Movie diary, 7/17/08-7/30/08.
Two movies last night. First, "Bad Boys II". Watched it at a friend's house with a bunch of people, and the remote was broken, so he couldn't turn off the subtitles. Which was a blessing in disguise, since the temptation for all of us to spend half of the movie yelling incredulously at the screen was pretty much irresistible. Let's get this out of the way first: Michael Bay is obviously insane. The guy's directing is like the end result of giving a $100 million budget to a 14 year old boy who doesn't like anything except tits and explosions. And rap music. He's a huge fan of ridiculous tracking shots in which a camera slides forward unfettered by walls, windows, the fact that it's moving through a microscopic hole, etc. There were shots in the movie where girls in thongs or super-short skirts that showed half their asses walked by and the camera got distracted and just followed their asses for 5 or more seconds. Seriously--horny teenage boy shit. Then there was the scene when Will Smith and Martin Lawrence busted into the house of some crazy Haitian drug dealers. The house was one of those beautiful crumbling piles from a century ago, and they proceeded to fill it full of holes. The scene that really blew my mind, though, was where Will Smith ended up in a living room with his back to a fireplace and the Haitians in the next room. There were doors to the room on either side of the fireplace, and Bay did this ridiculous tracking shot where he started out focusing on Will Smith, then went sideways at a rapid clip, through the door, around to focus on the Haitians, through the other door, back to Will Smith, back through the first door... and it continued for at least three full revolutions, each of which took maybe 5 seconds. It was almost making me dizzy. Oh, and I haven't even mentioned all the slow-mo shots of clips dropping out of pistols and stuff. Seriously, Michael Bay's a hack, but he's fascinating in his hackness. I can't watch a movie he works on without constantly thinking "What the fuck possessed him to do that?"
Another thing that must be discussed when talking about "Bad Boys II"--there's something called the Bullet-Deadliness Quotient, which I actually got from a character in a Christopher Brookmyre novel called "One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night" (highly recommended, by the way). A low BDQ movie is one in which bullets are flying everywhere and the good guys run across an open space while a dozen dudes with machine guns are firing at them and none of them gets hit. John Woo makes low BDQ movies. A high BDQ movie is one in which, if anyone shoots anyone, it's rare, and it's probably going to fuck the person up bad, if not kill them. "Reservoir Dogs" is a good example. Anyway, "Bad Boys II" is one of the lowest BDQ movies I've ever fucking seen. It was pretty much impossible to suspend disbelief for it, honestly, especially when you factor in all the other ridiculously deadly things that happen in the movie--like Haitians throwing cars off the back of a stolen tractor-trailer at Will Smith's car. Then you've got people driving through houses and public buildings... just sheer craziness. And no innocent bystanders ever die, no good guys ever get hit (except when Martin Lawrence takes a bullet in the ass at the very beginning of the movie), nothing bad ever really happens. Except when Will Smith or Martin Lawrence decides to take out a bad guy, and in those instances the bullets are suddenly dead-on accurate and extremely lethal. How does that work? Well, what did you expect, directorial consistency? From Michael Bay? Puh-LEEZE.
The other movie I saw last night was night and day from "Bad Boys II"--"Kissing Jessica Stein". It's about two mid-20s women, Jessica and Helen, who have both been traditionally hetero, and are both feeling lonely and unfulfilled in their current situations. Helen decides to try swinging the other way, places a personal ad with a Rilke quote, and Jessica, a Rilke fan, decides to respond. So then they end up in this weird relationship where neither of them is really sure what the hell they're even doing or whether they really want to be doing it. But it's really sweet and adorable in a lot of ways, too.
There were times when this movie felt a little too "Sex and the City" for me--i.e. the stories of comfortably middle-class women in New York City, working easy jobs that pay well and give them room for the artistic expression they want out of life. Hell, there are even points where characters quit jobs to become artists, and keep living in the same way--which strained my sense of disbelief to the breaking point, especially in an NYC setting. That shit isn't even possible in smaller, less expensive cities like the one I live in. I was able to forgive the movie for this, though, because ultimately, the story was well told, the characters were developed nicely and had multiple dimensions, and there were no easy choices made in the plot of Jessica and Helen's relationship. There were a few different points in the film where it was set up as if some Hollywood cliche was about to happen, and every time I was like, "Oh no, don't ruin it!" And every time, the movie went in a totally different direction than I expected, and the result was much better than what I would have predicted.
