Thursday, July 07, 2005

Films of 2005 (So Far)

Here's something I posted on, but I'll throw on here too because it's pretty relevant. This is a list of all the films I've seen this year, 178 in total, all ranked on a five star scale. Now, one note on this. The scale is comparative among the films here, not film in general. I do like most of the films here, even most of the ones had something decent. So, a two is a good movie, three is really good, four is great, five is transcendent genius. The star indicates it's a film I've seen before this year.

5 stars
In the Mood for Love (Wong)*
Oldboy (Park)*
Chungking Express (Wong)*
School of Rock (Linklater)*
2046 (Wong)
Fallen Angels (Wong)*
House of Flying Daggers (Zhang)
Hero (Zhang)*
Garden State (Braff)*
Irma Vep (Assayas)
Lord of the Rings: Return of the King: Extended Edition (Jackson)
Leon: The Professional (Besson)*
Donnie Darko (Kelly)*
Infernal Affairs (Lau/Mak)
Infernal Affairs II (Lau/Mak)
Jackie Brown (Tarantino)*
North by Northwest (Hitchcock)*
Satyricon (Fellini)
Barry Lyndon (Kubrick)
Far From Heaven (Haynes)
Safe (Haynes)
Irreversible (Noe)*
Gone with the Wind
American Beauty (Mendes)*
Dazed and Confused (Linklater)*
Amelie (Jeunet)*
The 25th Hour (Lee)*
Sin City (Rodriguez)
Batman Returns (Burton)*
Unbreakable (Shyamalan)*
Heat (Mann)*
Edward Scissorhands (Burton)*
Ashes of Time (Wong)*
Aliens (Cameron)*
Days of Being Wild (Wong)*
Happy Together (Wong)*
Run Lola Run (Tykwer)*
Boogie Nights (Anderson)*
Attack of the Clones (Lucas)*
Revenge of the Sith (Lucas)*
The Big Lebowski (Coen)*
Velvet Goldmine (Haynes)
The Virgin Suicides (Coppola)*
Dr. Strangelove (Kubrick)*
Paris, Texas (Wenders)
Clean (Assayas)
2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick)*
Bonnie and Clyde (Hill)
Once Upon a Time in the West (Leone)
The Shining (Kubrick)*

4 stars
Sideways (Payne)
Bad Santa (Zwigoff)
A Very Long Engagement (Jeunet)
The Ice Storm (Lee)
Mean Girls
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring (Kim)
Sunset Boulevard (Wilder)
The Aviator (Scorsese)
Captain Blood
8 1/2 (Fellini)
The Isle (Kim)
The Adventures of Robin Hood (Curtiz)
Delicatessan (Jeunet)
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Cameron)*
Infernal Affairs III (Lau/Mak)
Happiness (Solondz)
Bulworth (Beatty)*
Lolita (Kubrick)*
The Heroic Trio (To)*
The Incredibles (Bird)*
Crash (Haggis)
subUrbia (Linklater)
The Phantom Menace (Lucas)*
Breaking the Waves (Von Trier)
La Dolce Vita (Fellini)
Three Kings (O'Russell)
The Killing (Kubrick)
Short Cuts (Altman)
12 Angry Men (Lumet)
The Dreamers (Bertolucci)
Midnight Cowboy (Schlessinger)
Being There (Ashby)

3 stars
JSA (Park)
Walkabout (Roeg)
Safety Last
The Black Pirate
Million Dollar Baby (Eastwood)
Paths of Glory (Kubrick)
Pirates of the Caribbean (Verbinski)*
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Park)
Audition (Miike)
Casino (Scorsese)
We Don't Live Here Anymore
Maria, Full of Grace
The Road Home (Zhang)
The Jacket
To Live (Zhang)
Coffy (Hill)
Radiance (Perkins)
I Stand Alone (Noe)
Mars Attacks! (Burton)*
The Maltese Falcon
The Tracker
A Touch of Zen
Masters of the Flying Guillotine
Spiderman 2 (Raimi)*
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Spielberg)*
The Apartment (Wilder)
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
The Man Who Wasn't There (Coen)*
The Last Temptation of Christ (Scorsese)
Spartacus (Kubrick)
One From the Heart (Coppola)
The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah)
Princess Raccoon (Suzuki)
The Doors (Stone)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Forman)
Straw Dogs (Peckinpah)
War of the Worlds (Spielberg)
Breathless (Godard)
Forrest Gump (Zemeckis)

