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The Expendables

Directed by Sly Stallone

I had to end my brief hiatus to chime in on the glorious film that is The Expendables. Obviously, I had to invite Meeks to join me in a review of this glorious, testosterone-based stew.

You can download the mp3 here.

Titanic

Directed by James Cameron

I could of think of no better fit for our final entry than what was once the biggest movie of all-time: Titanic. I’ve stubbornly refused to watch it for 13 years, but in an effort to make this final day special I have finally relented. For the most part, I’ve enjoyed all of James Cameron’s other major releases so I saw no reason why I wouldn’t like this one. Now that I’ve finally seen it, I would say that I have very mixed feelings about it.

Like all of Cameron’s work, the special effects are fantastic and the hour or so the film spends on [SPOILER] the Titanic sinking is almost as exciting as anything else he has done. Seeing the ship go down and its desperate passengers leaping to their deaths is awe-inspiring. It’s impressive just how well the effects hold up after thirteen years.

Unfortunately, James Cameron the writer is also involved in this film and this creature runs amok subjecting the audience to a romance straight out of the brain of a 12 year old. Only a child would imagine a spitting lesson as a way to bring a couple closer together. It’s as if he drew from his experiences during recess at elementary school when he was trying to dream up ways for Leo and Kate to fall in love. However, Cameron’s greatest crime is the framing device he uses for this story. Subjecting us to Bill Paxton and his earring, that fat nerdy guy and a decrepit old hag is unrivaled in its cruelty.¬† When we return to Old Rose continuing to tell this story, which she has supposedly kept to herself for over eighty years, yet is able to recite as if she was reading from a book (she was nominated for an Academy Award for this?!?!), it is unbelievably jarring. However, it rises to a whole new level when she climbs up on that railing at the end and tosses the necklace overboard, in a fit of futile $40,000,000 symbolism (what, she can’t sell that thing and donate the money to cancer research or something?!).

It just makes me so frustrated that James Cameron the awesome action/adventure/sci-fi director constantly has to undermine himself with these pathetic attempts at melodrama. The entire point of these movies is spectacle and escapism, yet in almost every single Cameron film we are constantly removed from these fantasy worlds by the groans his scripts induce. As my friend Rob said, James Cameron is like Steven Spielberg after a severe head injury. He has all the technical talent in the world, but his attempts at humanism ring incredibly hollow and frightfully immature.

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Well, as The Mattress Man was eventually forced to say: that’s that! I’ll have a recap up sometime this week taking a glance back at the 30,000 or so words I’ve written over the summer and take a look ahead at what’s next.

Dead Snow

Directed by Tommy Wirkola

I’m visiting friends this evening and we decided to try to go with something fun instead of our planned film The Big Red One, which seemed like a great way to turn a fun Saturday night into a rather dour affair. Instead, we went with Dead Snow, which seemed like a good time.

Nope.

Dead Snow is an example of complete filmmaking incompetence. It shifts haphazardly in tone, alternating between a horror film that takes itself far too seriously and a campy gore-fest that doesn’t have a single original idea. However, the most irritating part of the movie was the terrible plotting. When you are trying to rip off Evil Dead and strand a group of young city folk in a cabin in zombie country, at least let me maintain the illusion that they are trapped. WHEN YOU LET ONE OF THEM CALL FROM A CELL PHONE (WHICH HE HAD THE WHOLE TIME!!) AND GET THROUGH TO 911 AFTER A NIGHT OF PERIL YOU ARE AN IDIOT! I could go on, but a movie this stupid isn’t really worth getting worked up about.

I’m just so tired of this recent bumper crop of movies that are intentionally aiming for a cult audience. The only truly satisfying cult films are the ones that are actually trying to be good. I suppose one could argue that Edgar Wright has gone this route twice with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz , but both work because feature a contagious love for the films they are referencing and actually add some genuine humor and humanity to their characters. Conversely, movies like Dead Snow are just so cynical. They simply take an over-the-top idea (Nazi zombies!!) and coast on it for 90 minutes knowing that there’s a large audience who will watch simply based on its concept. They sure got me…

“The Grandmother”

Directed by David Lynch

I just didn’t have time to watch Boy’s Don’t Cry today so I decided to go with something brief and light-hearted to start the weekend. With that in mind, I present to you: “The Grandmother,”* which is generally regarded as David Lynch’s first film (his previous two shorts are closer to art projects that are difficult to define). Like much of his early work, Lynch is concerned about parenthood, but this time looks at it through the lens of the child instead of the parent as he does in Eraserhead (so I read – I still haven’t found the courage to watch it). The boy, referred to as “mutt” and treated as such by his parents in the film, tries to grow a grandmother** who will offer the unconditional love he craves (I guess it’s true), much like a pet dog would.