Honestly, the last 20 or 30 minutes bummed me out quite a bit more than was rational. I think maybe I'm not in the right frame of mind these days to watch movies about romantic relationships and not start examining myself and my less-than-perfect romantic life through their prism, so I think that accounts for my reaction at least somewhat. That said, the ending was definitely not what you'd expect from a Hollywood movie about the evolution of a relationship. It wasn't a total downer, either. On the whole, it avoided easy resolution on multiple levels, and I think it's a very well put-together little film, even if there are quite a bit of unexamined class issues percolating under the surface. I can let that slide in this movie, even if I can't in "Sex And The City", because the writing in "Kissing Jessica Stein" was way better.
I watched "The End Of Suburbia" earlier today. I tried to watch "The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh" first, and while I liked the first 30 minutes of it, my DVD player spit it out after that. My DVD player in my room is becoming unreliable--it's really hard to get it to close long enough to load a disc. I have to hold the drawer shut with my hand long enough for it to read the DVD or it just opens right back up and stays open. I think maybe a cross between this problem and perhaps an issue it had with the DVD of "Strange Vice" that I got from Netflix caused it to suddenly pop open in mid-film. Either way, I was fucked then, because I don't have a remote for my DVD player, which means that all I can do is hit play, stop, and eject. So I would have had to start the movie over, and it would probably have popped out at the same point, and I would have wanted to hang myself with frustration. My roommate will be in bed by 11 PM tomorrow or thereabouts, and I can watch the entire movie on the living room DVD player then, I suppose.
Anyway, where concerns "The End Of Suburbia", I'll give it this much--it was put together well. However, there's no doubt in my mind that I am not the target audience for that movie. As often happens when I watch rock-music-oriented documentaries, I did not learn a single thing that I didn't already know from this movie. Tellingly, at the beginning of the movie it lets you pick between a version with "some coarse language" and a "clean" version. The only "coarse language" I caught was James Howard Kunstler saying "clusterfuck" and "shitstorm" one time each. The fact that the movie gave you the option to avoid these mild swears leads me to think that it's mainly intended as a teaching tool. I'm sure it would blow the mind of anyone who doesn't already know all the stuff about peak oil and the problems with suburbia, etc, that the movie explained (assuming they were willing to believe it at all). For me, though, it was like a review. As I said, I didn't hear a thing that I didn't already know. As a result, I got bored by the middle of the movie and started cleaning my room while watching it. I certainly don't think it was bad, but I don't think it was that great, and I really don't think there was any point in my watching it.
Tonight, "The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh", in its entirety this time. I've discovered that the problem with this movie is not my room's DVD player but the DVD itself, as the living room DVD player had a hell of a time playing it as well. I could at least get the menu screen to appear in my room--downstairs, it reverted to playback-only mode, and although I got through the entire movie without incident, and got the menu screen to briefly show up after the movie was over, it glitched before I could watch the 30 minutes of interviews included as an extra on the DVD. On the third try, the player locked up completely and I had to turn the power off and back on twice to even get it to eject the DVD. So yeah, something's wrong with that copy of the movie. I suppose I should email Netflix and let them know.
As for the movie itself, well... I loved it. I'm a fan of the whole Argento/Bava Italian horror/giallo stuff in general, and while I've seen some movies in that genre made by lesser-known directors that were basically crap ("Torso" comes immediately to mind), "The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh" was far from crap. Also, in a genre known for its convoluted-to-the-point-of-incomprehensibility plotting, I understood the plot the entire way through. There was one hole, which I won't mention in the interest of avoiding spoilers, but it was minor and in no way detracted from my enjoyment. Now, I feel less than totally confident in using the term "Grand Guignol" to describe this movie, as I'm still not quite sure I understand all that that term entails, but I got the sort of feel from it that I've always imagined Grand Guignol-type stuff to have: gory and bloody, but also infused with a very carnal sensibility, and a definitely sophisticated underlying tone, almost art-house in its construction and overall look. It wasn't that sort of trash-art feel that I get from a movie like "Driller Killer", which seems to pick up its more artistic elements almost by accident. It was more like the movie had a connection to the history of Italian art, with some almost statuesque set pieces appearing at points throughout the movie. This all stood in direct contrast to the scenes of brutal, bloody murder, in which the killer would slash at women (often scantily clad) with a razor blade. I found the female characters in the movie more believable than slasher-movie victims often are, too, as a lot of them fought back hard against the killer. However, I wouldn't go so far as to say that the film had a feminist sensibility, at least not intentionally--there were plentiful scenes of women walking around naked, taking showers, etc. Some of the victims of the killer were naked when set upon, in fact. And at other points in the film, for example during an early scene when Mrs. Wardh (played by the stunning Edwige Fenech) has sex with a paramour, there's a lot of gratuitous female flesh on display. The best example of this is probably the early party scene, in which two dancing women, wearing dresses made out of paper, are set upon by a male party guest, who tears one of their dresses. The other woman laughs at her embarrassment, and suddenly the two are fighting on the floor, making short work of each other's clothes, after which they're both rolling around naked for at least a minute while the other party guests encircle them, leering. This scene had nothing to do with the plot, and it reminded me of some of the weirder, more gratuitous scenes in Russ Meyer's "Beyond the Valley Of The Dolls"; in fact, the movie's direction generally came off like a collaboration between Meyer, Argento, and ... maybe Roger Corman? And Andy Warhol? Whatever, the point is that it was fascinating and original. It had a lot to offer in terms of plot, gore, scary scenes, artistically oriented set pieces, and, um, gratuitous female flesh.