2 stars
Mystic River (Eastwood)
Finding Nemo
Assault on Precinct 13
Rabbit Proof Fence (Noyce)
The Last Wave (Weir)
The Vikings
Existenz (Cronenberg)
Intolerable Cruelty (Coen)
The Seventh Seal (Bergman)
Beneath Clouds
Die Hard
Kung-Fu Hustle (Chow)
Amarcord (Fellini)
Miller's Crossing (Coen)
La Strada (Fellini)
Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Liman)
The Quiet American (Noyce)
Mean Streets (Scorsese)
Batman Begins (Nolan)
Grave of the Fireflies
New York, New York (Scorsese)

1 star
Napoleon Dynamite
The Mark of Zorro
Ghostbusters II (Reitman)*
Be Cool
What the Bleep Do You Know
The Newton Boys (Linklater)
Dead Heart
Dirty Harry
Black and White
Yonglu Boys
The Player (Altman)

Wednesday, July 06, 2005


Talking about The Shining yesterday I forgot to mention one of the coolest things on the DVD, the theatrical trailer. Kubrick was always involved with the marketing of his films, designing the campaign for A Clockwork Orange as well as selecting the infamous Eyes Wide Shut marketing footage. The trailer for The Shining is just the shot of the elevators opening and blood flowing out of them, with the names of the principles involved with the film scrolling over it. You don't know what the film is about, but it gives you a good idea of the tone and the image of the blood coming out of the elevators is incredibly effective at making you want to see more.

This trailer's brilliance shows how easy it is to pique the audience's interest with a really strong image, as opposed to telling them the entire plot. The best trailer I've seen, and one of the most effective, was the teaser for Garden State. It had no dialogue, just images backed by Frou Frou's 'Let Go,' it doesn't tell you what the film is about, but the images perfectly capture the mood, and in my case made a film I had read a couple of festival reviews of into something I had to see as soon as possible.

I think the main problem with trailers today is that they give away way too much plot. This is not an original observation, but the thing is, trailers now always gave away the setup of the movie. Look at The Sixth Sense, this is a film where it takes a half hour or so to get to the big revelation, that this kid sees dead people, however, if you've seen the trailer, you're just waiting for it to come up in the movie. So, all the subtle buildup is for naught, since you go in knowing so much information.

But, this is something that has to be done. You can't market a movie on the idea that this kid has a mysterious, nondescript power. However, when you say this kid sees dead people, you've got people hooked. My problem is with trailers that give away the second act twist, spoiling an hour, hour and a half of the film for you. One of the worst trailers I've seen recently is for Stealth, a trailer that sets up the first conflict of the movie, a robotic plane that's going to replace real pilots, and then sets up its second conflict, that the plane becomes sentient and goes rogue, attacking people. This would probably take at least an hour of movie to get to, but the trailer shows it all.

After seeing the trailer, I feel like I don't even have to see the movie. I don't think showing more entices you into the movie, instead the best teasers give you a taste and leave you wanting more. The reason Garden State's trailer works is because it shows you all these amazing images, and then leaves you wondering, how do they fit together to form a film. Similarly, The Shining gives you just one image and it's enough to make the audience curious about the film.

There's a whole bunch of other more standard trailers that also work really well. Sin City's trailer owned, a great music choice, cool looking clips, it made me need to see the film, much like the equally brilliant trailer for Kill Bill.

But, complaining about trailers today shouldn't imply that they're necessarily worse than those of years before. On the whole, trailers today are so much more evolved than those old ones which were mostly a collection of random scenes. One exception was Alfred Hitchcock, who did a brilliant trailer for The Birds, which actually might be the best explanation of that film's central mystery, and besides being a film promo, is a really funny short piece on its own.

