Sunday, November 28, 2004

Weekend viewing

Long weekend=lots of time to watch movies. What, you expected I might do something productive?

Blade (Stephen Norrington, 1998)
Blade II (Guillermo del Toro, 2002)

Actually, this counts as being productive, since this is really just prep work for reviewing the new Blade movie next week. I was kind of underwhelmed by the first Blade when I originally saw it a few years ago, since it had been hailed as the savior of Marvel comic book movies, before the X-Men and Spider-Man films came along. It didn't seem that revelatory to me then, although I guess when your alternatives are Dolph Lundgren as the Punisher and David Hasselhoff as Nick Fury, this comes off pretty well. Seeing it for the second time with lowered expectations, I found it enjoyable enough on a dumb action level. Wesley Snipes is ridiculously gruff and monosyllabic as Blade, about at the acting level of Dolph Lundgren, but the movie is stylish and the action is cool and at least the story makes some sense. Norrington went on to make one of the worst recent comic book movies, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, afterwards, so maybe more credit should go to writer David S. Goyer, who wrote all three Blade films and is the director on the third one. Del Toro's film was praised by certain critics, including infamously by Harry Knowles, for its sexual and political subtext, but I think that's reaching a little. It's better than the first movie because del Toro has a better sense of style, and he does play a little with Cronenbergian sexual imagery in the design of the Reapers, but really it's still a hack-and-slash action/horror movie. Snipes is even more inert, and his love interest is less compelling. Del Toro did a better job adapting a comic book in Hellboy, although you have to give him credit for taking Blade, a one-note character, and finding a few new beats to play with.

Control Room (Jehane Noujaim, 2004)
I've had this sitting next to my TV for months now, and I never got around to watching it. Since awards season is approaching, I wanted to give it consideration for the documentary category. Which, I can say after having watched, it certainly deserves, as its look at Al-Jazeera in the early days of the Iraq war is more nuanced and insightful than most of the left-wing docs released this year. Noujaim seems to take a position against the war, but that doesn't stop her from airing both sides of the argument, with extensive coverage of anti-war Al-Jazeera employees as well as media relations officials from the U.S. Army. The smartest thing Noujaim does is find two central characters who don't fall neatly into either camp. One is an Al-Jazeera producer who spent years working in Britain for the BBC, has a British wife living in Israel, and expresses his supreme faith in the U.S. Constitution. He also finds the Iraq invasion monumentally stupid, but spends as much time chastising Arabs for blaming all their woes on the West. The other is an Army PR officer who starts out spouting typical U.S. propaganda, but comes to a more balanced understanding of the way that both Al-Jazeera and Fox News spin the news from their own perspectives, and even has a near-epiphany about the way that the dead from each side are portrayed on the news. This is a film, I think, that both right- and left-wingers could appreciate for the way it shows bias in all media, not just our own, and exposes the impossibilities of reporting objectively on something as huge as war.

Fat Girl (Catherine Breillat, 2001)
This was my first exposure to Breillat's work, which is known for being sexually explicit and confrontational, with distinct anti-male undertones. All of that is present here in the story of a 12-year-old girl who witnesses the seduction of her 15-year-old sister by a sleazy older man while they're on vacation. The infamous central scene, which Breillat re-creates and deconstructs in her new movie Sex is Comedy, is indeed a tour de force and a torture to watch. Breillat barely moves the camera for something like 15 minutes, focusing her unblinking eye on 15-year-old Elena and her older suitor in bed as he painstakingly breaks down her barriers and ultimately gets her to allow him to deflower her in a most degrading manner. The rest of the film is an exploration of toxic sexual politics, viewed through the jaundiced eye of the title character. She, and the film, are cynical to a fault, and could be seen as simplistic, although I prefer to view it as presenting an extreme in order to make a point. At first the ending really bugged me, but after thinking a bit and doing some reading online, I've come to see that it has a certain poetic justice to it. Still, it bothers me that so many self-consciously arty films end this way, with a sudden, inexplicable tragedy that often strikes me as unearned. Two movies I can think of that I saw recently that ended like this were Lisa Cholodenko's High Art and Michael Cuesta's L.I.E., both of which I thought were good movies marred by their cheap endings. In this case I'm more ambivalent about it, but it's still a trend that bothers me, especially in American indie film.

Ocean's Eleven (Steven Soderbergh, 2001)
More prep work, this for reviewing Ocean's Twelve in a week or two. I'd seen this before when it was first released, and came away feeling a little disappointed, since Soderbergh was on such a role of distinctive, thought-provoking pictures, and this one was, well, fluff. This time, not expecting anything more than fluff, I had a great time, and I think that you don't get much better fluff than this. Soderbergh still drenches the movie in style, even if he pulls back a bit from the mannerisms of his other films, and the cast is perfect, and obviously having the time of their lives. There's actually quite a bit of substance to the relationship between the George Clooney and Brad Pitt characters, and some really smart dialogue. The screenwriter, Ted Griffin, also co-wrote Matchstick Men, another smart heist flick with snappy dialogue, and I'm disappointed to see he didn't work on the sequel. Still, this was a fun movie and I have high hopes that Soderbergh & co. can pull it off again.

Thief (Michael Mann, 1981)
Mann's first feature, starring James Caan as a thief trying to get out of the biz. You can see a lot of the themes and elements that later ended up in Heat, which is a superior film, but this one still stands well on its own. Caan's character has much in common with the De Niro character in Heat, with his conflicted sides as a career criminal and a husband and father (although De Niro was just beginning to pursue a romantic relationship), and the way he cautiously invites a woman into his life only to push her away when things get rough. Caan is excellent in the role, selling all the aspects of his character's personality, making him likable even as he's violent, misogynistic and racist. Like Manhunter and, I'd imagine, all of Mann's '80s work, this has a horrendously dated synthesizer score, but otherwise it's an excellent early example of the work of one of our best and most under-appreciated directors, someone who understands the inner lives of macho, egotistical men better than almost any other filmmaker.

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