All of Lynch’s potential as a director is on display here, but I thought the most impressive aspect of the film was its use of sound. It drives the narrative of the film almost as much as the visuals do and his ability to use a surreal and ambient sound design is second to none.

Check this one out for yourself (it’s about a half hour long) and let me know what you think. As I’ve written before, Lynch is really hit or miss for me, but I think “The Grandmother” plays to his strengths as an artist. He’s not a very good storyteller, but these kinds of shorts free him up to play around with the creepy surrealism he’s so effective with.

*Rent the DVD or watch this on Netflix Instant Viewing if you’re really interested. The image quality of this on youtube and Google Video is awful and you miss out on some important details. However, I still linked to one to give you a taste of what it’s like.

** I thought the pod she grows in looked like a cross between E.T. and Pinhead.

The Running Man

Directed by Paul Michael Glaser (Starsky! I can’t believe we forgot to discuss that.)

You came. You voted. We ignored you.

Instead, Matt Meeks and I went with one of our all-time favorite action movies: The Running Man. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Jim Brown. Jesse Ventura. Richard Dawson! And . . . Mick Fleetwood? Pop in the DVD and enjoy the spectacle along with us. It starts as soon as that Paramount horse enters the screen.

Worst Villain Ever

We had 20 downloads of the Rocky commentary, which was 20 more than we expected. I would say that this commentary is much better and is probably more entertaining if you’re (really) bored at work and listening on headphones. The highlight for people with short attention spans begins at the 1:29:30 mark where he Meeks and I debate who could defeat Arnold in 1980s action movie mode. We also give some great advice on how to seduce women. Enjoy.

DOWNLOAD THE MP3 HERE

Once

Directed by John Carney

Read pp. 1-10 of this book. Stop being a dick and just do it. At least you can justify this break from work under the logic that you’re reading a book. It’s enrichment.

There. Finished? Thanks. I really connect with that essay and, at least at this point in my life, I agree with almost every word of it (Coldplay isn’t that bad). It’s been years since I’ve met a woman I felt a real connection with,* but that’s probably because I’m looking for Jenny Lewis or Anna Karina,** neither of whom are real people.

Fortunately, Once is a film that manages to be good without dealing any lasting damage to my potentially existent love life.¬† This is due to the film’s rare ability to draft down to earth and “real” characters in what is typically the fantasy land of the musical-romance. The guy and gal (they are nameless in the film) have transcendent chemistry, both musically and romantically, but, like the real world, they also have baggage that keeps them apart. The gal is a mother and dealing with a separation from a husband she may or may not still be in love with. The guy is lonely, fancies this girl, but clearly isn’t over his ex, either. They both dally in a dual-layered relationship as musical partners, in which they both indulge in passionately and without hesitation, and as potential lovers, in which they dally around with varying degrees of commitment and passion (well, at least the gal does). It would seem that a pairing like this centered around the creation of pop music would be a perfect recipe for the very thing Klosterman discusses in his essay, but . . . well, to say more would spoil the film.

Once is the kind of film I’d like to see more of. It’s small-scale, but concerned above all else with crafting multidimensional characters we learn more about more through their actions, their art, and their mannerisms than through what they say. It trusts the audience to have the maturity and the wisdom to study the subtleties of the protagonists and, when we do, we see people we care about and people we can relate to.

*Easy ladies! This is my persona talking, not the real Joe! I love you all!

** If I had to pick a scene that ruined everything for me a la When Harry Met Sally, it would be this one (from Godard’s A Woman is a Woman):

I know it’s totally ludicrous, but I saw that in college and I’ve been looking for someone to replicate it with ever since. I’m an idiot.

