#74 - To Your Scattered Bodies Go
Philip Jose Farmer
1918 - 2009
Good day, eh? We’ll jump into the reviews and such in just a sec but first, how about them Oscar Awards? That’s right, they were less than a week ago and they’re already taking their rightful place in history, as people struggle to remember exactly who won. I didn’t do too badly on this year’s guessing game, correctly predicting 15 of the 24 categories. I’d have done even better if I hadn’t tried to out-clever myself on Best Actor and Actress.
As for the show itself, it was surprisingly not too painful this year. Hugh Jackman made for a charming, able host, although the second big production number of the evening was one too many for my tastes. He kept things moving right along, though. Part of the problem with having comedians host the show is they always feel it necessary to ad lib here and there. This can make for some funny, memorable moments, to be sure. But it also stretches the show out even longer than it needs to be. However, the best change of the night had to be the presentation of the acting awards. While the perp lineup of previous winners looked a little awkward at first, it was lovely to give each of the nominees their moment of glory. It truly demonstrated the power of the old cliché, “It’s an honor just to be nominated.” In fact, it is an honor and the reactions of the nominees as they were praised by their peers showed that better than any clip montage could. Anyway, to all those involved with the program, nice work and congratulations to all the winners, all of whom I am sure are regular readers of the Electric Theatre (I understand Kate Winslet in particular is a longtime fan).
Now then, I’ve got a couple of theatrical releases to review this week but I’m going to switch things around and move them to the bottom of the page in order to introduce a brand new feature here I hope you’ll enjoy. I call it…
TALES FROM THE QUEUE
As you may recall from my 2008 wrap-up a few weeks back, I had some harsh words to say about the New Release Syndrome that’s infecting our movie-going experiences these days. It’s been growing with every passing year, getting to the point where if you want to see a movie, you’d best get out there and see it opening day or forget about it. This is a pity because movies are supposed to be one of those art forms that last forever. The true measure of a picture’s worth isn’t how much it grosses. It’s how it holds up after all the hype has died down. As far as I’m concerned, too many movies are getting lost in the shuffle.
I’ve been a subscriber to a Major Online Movie Rental Service pretty much since it went online back in the late 90s. (Since they aren’t going to give me anything for the free publicity, I won’t name them, but they have red envelopes and rhyme with Pet-Fix.) My queue includes everything from blockbusters from both yesterday and today, foreign movies, documentaries, cult psychotronic weirdness and beyond. I resist moving new releases to the top of the list (although I do occasionally succumb to temptation) and prefer to just take them as they come. Sometimes this means a movie will show up that I have no memory of why I wanted to see it in the first place. It’s like playing Movie Roulette.
Tales From The Queue is intended to shine a light on movies big and small that I’ve missed over the years. Some of them you’ve probably never heard of before. Others will have been big deals at one point and we’ll see how they hold up without a mighty publicity machine roaring away behind them. Now, my queue has hundreds and hundreds of titles in it, so I’ve got plenty of fodder. But I thought it would be more fun if you all helped out. I want your suggestions for what I should be watching. There are only three rules.
1. It must be something available on disc in these United States.
2. It must be something I haven’t seen before. If you suggest something I’ve already seen, I’ll let you know and you can try again.
3. If I don’t like your recommendation and write a negative review, you can’t take it personally.
Other than that, the sky’s the limit. Any movie from any time period and any genre. Email me your suggestions and I’ll start checking ‘em out. I look forward to seeing what movies you think got less attention than they deserved. To get the ball rolling, here are half a dozen of my most recent adventures in Movie Roulette.
