20 November 2007

No Country for Old Men

The attention to detail in this movie is absolutely astounding. Its just incredible, the meticulousness of it, and well suited to the film's graceful subtlety. You may be surprised that I describe such an unrelentingly violent film as subtle, but that's exactly what it is, and the extreme nature of the gore in it only serves to highlight

What I really loved about this movie way in which it coupled a kind of hardcore, grittiness with a down-home story spinning. It's amazing, the way it manages to balance the taut tense thriller mode with a drawling yarn kid of style. So you alternate between on-the-edge of your seat scenes and slow rambling ones, and the contrast is exquisite.

There was only one weak moment in the film and that was towards the end, a rather painfully predictable car accident. It was clumsy, not just because of the overdetermined way in which it was depicted visually, but also because of the way it seemed sort of inevitable in a narrative that plays with the idea of contingency and accident. It's odd, actually, in that it's the kind of thing that to me, who has spent a whole lot of time reading about narrative and determinism, seems like sledgehammer symbolism, but for most people will probably seem totally random. So I suppose it's not a really valid critique, and I guess I actually kind of appreciate the way it illustrated the kind of thing I've spent a lot of time reading about, but all the same, in a movie that was mostly marvelously new and surprising to me, it was a bit of a let-down.

All in all though, amazing acting, great story, wonderfully complex characters and some badass hardcore ultraviolence makes for one hell of a movie.

14 November 2007


This movie is highly tense but surprisingly subdued. You know, from the outset, that Chris Cooper, ie Robert Hanssen, is going down. So it's not exactly suspenseful, but nonetheless, the movie manages to keep up an ethos of extreme discomfort throughout. It's sort of a strange film, in that it kind of lends itself to certain questions, but doesn't really do anything with them. Ultimately, then, it leaves me with the following thoughts:

1. It's kind of fascinating how hierarchical government intelligence organizations are. This movie captures that beautifully, these power plays and ways of putting people in their place. One of the first encounters between Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillippe involves them walking down a hallway together, and Phillippe repeatedly has to stop short, or pause, in order to avoid running into things. Subtle, but effective. Likewise, in Phillippe's first meeting with Laura Linney, she puts him in his place, _hard_. The thing about intelligence work is that the amount of power that you have is directly tied to how much information you have. And at times, obviously, it makes sense for the people below you NOT to have certain information, in order to do their job effectively. But geeze, you don't have to be such a jerk about it, you know?

2. There's this interesting aspect to this movie, this question of readable people are. Cooper plays Hanssen, who was apparently some kind of genius for reading people. Of course, Ryan Phillippe proves to be his downfall, which kind of makes you wonder, but all the same, there's a nice scene where he proves his mettle by playing that "tell me 4 truths and one lie about you" game and nails it, twice.
What makes him a particularly interesting case is that he not only can read people, but he himself is unreadable as well. Underneath the controlled, heavily Catholic surface, he's a total perv, apparently. One question that inevitably comes up, and is never answered, is whether the Catholicism is a fake. I don't think it is. I don't think the movie does either. But it does make you think about false consciousness, etc. How people can happily, and devoutly, hold several totally contradictory beliefs at once. And act on them, too.
Likewise, at moments, you obviously know that Phillippe is lying, but at other times, you really don't know. Is he faking it? Is he being honest, but for instrumental purposes? How does he really feel about Hanssen?
I'm still contemplating this essence versus action issue in my own speculations on identity, and I feel like scenarios like this muddy the waters, though I'm a bit hard pressed to explain how.
Anyhow, as the movie progresses, you find yourself initially believing that Cooper actually _does_ have this incredible ability, both to read people and to lead this hardcore double life. And then you start to see his weakness - which has the effect of humanizing him. You realize, in the end, that he's an extremely bright guy, but still just a guy, in the end. And you realize, or I did, that you had been thinking of him as some kind of superhuman, robot type, purely because he has these abilities. Which is kind of interesting.

There is more to say about the movie, like the subtext about "gun culture" vs "intelligence culture" in government agencies, but those were really the two main things that I found interesting about it. I think, at the end of the day, I'm just not that into straight spy-thriller movies? I dunno.