In fact, today's trailers have become such an art form that in some cases they make the film itself obsolete. In the case of action movies in particular, what you really want is the orgiastic two minute presentation of visual spectacle set to a cool music track. XXX was a movie with an awesome trailer that actually got me to the movie, which turned out to be awful, the moments of coolness punctuated by excessively long, dull action sequences. Still, that two minute trailer is a fine piece of work. It does everything the movie sets out to do, and there's just nowhere left to go from there.

So, what I'm asking for is trailers that give you a hint of the movie, the basic plot setup, but mainly focus on the visual of the film. Always leave the audience wanting more,

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The Shining

I've been watching a lot of Kubrick lately and a few days ago, I did a rewatch of The Shining. I've gotten a lot more appreciation for Kubrick's stuff as I've watched more of it. I always loved 2001, and seeing Barry Lyndon a few months ago gave me an appreciation of just how controlled his films are. That was a film where every frame seemed perfect, just totally under control and when you look over his other movies, they're like that too.

The Shining is a bit different because it's not a movie in which Kubrick has to create a whole world. Before this, he had done Barry Lyndon, A Clockwork Orange and 2001, all movies set in either the future or the past, in a wide range of locations, necesitating the creation of alternate worlds, which facilitates his absolute control over the content of each frame. With The Shining, rather than building an entire world, he creates a self contained world within the hotel. The film is a variation on the classic isolated house, things start to go wrong story. What makes this film much more interesting is two things, one is how well developed the characters are, second is the mysterious time fluctuations.

I'm not a fan of most horror films because of the generic requirement of creating scares. Trying to scare the audience frequently means that filmmakers will neglect traditional storytelling and character development in favor of just showing gore or having a bunch of 'jump moments.' If you look at The Grudge, all the scares are meant to come from people suddenly appearing, accompanied by a loud noise. It may startle you, but it's not actually scary. Similarly, gore isn't really scary, it can be disgusting, but watching a Jason movie is more about enjoying the sport of the kill than getting scared.

The Shining isn't a film I would actually consider that scary, but the last hour or so is extremely intense and I think what it does that's most interesting is to show things from both Jack and Wendy's perspective, so we can see him simultaneously as someone who's lost in a haze of visions and uncertainty, and at the same time as a monster, threatening the lives of his wife and son.

Jack Nicholson isn't someone you'd consider the picture of stability, and while I've heard the book is mainly about how spending all this time isolated turns an ordinary guy into a maniac, the film is more about someone who's always this tendency to kill inside him getting it brought to the surface by his time in the Overlook. There's clearly something about the place that does this to people, and the place destroys Jack.

I find Jack very threatening, and a large part of that is because of the vulnerability of the other characters. Danny, even though there's something mysterious about him, is a helpless child when put up against the power of Jack. It's interesting that the two of them almost never interact in the film. They both have to confront the mysterious forces in the Overlook, but their journeys very rarely connect. Then there's Wendy who is an utterly helpless character. Shelley Duvall looks extremely thin, gaunt even, and seems so powerless, especially when put up against the juggernaut that is Jack.

Jack spends most of the movie either alone or hanging out with the characters from his hallucination. This leads to the dual perspective I mentioned earlier, there's the story of Danny and the story of Jack, with Wendy serving as the bridge. One of the things I have a problem with in the film is the fact that Danny's story essentially stops developing about halfway through the movie. His ability to shine never really pays off in any dramatic way. There's definitely a lot more than could be done with it. I suspect a lot of the reason for that is the fact that the film is based on a novel, which makes it more likely than there will be some unresolved loose ends.

If nothing else, I admire the fact that the film leaves you with some questions to ponder. The final shot calls into question everything that's come before and has no clear explanation. I've come up with an explanation for 2001 that works for me, but I'm still struggling to figure out what the end of The Shining means, or at least to work out an explanation that works for me.