One of the rare occasions when I will stack the deck with new releases is after the Oscar nominations are announced, so that I can make semi-educated guesses about the outcome. So let’s start off with three recent Oscar losers, beginning with Frozen River. Best Actress nominee Melissa Leo stars as Ray, a down-on-her-luck woman whose no-good husband has run off (apparently not for the first time), leaving her broke with two kids. An encounter with Lila (Misty Upham), a Mohawk Indian woman who took the husband’s abandoned car, leads Ray across the border into Canada and into the world of human trafficking. Courtney Hunt writes and directs this somber, compelling drama with an eye and ear for detail and a firm grasp of the lengths a desperate person will go to in order to get by. Frozen River is a fascinating, moving story told with great skill, taking us places we rarely see on film. (* * * ½)
I passed on In Bruges during its theatrical run, feeling as though the modern hipster crime movie genre had little left to offer. This was a mistake. Turns out that Martin McDonagh’s movie is one of the freshest, most enjoyable crime pictures in years. Colin Farrell, who I don’t often have much use for, turns in the best performance I’ve ever seen him deliver as Ray, a neophyte hitman hiding out in the sleepy Belgian town with his partner Ken (Brendan Gleeson). While awaiting further instructions from their boss (a wonderfully thin-lipped Ralph Fiennes), Ken tries to interest Ray in the tourist attractions. For his part, Ray is more interested in scoring with a local girl (Clemence Poesy) he met on a film set he wandered past. You don’t want to know to much about this movie before going into it. Suffice it to say, the story twists in unexpected ways with every chance encounter adding to the payoff. McDonagh’s Oscar-nominated screenplay is genuinely clever and the interplay between Farrell, Gleeson and ultimately Fiennes is hilarious and often moving. In Bruges is a fantastic movie and had I seen it in time, it would surely have been on my ten best list of 2008. (* * * ½)
I knew nothing about The Visitor when I put it in apart from the fact that beloved character actor Richard Jenkins had been nominated for Best Actor for his role in it. Had I known beforehand that it was from actor-turned-writer/director Tom McCarthy, whose last film was the wonderful indie comedy-drama The Station Agent, I’d have made it more of a priority. Jenkins plays a widowed economics professor drifting through what remains of his life. He’s sent to Manhattan for a conference and surprises two squatters (Haaz Sleiman and Danai Gurira) that have moved into his apartment. He takes pity on them and allows them to spend the night. Before long, he finds himself growing fond of them, especially Sleiman, a musician like his wife. The Visitor is a quiet, deeply interesting film with rich performances from every member of the cast. It unfolds itself slowly but deliberately, drawing you into these people’s lives. It’s a small gem of a film and deserved a much wider release than it received. (* * * ½)
Mail Order Wife
Here’s an odd one. In New York City, a documentary filmmaker (co-director Andrew Gurland) pays the expenses for a poor schlub of a doorman (Adrian Martinez) to bring over a mail order bride (Eugenia Yuan) from Burma. She arrives but the marriage doesn’t last long before Andrew finds himself disgusted by the way Adrian treats his new wife. Andrew gets emotionally involved with her and breaks up with his girlfriend to move her in. Technically, this is one of the most accomplished mockumentaries I’ve seen. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear you were watching a legit documentary made by a very strange, self-absorbed man. The movie’s humor is bone dry and twisted as a pretzel, so you get more sardonic satisfaction from the film than big laughs. Even so, it’s nothing if not unique and an impressive achievement for Gurland and co-writer and co-director Huck Botko. I enjoyed Mail Order Wife thoroughly but saying it might not be for all tastes is an understatement. (* * *)
O Lucky Man!
