoys a cult following that will no doubt gang up on me on the street and pelt me with Everlasting Gobstoppers while chanting the “Oompa Loompa” theme tune. I did like the bit where Wonka spookily intones “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” I could swear that has been sampled in some electronica track, although can’t for the life of me remember which. Sounds like something The Orb would seize on, but I’m not sure. Anyone? (an aside: The Future Sound of London sampled the movie dialogue “Everybody on line… Lookin’ good,” and for some reason I always mentally associated it with Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest. Until one day, I’m watching Aliens… and there it is, out of the mouth of a colonial marine.)

Sorry to add insult to injury, Mean Teacher, but I also must say here that I unexpectedly loved the Tim Burton remake.

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3 Stars Movies

Don’t leave Earth without Garth Jennings’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Yes, officer, I’d like to file a report. You see, I’m being threatened. I received word that If I don’t actually start writing stuff in my blog, I’m going to have my virtual pants pulled down in front of at least half a dozen complete strangers with well-tended blogs. Or is that if I DO actually start writing stuff… oh, I’m confused. Wait! Officer, where are you going? Oh well, I’ll just get on with a sentence or two about this DVD I just saw, and hope I remembered to put on presentable underthings this morning.

I’m one of THOSE people, you know the ones… while the rest of my peers obsessed over Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, I had my head stuck in Doctor Who and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I would drop my Nerf football or Legos every Saturday afternoon at 3 to run inside and catch Doctor Who on PBS. And for some unscheduled Brit-sci-fi fun, my collection (complete but always far from mint) of Douglas Adams paperbacks always waited for me.

So for me and my ilk, 2005 looked to be a great year — not only was Doctor Who regenerated (seemingly out of nowhere, when there was no hope to be had even by the most blindly optimistic of fans) by none other than the BBC itself, somebody at Disney (Disney?!) finally threw up their hands and actually made that Hitchhiker’s script that had been kicking around Hollywood for decades (not an exaggeration). Surely, some of my geek brethren must have grown up and scored jobs in the entertainment industry.

Not having been broadcast anywhere on this side of the planet, I’ve only managed to see less than half of the new Doctor Who season thanks to the wonders of internet piracy. I’m here to say that it is pure, glorious, totally-different-and-yet-somehow-still-Who. But Hitchhiker’s? It’s a bit of a mess, I’m afraid. As a lifelong fan, it’s a bit surprising to find myself wishing the film was MORE mainstream. It’s hard to imagine anybody who had not read and reread the book (or at least already appreciative of some Monty Python-style humor) not being totally and completely bewildered by the whole production.

Some of the casting is so perfect as to be impossible to imagine otherwise: the voices of Alan Rickman and Stephen Fry, and wotsisname from The Office was surely born to play the definitive Arthur Dent. But as much as I like Mos Def, it has to be said he’s a mumbler (huh? what’d he say?). The filmmakers had the right idea to go for practical effects as often as possible, including some much-missed old skool puppet work from the Jim Henson Company, but it sometimes just doesn’t sit right paired with off-the-shelf-pow-zoom-blow-your-mind-just-like-the-last-blockbuster-you-saw-this-summer CGI.

I reread the book for the first time in years, and it struck me that the whole thing is actually quite short, focused, and satisfying. It shouldn’t have been too hard to fashion it into a movie, but evidently the producers (and Adams himself, who co-wrote the screenplay) felt otherwise, quickly abandoning the plot specifics of the novel. But if the aim is to create an easily-digested summer blockbuster story, why (just for example) introduce a seemingly significant character who incapacitates a major character, who then promptly drops out of the story and the situation is never resolved? And the whole business about Zaphod’s brain would make no sense at all to anyone who isn’t a Hitchhiker’s expert (I wouldn’t have understood it myself if I hadn’t reread the book so recently).

Anyway, I could go on but it’s late and I need to charge my iPod and myself (i.e. go to sleep). So I’m going to take my pants off anyway! Ha!

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3 Stars Movies Music

Nick Broomfield doesn’t know what to believe about Kurt Cobain in Kurt & Courtney

A documentary by Nick Broomfield about the controversy surrounding the apparent suicide of Kurt Cobain.

Not yet knowing he himself will become part of the story, Broomfield holds his cards pretty close to his chest throughout. It’s not until fairly late in the film that he begins to describe his own feelings. His interviewees cover an entire spectrum of responses to the death: all the way from unambiguous suicide to unambiguous murder. Some on each side are credible, some are… to say the least, not. The only thing that seems clear is that Love is a monster, and the question becomes not “did Cobain commit suicide or was he murdered?” but rather “did Love drive him to suicide or have him murdered?”

A thick soup of inconclusive opinions, recollections and possibly lies leave Broomfield not knowing what to believe (as he reveals in a despairing voiceover). He finally comes across a journalist willing to go on the record with several recorded death threats given by Love and, dishearteningly given that he was apparently a gifted, sweet, and loving person, Cobain himself! At last, some concrete evidence. Even then, Broomfield doesn’t quite reveal his feelings. So it comes as quite a surprise when he makes a guerilla attack upon Love at an ACLU event. Of course it’s an atrocity that she’s even there, given her documented behavior towards journalists (with whom of course Broomfield personally identifies), but his sudden and very public attack is powerful and shocking. Even his cameraperson couldn’t hold the camera still.

Here’s the confessional part: I never really liked Nirvana. An interesting point about the film: unless I missed something, the word “grunge” is never spoken. Instead many individuals confidently describe Nirvana as simply “punk.” And you saw this coming: I never really liked punk. I think I have an intellectual understanding of it: the significance of its arrival and the wide-reaching spread of its influence. All true, but I don’t chose to listen to it.

So I came to the film without a full knowledge of the music and the band’s history, and without the preconceived notions of Cobain and Love fans are likely to have. So for me, the film is not really about any of those things; its larger theme really has to do with how one can lose the big picture (to use a cliche without being able to think of a better term at the moment) the closer you look, and the finer your focus. And not to mention the disturbance your gaze can cause if you press it in too close.

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3 Stars Movies

Bad Santa utterly wallows in its bah-humbug tone

This from the director of Crumb and Ghost World?

The big pleasure of Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa is definitely that it utterly wallows in a bah-humbug tone, a welcome tonic to the seemingly perpetual holiday season. I write this in June, and I’m afraid to so much as blink, lest the plastic Santas and X-mas lights materialize in the nanosecond my eyes are closed.

Billy Bob Thornton is gleefully repugnant as the comman Willie, making little or no attempt to make his character sympathetic. And yet he is somehow attractive, shown entertaining numerous one-night stands, and ultimately connecting with a decent woman (if alcoholic and a little crazy). After all, the viewer is reminded that Willie is played by the man that married Angelina Jolie, so there is clearly something there.

Glimpses of humanity do peek through, if colored by his terrible personality and backstory. For example, when the Thurman (Brett Kelly) denigrates himself, Willie explodes in profanity, extorting him not to think about himself that way.

Willie’s partner Marcus (Tony Cox) initially seems similarly roguish, in fact the wit and brains of the duo. In a reversal that fatally breaks the comic tone of the film, he is revealed as a cruelly callous criminal psychopath when he outright murders Gin (Bernie Mac). So that makes Willie more sympathetic by subtraction — only because he doesn’t murder, and proves himself at least somewhat capable of forming friendships.

Unexpected and ultimately short-fused is the eventual turn towards the sappy and sentimental. Bad Santa‘s happy ending, partly told through voiceover) betrays the tone of the movie and even leads me to suspect some post-production tinkering.

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