I think the most important scene to unwrapping this enigma is the scene with Grady and Jack in the bathroom. Grady says that "You've always been the caretaker" and yet Grady himself, or at least some incarnation of him, was the caretaker in 1970 and he too killed his family. I think the Overlook is 'haunted' in the sense that it brings out things into people and forces them into certain roles. The person taking care of the place will end up going crazy and his family will be killed as a result. When Danny encounters the twins they say "Come play with us, Danny," inviting him to join them in the role of murder victim. Danny resists, but by staying at the Overlook, he is placing himself in this victim role. It's much like the events of 'I Only Have Eyes for You' in Buffy, where a new series of people are possessed by ghosts and re-enact a murder that happened fifty years ago.

We don't know what happened to Grady's wife, other than she died, so it's difficult to see where Wendy fits into this. She's an outsider because she has gotten caught up in Jack's destiny, she doesn't have her own. Jack is the one carrying the burden of being the caretaker, he's always been the caretaker, according to Grady. What does this mean? I think it implies that some version of him is reincarnated as time passes and he is always pushed towards the Overlook. He talks about the weird deja vu he had walking in, fitting because he was there in the 1920s, a different version of him, but he was somehow there nonetheless.

He's essentially a trapped soul, forever destined to enact the same series of events. He talks about how he lost control and pulled Danny's arm in Vermont, that happened because he had to go to the Overlook, all these small events occurred in such a way that they would lead him to the hotel and the role as manager. Once at the Overlook, the destined events begin to occur and because this is a timeless cycle, we see time start to break down. First it's only Jack who goes into these time warps, as in the party scene, but by the end, Wendy is there too. One of the most confusing scenes for me was the scene where she sees some guy in a bear costume and another guy in a hotel room. Apparently, in the book, these two were partygoers from the 1920s. She also sees Grady, post-suicide. All time is breaking down at this point, as the Overlook finally enacts its destiny and claims another victim. So, a series of Jacks will recur over time, as will a series of Gradys. All these people who worked there in the 1920s have become subject to some kind of loop that leads them to be forever stuck in their role, unable to move on. I take it that's what "You've always been the caretaker" means, and the picture supports it. Basically, Jack will be reborn other places, and live other lives, but will always wind up back at the Overlook, and will always try to murder his family, as will Grady.

Now, the question comes up why did this happen? That's what I'm not sure about. I read an essay online stipulating that The Shining was all about the destruction of native Americans, and while I'd hesitate to go that far, I think the fact that it was build on an Indian burial ground implies that something is up with the Overlook. I'll need to rewatch again, but I couldn't find mention of any sort of major event from the 1920s that would lead these people to be trapped in the Overlook forever.

So, in the film the 'Shiners' seem to be set up as a kind of defense force against the Overlook Hotel. Dick Halleran seems to be the first line, I'd suspect the only reason he works at the Hotel is because he knows something is wrong there and he wants to keep an eye out. The only thing that saves Danny and his mother from the fate of the girls is the fact that he is able to shine Halleran and bring him to the hotel. Halleran ended up dead, but it was his snowcat that allowed Danny to survive.

Ultimately, the picture at the end creates an interesting riddle, I presented my suggestion, but I'm sure there's others, and if people have them, please leave them on the comments below. Any film that causes the audience to do this much work is doing something right. That's the genius of Kubrick, his films leave you with so much to consider, it almost makes up for the huge gaps between projects.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Once Upon a Time in the West

Yesterday I watched Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. Last summer, I watched The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and I liked it, but felt it was a bit too long, not quite engaging enough to justify a two and a half hour running time. Still, a year later, I decided to check out the critically beloved Once Upon a Time in the West and I'm glad I did.

Lately, both online and out in the world, I've been having a lot of discussions about the direction of the film industry, particularly what's happening in blockbuster filmmaking. I'm seeing Batman Begins get a ton of love, when it's an incredibly flawed film. This article on Ninthart covers a lot of my feelings on the film, most notably here:

The direction was lacklustre and utterly bland, cutting to close-up during any fight and rendering it intelligible. The utterly pointless addition of Katie Holmes was far more intrusive than I had expected. The film sagged horribly in what should have been the most exciting part, the 'Becoming Batman' section. The dialogue was appallingly bad and in a year when George Lucas has been getting such bad press for his own dialogue, I'm shocked this film has been given a free pass. And Christian Bale's Batman was just trying too hard.