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Sorry I’ve been posting so late lately. I’ve fallen into an ill-advised late-summer vacation binge of staying up until dawn and sleeping far too late. I feel like Edward Norton in 25th Hour. Anyways, to make up for it I should have two posts here for you tomorrow. One will be a look at Boys Don’t Cry if I feel like I can handle something that depressing. A bit later we’ll have audio commentary number two starring Mr. Matt Meeks and me. We’re still discussing which film we’ll look at this time and have been racking our brains trying to think of one we can cover where listeners will be just as entertained if they’re listening at work on headphones or watching along with us. We’re genuinely flattered that some of you downloaded and listened to the Rocky commentary and we talked late into the night on Tuesday about how we could deliver a better product for you this time. I hope we can come through for you. Until then, thanks again for reading.

The Pawnbroker

Directed by Sidney Lumet

A few years ago I was talking about movies with a few friends and we began discussing our favorite “eras” of filmmaking. Loyal reader and resident Man of Reason Dan M. mentioned that the early Sixties (I hope I’m remembering this conversation accurately) produced many of his favorite movies because this was the time when so many directors were perfectly straddling the line between the style of classical Hollywood films and European art cinema. It’s a period I was very unfamiliar with at the time (and still am), so I appreciated it only in the sense that it sounded reasonable and intelligent enough, but I had not seen enough to fully judge the merit of his argument. However, after watching The Pawnbroker, I believe I have begun to grasp what he was trying to say.

The Pawnbroker is a character study of a Holocaust survivor (Sol, played wonderfully by Rod Steiger) running a pawn shop in Harlem during the early Sixties. In many ways it is a ghost story, as the sights and sounds of New York City constantly evoke memories of the trauma of his experience as a concentration camp prisoner. These horrific images of the past are first exposed in flash cuts as he gazes upon some modern setting, but gradually linger on the screen longer until we see a fuller look at his nightmare.

For example, at one point in the film we see Sol on a subway car gazing at various commuters.

First in flashes and then in a sustained sequence, we soon see this car transposed over by a Nazi train car packed with Jewish prisoners on the way to the camps.

Sol is haunted by his past to the extent that he shuts himself off from the modern world and looks at its sufferers with contempt. What do these people have to complain about? They never experienced seeing their friends murdered by Nazi guards or their wives being forced into a joy division. This is the real genius of the film, as the viewer initially sympathizes with Sol, but then gradually realizes along with him that his relentless dehumanization of his neighbors and their troubles makes him no better than the Nazi ghosts from which he cannot escape. In this way, the film takes a mature view of the Holocaust and the lingering pain of its survivors, but also delivers a larger message about the harm transferring our pain can have on the people trying to get close to us.

I think Dan’s argument (and I am sure he will correct me in the comments if I am wrong) could be summed up by saying that the early Sixties were the first time when Hollywood began to treats its audience like adults. The Pawnbroker is a perfect example of this, as we take a dramatic story that certainly could have found a place in a movie made fifteen years earlier, but adds sophisticated looks at poverty, sex, drug addiction, and crime that would have never been dealt with in such a frank way at that time. It also features a morally confused protagonist anti-hero, which would become more and more prevalent until becoming commonplace in the Seventies. This respect for the audience may be Sidney Lumet’s greatest asset, as anyone familiar with masterpieces such as Dog Day Afternoon and Network would attest to. While the old saying that nobody has gone broke underestimating the intelligence is certainly true, artists like Lumet or, to choose a more contemporary artist,* Christopher Nolan are always there to remind us that success smiles upon those who dare to treat their audience with respect, as well.

*Do not interpret this as a dismissal of Lumet’s modern work. The man directed the solid Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead in 2007 and, while he does not appear to have a film in the pipeline, he is still alive and, presumably, kicking at the age of 86.