Here’s an even odder one. Malcolm McDowell stars as Michael Travis, a young, eager coffee salesman sent to a remote territory by his company. Thus begins a sprawling, surreal journey that includes a secret military installation, medical experimentation, illicit arms deals, and much, much more. And did I mention it was a semi-musical with Greek chorus-style songs by Alan Price from The Animals? Well, it is. Bizarre doesn’t begin to describe director Lindsay Anderson’s 1973 allegorical epic. This is a one-of-a-kind movie that should have a much bigger cult following than it seems to enjoy. It’s very long, very British and very 70s but I found it to be extremely rewarding. Well worth seeking out for anyone who thinks they’ve seen it all. (* * * ½)
It’s the night before Christmas and Angela (Rachel Nichols) just wants to leave work and get to her sister’s house to spend the holiday with her family. The only thing standing in her way is Thomas (Wes Bentley), a deranged security guard nursing a major obsession with her. Thomas kidnaps her and keeps her hostage in the building’s multi-level parking structure all through the night. Franck Khalfoun directs P2 from a story by Haute Tension creators Alexandre Aja and Gregory Levasseur. They do a fine job of establishing why Angela can’t escape and Angela only occasionally does something so stupid that you’re slapping your forehead in disbelief, a rarity for horror movie damsels in distress. Bentley isn’t a bad psycho, although his character is even more inconsistent than Angela’s. But P2 skates into the improbable once too often to be a truly great horror movie. There are some good shock scares and impressively gory effects, though, making P2 worth at least half a look for horror fans. I’ve seen much worse. (* * ½)
You get the general idea. Usually I’ll only be spotlighting one or two titles, so your recommendations will get more in-depth reviews than the brief capsules I’m giving myself. So start thinking about which of your favorites should get more attention and send them my way. I can’t wait to see what you come up with.
NOW IN THEATRES
Apart from Sandman and his original graphic novels with Dave McKean, I’m not necessarily a huge Neil Gaiman aficionado. However, I’m a big fan of stop-motion animation in general and director Henry Selick in particular, so I was eager to check out this adaptation of Gaiman’s acclaimed children’s book. I’m very glad I did because this is one of the darkest, most original movies I’ve seen in ages.
Young Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) moves in to a strange, lonely boarding house with her bland, often distracted parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman). She discovers a small door that leads to an alternate universe where her Other Mother and Father are doting, loving and everything is magical and fun. Needless to say, the other world is much too good to be true.
Sumptuously designed and beautifully animated, Coraline is the first of the new breed of 3D movies I’ve seen (the last one I checked out was James Cameron’s IMAX documentary Ghosts Of The Abyss back in 2003). The technology has come a long, long way. The 3D effect is perfectly suited to stop-motion, giving every shot a tactile feeling that’s often breathtaking. I still think 3D is just a gimmick though, and the real test of a movie is how well it plays without the effect. Coraline should hold up beautifully. The 3D is great fun and ups the “wow” factor considerably but it isn’t required to enjoy the story. Coraline reminded me of the great dark fantasies I enjoyed when I was a kid like Maurice Sendak’s In The Night Kitchen. It’s a transporting, magical movie that I hope will be around for a long, long time. (* * * ½)
Non-American filmmakers who find success in their native lands often lose something in translation when they’re lured to Hollywood. For every Ang Lee, for example, there’s a Tsui Hark. Tom Tykwer, the acclaimed German director of Run Lola Run, lands somewhere in the middle with The International, his first big-budget Hollywood production. (Not his first English-language movie, however. That would be the extremely underrated Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer from 2006.) Tykwer certainly doesn’t embarrass himself here but it isn’t the knock-out I hoped it would be.
Clive Owen stars as Louis Salinger, an Interpol agent who has spent the last several years trying to bring down a massive bank with ties to illegal arms trading. He’s teamed up with the New York District Attorney’s office, represented by a thoroughly wasted Naomi Watts, for reasons that are never made quite clear. The movie lives up to its name by sending Owen all over the globe in a pursuit that frequently seems unwinnable.
Anyone expecting something along the lines of the Bourne movies will be disappointed by The International. Eric Singer’s script is clearly influenced by the low-key espionage thrillers of the 1970s. Apart from a couple of key sequences, including a genuinely amazing shoot-out at the Guggenheim, Tykwer keeps things at a low simmer. Owen is fine, although as usual he isn’t called upon to do much except stand around and project his Clive Owen-ness all over the screen. Watts, on the other hand, has nothing to do whatsoever. Her character could easily have been eliminated without impacting the story one bit. I’m an unapologetic Tykwer fan, so I may be willfully overlooking some of The International’s weaker aspects. Yes, I had hoped for a modern classic and this ain’t it. Still, I enjoyed The International for what it was. It’s tense, sometimes thrilling, relatively smart and never less than interesting. (* * *)