A couple of other weird notes--since having a recent conversation about the Italian penchant for dubbing all of the audio in their movies, I did some studying of the lips of the characters in this movie, and discovered something really strange: Conchita Airoldi, the actress playing the character Carol, delivered all her lines in English. Sometimes, despite the audio track, I could tell that she was speaking the exact words that were appearing at the bottom of the screen in the English subtitles. Meanwhile, Edwige Fenech, George Hilton, and the other actors she was speaking to were all speaking Italian. And speaking of subtitles, they were horribly done where grammar is concerned and contained some really basic translation errors that could have been confusing if I weren't paying very close attention. The worst: a line spoken by Conchita Airoldi to George Hilton about Edwige Fenech, in which Airoldi's use of a pronoun is translated as "him" instead of "her". At other points, the sentences made no grammatical sense, and you had to rearrange them in your head. It was as if they translated each word, but left the grammar the way it was in Italian, which is a very different sort of language than English. They didn't do this a lot, but when it happened, it was really apparent.
Oh, and one final note--the creepy organ-based instrumental psychedelic music that was used for a soundtrack was stellar. I would totally buy a CD of it, if one existed. In fact, I should try and find out. I know soundtrack albums were made for some of those old giallo movies...
I've had "Pan's Labyrinth" from Netflix for something like a week, so I decided to go ahead and watch it. It was a good movie, and I found that I was really interested in all of it, but the way the Spanish Civil War elements of the plot were handled belied the amount of running time spent on them. When I think about the main plot of the movie, the Spanish Civil War elements seem like background, window dressing, just the addition of flavor and really a McGuffin to place the main character, Ofelia, in the setting of the film, rather than anything all that important to the plot. And yet, there's a considerable amount of time spent on the soldiers and the rebels and their conflicts, so I'm pretty sure writer/director Guillermo Del Toro was attempting to tie the plot of the fantasy storyline to the Civil War elements--in an allegorical fashion, I would assume. The fact that he didn't really succeed in this for me, that the story seemed to me to be about a little girl on a fantasy quest and not really about the Spanish Civil War at all, does not make the movie a failure in my eyes. On the contrary, the fantasy quest elements are entertaining, original, and multi-layered. There are several opportunities to engage in blatant cliche, and the movie avoids all of them. And of course, the technology used to bring the monsters and other fantastical elements to life is used brilliantly, and creates a beautiful movie that has an element of otherworldliness even as almost all of it takes place in locales that are recognizably on Earth. The Spanish Civil War elements establish enough of a narrative to let us know what's happening and why it's happening as we're watching it, but in some ways it is too bare-boned to completely make the audience care about what's happening. Perhaps it seems that way to me because I'm from America and don't even know the history of the Spanish Civil War all that well; perhaps no further establishment of the situation would even be necessary to a Spanish audience. I'm willing to ignore that entire question, really, because I certainly enjoyed the parts of the movie that were more dedicated to those plot elements, even though sometimes I couldn't quite see the way they tied back in with the fantasy-quest storyline.
The thing that impressed me the most about the movie, though, was the ending. Without giving away anything, I'll just say that it was ambiguous and leave it at that. However, I liked the ambiguity, the way it lets the viewer decide what they think really happened. It fit well with several other points during the movie, in which the plot went in a completely different direction than a fantasy-movie vetaran would have expected it to. The ending of the Spanish Civil War plotline was viscerally satisfying, too, even though it was hard to see the situation at the end as anything but temporary. I question whether this movie would be as enjoyable for anyone who came to it looking for something other than a fantasy movie. That said, I feel like it is an interesting and original fantasy movie, and therefore it's certainly worth watching for anyone who enjoys that genre. Those who are looking for significant commentary on the Spanish Civil War, though, might find it a bit wanting. Still, though, a very good movie.