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We have only four days left! The last entries will include a romantic reader request, a glance at hate crimes (maybe), an epic and personal look at WWII, and a massively overdue look at a box office titan. We also have a special bonus collaboration between reader favorite Meeks and myself. As always, thanks for reading.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Directed by Terry Gilliam

The cult of Gilliam has always mystified me. He is a filmmaker with fans who bend over backwards praising his work, but I’ve always left his films feeling shortchanged. He is an awful writer who has absolutely no quality control filter. For every great sequence in his films, such as the subway scene in The Fisher King, you have several mind-numbingly lame and clumsy scenes. For example, in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Gilliam concocts a scene where the Baron takes his young companion to the moon in search of its king and queen, who have heads which can detach from their bodies, forming an antagonistic relationship between their id and super-ego. How fantastical! However, when we arrive, what do we see? Robin Williams at his most grating playing the Moon King and sucking away all of the movie’s momentum. This scene is a microcosm of Gilliam’s entire oeuvre. We have a visually pleasing and relatively creative set piece that is totally undermined by what the characters are actually doing and saying.

I think it’s clear to anybody who has followed along this summer that I approach films primarily for the stories they have to tell. I appreciate good writing more than anything and this probably makes Gilliam and me a poor fit, as storytelling doesn’t seem to be his primary interest. Normally, I would just shrug my shoulders and concede that this kind of artist is not for me. However, what bugged me about this film is that Baron Munchausen is clearly supposed to be a stand-in for Terry Gilliam. My first reaction was to be appalled by the hubris of this, given the fact that the Baron is supposed to be this great misunderstood hero. However, upon a closer inspection, I couldn’t agree more! He’s certainly a character with lofty ambitions, but actually his few successes in the film are accomplished in spite of himself. Aside from some nifty (and let’s be honest – terribly filmed and choreographed) work with the sword during the film’s climax, the Baron spends the entire film using everyone¬† around him, putting his own selfish desires ahead of the entire town who is counting on him, and taking credit for victories won solely due to the fine work of his sidekicks – you know, the ones with actual skills aside from being a blowhard. It works the same way with his films – when his actors bail him out, as Johnny Depp does in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (which also benefits by being an adaptation and not an original story), his films work. When the performances are not enough, as is the case in pretty much every other Gilliam film I have seen, they fail.

Princess Mononoke

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Out of all the films I have watched this summer, Princess Mononoke may be the most interesting in terms of narrative structure. It’s an animated epic which combines elements of fantasy and action/adventure, but it forgoes the straightforward “hero battles evil” storyline we’re accustomed to in American films of this type. In fact, it goes to great lengths to develop four different sides (nature vs. industrialized town vs. lone wolf hero vs. outside samurai invaders) without really exposing any of them as “good” or “bad.” Each side, save for maybe the invaders, have both good and bad qualities and the lone wolf hero, Ashitaka, tries to settle a conflict which steadily grows in scope and intensity without taking a side. It also features a story where virtually every single main character is riddled with faults and constantly makes mistakes. Even Ashitaka, who desperately tries to help each side get along, is generally ignored by those he attempts to negotiate with. It’s bold to make a film where, instead of creating a story where each side ascends in power until they reach a climax, the main parties seemingly stumble through a string of mistakes until reaching a climax fueled by their own shortcomings or their unwillingness to take a side. While this didn’t lead to me loving this film, it did lead to me respecting it.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Directed by Amy Heckerling

I found it impossible to watch Fast Times at Ridgemont High without constantly comparing it to Dazed and Confused. Both films are relatively plot-less films examining teen life in the Eighties and Seventies respectively. Both feature a large cast of attractive young performers hanging out and coming to grips with approaching adulthood. However, I found Fast Times to be wildly inauthentic. It isn’t funny and has nothing particularly insightful to say about coming of age. That’s odd because it’s source material, a book by Cameron Crowe about his year going undercover in a California high school, is purportedly nonfiction, while Dazed and Confused is an original story written by Richard Linklater. I could go on and on about all the ways in which Fast Times is inferior, but it really boils down to the fact that it’s an incredibly mean-spirited movie. It features kids trying all of these new experiences they weren’t even aware of until they were teenagers, most notably sex, and have terrible things happen to them. The female protagonist is a victim of rape (statutory, but still), premature ejaculation, and even ends up dealing with an unplanned pregnancy and a subsequent abortion. And this is supposed to be a comedy! By the end of the film I had no idea what Heckerling was trying to accomplish. The film shifts tones so wildly between attempts at drama, comedy, and eroticism that it ends up becoming a jumbled mess that leaves the audience feeling nothing.

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