Anyway, I've probably said enough about Batman Begins, it's not the film's fault, it's the time it was born into. Nolan created a film that's one day going to be noted for just how "00s" the film is, in terms of pacing, action sequences and character roles. But, alas, the 00s is not the best time for action filmmaking, here in the States at least. I think people making films today could learn a lot by looking at what works in Once Upon a Time in the West.

Start this movie up and the first thing you'll notice is just how different the pacing is. The credits roll over people just standing around a train station, waiting for something to happen. The sequence is admittedly a bit long, but it does a good job of building your anticipation about what's to happen. The first real shock in this movie for me was seeing the family get killed. It's a really well done scene, culminating in one of the most incredible shots I've seen in any movie: Frank's men emerging from the bush as the young boy looks on. The music there is phenomenal, creating a really unique visual moment.

This film is all about the combination of the visual and music to create stunning moments. Ennio Morricone's score here is even better than his more iconic work on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The cutting guitars on Harmonica's theme and the female chorus over lush strings for Jill are the most notable cues, rearranged throughout the film to suit the scene.

In TGTB&TU, it was the music that kept me interested in the movie. Here, the visuals are so good that they match or eclipse Morricone's work. The best sequence in the film is the showdown between Harmonica and Frank at the end. Suspense is built up over a very long preamble in which they circle each other, have a flashback and just stare at each other before the single shot that decides the contest is fired. Leone's trademark extreme closeups work wonderfully here, Bronson and Fonda both look aged and worn down, believable warriors. In action sequences, it's usually the build up that's more important than the sequence itself, and that's certainly the case here. The actual action takes a couple of seconds, but the buildup is quite long, and it's the most enjoyable thing in the film. The combination of music and visual is perfect.

The plot here is less important, but it's still interesting. I liked Jill's story, and it was interesting to see such a strong female character in what's traditionally a male-dominated genre. The film is paced in a very strange way, you don't really become aware of the main story until about 45 minutes into the movie. This makes it a bit tough to follow the beginning, because you're sort of drifting. Even after seeing the rest of the movie, I'm a bit unclear on how the opening sequence tied into the rest of the plot. Events are sometimes a bit unnecessarily convoluted, and that can make it difficult to lose yourself in the filmmaking. Though, I think that's a problem that will be lessened on repeat viewings. Much like a Wong Kar-Wai film, on the first viewing, I got more of a feeling, an atmosphere, and on subsequent viewings I'll be able to pick up more of the plot.

One interesting thing in this film was seeing Jason Robards in his prime. The only thing I'd seen him in previously was Magnolia, he's looking a bit more spry here. Bronson's not the best actor, but his face is so good, he does what he needs to to fit the role.

So, what the film's ultimately about is the end of the archetypal gunslinger. Men like Harmonica and Frank have no place in the new world that Jill is building, that's why Frank must die and Harmonica has to leave at the end. They'll keep racing beyond the railroad, eventually running out of room to run, and that's when the archetypal west will be gone. The film's closing shot covers this, starting on Jill bringing water to the workers building her town, then panning over to the still untouched landscape, a landscape that will eventually also be civilized.

From a personal point of view, it was cool to see one of the works that influenced Stephen King's Dark Tower series. It gives you a better picture of the sort of guy he had in mind when he created Roland, a character who shares the values of a Harmonica or Cheyenne, especially in the early books.

On the whole, this was a fabulous film. It might have been a bit too long, but I was never bored despite the 165 minute running time. This film is one of the best marriages of visual to music that I've ever seen. I love the way that the film's style draws you deeper into the diegesis, rather than serving solely as its own attraction. You usually don't see a period film that's so bold with its stylistic innovation, but Leone pulls it off and creates a film that's still riveting to watch today.