Fun trivia though, Phillippe's wife is played by Caroline Dhavernas, whom I had only ever seen before in the delightful tv show Wonderfalls, but for whom I have a decided fondness. Somebody should give her some better roles - she did this one quite well, I thought. Impressive, given what a cliche role it tends to be; the stressed out wife, angsty and frustrated about being unable to be let in on the secrets, etc etc etc. Nice German accent, too.

11 November 2007

Running Scared

This movie is off the fucking hook. It is crazy.

Goddamnit. I watch action movies because I want some goddamn escapism, not because I want to be confronted with the evil in the world, ok? I want bad guys to be bad, yes, but I don't want them to synecdochally refer to truly horrific things in the world that are actually happening. If you show me a truly appalling scene of a guy beaten his wife, or abusing children, it doesn't make me wanna stand up and cheer when he gets capped, it just depresses the hell out of me. wtf.

This movie is bad. The acting sucks, the dialogue is weak, and it resorts to incredibly cheap tricks to manipulate the emotions of the viewer in a totally mindless way. Yes, visually, it's well done. There are a few really excellent scenes. But it's also incredibly brutal and upsetting. For no good reason. The movie isn't showing me these horrible things in order to reflect on them or make some kind of statement about them. It's doing it for cheap thrills and heightened emotion. I resent that.

The thing is, on the one hand, this movie wants to be a badass action flick. And when it's doing that, it does it well. It's a bit on the brutal side, but that's not unreasonable. But why does it need to drag children into it? It is not uncommon to have kids serve as a motivating factor in action movies - usually a kid has been kidnapped and it's up to the hero to save him/her. Fair enough. The horror of people abusing children is always in the background, but it's sort of left there unexplored, rather than built up. Which is just dandy, because, as I said above, I'm not trying to think about the horrible things people do to children. It's not a happy topic.

What I'm so pissed off about is a sequence in this movie that features this totally outrageous plot twist - this kid, fleeing his abusive male guardian, gets into a random van. Surprise! Turns out owners of said van are super fucked up pedophiliac murderers. The whole segment is completely unnecessary to the plot, but it is truly horrific. It's terrifying, and upsetting, and really just awful. Why put the viewer through that? Why? I can't forgive the filmmakers for that scene.

09 November 2007

Mixtape, Inc.

This documentary is a lot smarter than you might expect, but not quite as smart as you might like. It raises a lot of really interesting questions about hiphop culture and mixtapes, but it doesn't quite dig into some of the questions it raises, and other parts drag a bit. Overall, it runs just a bit too long, and gets somewhat repetetive. Still though, it's a pretty fascinating movie.

To start with the negatives - the voice over is kind of painful. Walter Bell wrote and directed the movie, but he should have found someone else to do the talking, because his voice is annoying as hell. And his commentary is rarely as interesting as that of the people he's interviewing - he tends towards a "fight the power! you can't stop us!" kind of thing, but delivered without much passion. His voice is very flat. It's especially notable because so many of the people he's interviewing speak with the easy rhythms of those who have learned to use their voice as a musical instrument in ways that are extremely pleasing to the ear, so his droning comes off all the worse in contrast.

Secondly, the documentary trick of zooming in on newspaper headlines, etc, to provide a visual counterpart to the narrative is wildly overused and starts to seem like a cheap gimmick. For the most part, the film has a pretty cool aesthetic that is well-rooted in hiphop culture, the visual aspects of which don't generally get as much attention as they deserve. But at times one wishes the film had a slightly bigger budget, because some of it looks like it was made by somebody who just started a class on graphic design.

That said though, the film is quite well done, and takes a really interesting perspective on some of the questions it raises.

For instance, the main focus for discussing the legal crack-down on mixtapes is this guy Alan Berry, a record store owner from Indiana. This is not a dude whom you would expect to be facing jailtime over his love of hiphop. He's a flannel shirt wearing type dude who admits early on that in his earlier life, he was a die-hard Ozzie fan who thought that hiphop sucked. listening to him talk about his conversion to hiphop is great, and takes on stereotypes of hiphop fans with brilliant subtlety. He's a really fascinating voice in the film, not least because so much of the movie is about how hiphop is the music of the ghetto, the streets, etc - and this guy is just not a part of that scene. So he has this curious perspective that is simultaneously insider and outsider, with a liberal, and justified, dose of bitterness.

Another thing that I found really interesting was the discussion of mixtape culture alongside bootleg culture. This is an area where the film really could have delved a bit deeper. Because what really struck me about it is that this is another one of those fascinating cases of marginalized subgroups at odds with each other, and the fact that the bootleggers are almost entirely poor immigrants trying to get ahead in America is not irrelevant. There's a subtle tinge of xenophobia beneath some of the discussions of bootleggers, and perhaps in the perspective of the film at large? This could just be my beef though. I get really annoyed when filmmakers feel the need to provide subtitles for a person speaking accented English. Give me a fucking break. You don't need subtitles to understand what the guy is saying.

The bootleg issue connects also to the music piracy question. To me, it is completely obvious that mixtapes are a completely different sort of animal, but I think it was a smart move on the part of filmmakers to take these questions seriously, and the resulting discussion of the current state of the music industry was fascinating. Raises some interesting issues about the clash between art and industry as a whole, about what art is for, etc. There's a great moment, actually, when this incredibly sweet-faced kid compares himself to people in business school, talking about how he's gone out and read all these books, he's an enterpreneur, he knows what he's doing - damn straight he does. Likewise, the discussion of 50 Cent's success focuses partly on his talent, but mostly on the fact that dude is a hustla'. He's very fucking smart when it comes to making money.

Finally, there's the interesting issue of what happens when something underground goes mainstream. Because although no one ever says it, in some ways, making it big was the worst thing that could have happened to mixtapes. This is most forcefully brought out, for me, by the interview with Kanye West. Because here's the thing, is once your mixtapes make you a name, you gonna start saving your best stuff for your albums, because that's where da money at (though personally, I thought that thePrelude to Graduation was a lot hotter than the actual album).

Hands down though, the best thing about the movie is the way it manages to capture the people being interviewed - the film is intimate and chatty, you feel like you're just sitting around shooting the shit with the people involved. Random non-sequitors, dirty jokes - none of that gets cut out. The movie honors the people in it by allowing them to talk about what's closest to their heart, and it's much more rewarding as a result. Seeing DJ Boogie's first mixtape, not to mention his adorable smile, melts your damn heart. And Kanye, of course, is an irreverent delight as always - "but with mixtapes... it's like fast food. It's like pussy. A nigga get too much pussy, they don't know it's tight no mo'". The man's got a way with words. Though I can't help but wonder wtf is going on with homebody to his left, who appears to be sound asleep with his mouth open for most of his scenes. Heh heh.

All in all, it may be on the long side, but it's a good time. I'd put it on the definitely ought to see list for any hiphophead, but even somebody who's not into the scene could find it interesting as social and cultural commentary. Check it out. IMDB, oddly enough, doesn't have an entry for it, but it's available from Netflix.

08 November 2007

Last Life in the Universe

This movie was oddly stupid. It's a strange pastiche of features, like when you're trying to cook dinner with leftovers and you find yourself throwing together things that just really don't work because you can't decide what in the hell you're making, so you end up with a big gooey mess that is made of lots of delicious things but tastes kind of bland and vaguely unpleasant.

So it seems like here we started with a suicidal main character (which allows for random flashes of death scene fantasies) who also happens to be highly obsessive (cue shots of labeled sock drawers, neat stacks of things in apartment), threw in some Mob action (cue gory murder scenes), then decided to to pair him with a quirky chick whose sister is a callgirl (cue sex club scenes). Just for fun, let's have them not really speak the same language (cue adorable translation problems, also long scenes where they both speak charmingly accented english). And she'll be leaving town in a few days, to add that fleeting love affair feel. Let's also make her ex-boyfriend an abusive asshole, to add some tension. Oh, and we can make her a stoner, so that there's at least one scene where she's really high and things can randomly fly through the air in a charming magical realism sort of way (because that's what happens when you're high?). So we throw all those together, and see what happens, eh guys? Right?

So what happens? Not a goddamn thing. These various features play themselves out in a rather disinterested fashion, albeit with very lovely visuals, and then the movie just kinda ends. Oh wait - they play themselves out _very_ slowly. I watched the entire movie in 1.4 time (god bless my dvd player) and it was still too slow.

It's strange, because the characters are actually quite sympathetic, but there's just no momentum to the movie at all. It's beautiful, but lacks any kind of emotional pull. Really not worth watching, sad to say.