Monday, April 20, 2009

Movie Rundown - April 13 to April 19

The Cutting Edge: Magic of Movie Editing (*****)
Film editing is one of those hidden arts of making movies. It's rarely obvious, it's rarely noticed by the average movie-goer, but it is one of the most essential aspects of the art. It's right up there with the writer and the director. An understanding of editing is essential to appreciating movies as art.

Good thing there are things like this documentary to point out examples of editing achievements and techniques, of a brief history of editing from the first person to splice film together to the MTV generation of quick cuts and the ability to edit within the frame.

This is one of those documentaries that needs to be seen, an examination of the film medium in total, an elaboration on one of the most under appreciated aspects of movie-making, bringing it out and exposing it in way that I guarantee will provide nearly everyone with a great appreciation of the task after having watched it.

Breathless (****)
One of the major films of the La Nouvelle Vague, Breathless is the film of a thief and his love interest as he tries to lay low after the unintentional murder of a man during an escape.

This is a hard film to talk about, if only because like many of the most influential of films from the era, what it did best has been so mined and replicated that it can kind of feel like old hat. But Breathless sets itself apart by keeping the characters and acting interesting, with a story that carries on to an inevitable end but invests you in the characters who try their hardest to avoid it.

The real key here is in the film making techniques. Goddard was big into jump cuts, disregarding the traditional editing of film to provide a more kinetic experience. It's almost jarring at first, with the film skipping like a record with a scratch, but the energy on the screen is absolute. By cutting out the unimportant things, or choosing when to show them, the empty spaces are given a weight and impact that most films lack. I can't help but recommend this one for just being that amazingly put together.

Milo and Otis (***)
I saw this on the urging of my friend Adam, who said that he had fond memories of it. It's the story of a cat and a dog who grow up on a farm together and end up getting lost in the wilderness on an adventure. Standard animal fair along the lines of Homeward Bound or similar?

Not really. See, Milo and Otis was actually a Japanese movie that was appropriated for American audiences, given a comforting narrator and turned into a comfortable story. But like the most classic fairytales, there's something in the storytelling that makes me feel as if there's far more here. The animals are described in adorable ways, but they act like animals, with the instincts of hunters and scavengers and fighters. There is a kind of hard undercurrent, dark and bleak, that keeps the storytelling interesting.

I don't know if it's just me, but it feels like there are two stories here, a very adult, mature story about the stages of life and the isolation of men over time, even in the state of nature, and the cozy bedtime story of farm animals looking for home. And it's that dichotomy that makes it worth watching, the hidden depth that provides entertainment across the age groups.

Yeah, for an animal movie, it's pretty good.

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (****) [rewatch]
It's getting to the point where the car movie reviews are coming to be old hat. So let me just break this down really fast. The third entry in the franchise of things that are both Fast and Furious to varying degrees is a fun movie. It's got a silly but servicable plot, some pretty solid acting, and absolutely amazing car work. It also it completely fetishistic about how awesome Japan is, from the crazy styles to the crazy food to the insanity that is Japanese culture.

If you haven't seen any of the movies before, this one is essentially a stand-alone film, so you wouldn't be missing anything by just skipping to this one. It's got some cute eye candy of both genders, some great music, and brilliant car work (almost all of which was done practically, see my complaints about the original Fast and Furious below).

Also, Sonny Chiba.

Sonny Chiba is the motherfucking MAN.

Bullitt (**)
This is ... troubling. Bullitt is the first of the 'rogue cop who doesn't play by the rules' movies. Or at least, the first big one. Dirty Harry, Die Hard, whatever you want. That archetype made it here. The problem is, as the first of a subgenre, it feels really mellow and tame compared to the rest. So the film itself seems long and boring and convoluted.

That said, there's a classic car chase through the streets of San Francisco in here that's FANTASTIC. The problem? It's 10 minutes long, and the movie goes on for another 45 minutes after that.

This one's just aged really badly, I think. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who wasn't looking at it for a particular film reason. Like I said, it's noteworthy, but ... not my thing.

State of Play (****)
I wasn't really that excited for this movie going in, which might have been a blessing or not, because I ended up really surprised. You see, I wasn't committed to seeing anything this week, but knew I should, and this was showing before Observe and Report so it got the vote.

This tale of reporters after a conspiracy is a strange beast in this day and age. The BBC miniseries version from a few years ago probably was a little more relevant, I'm not sure, but this is a movie that exists in the last days of the newspaper business. And it's aware of that, with a newspaper that's a small arm of a giant media company and the tension of a Journalist with a capital J and a member of the paper's younger blogging branch teaming up.

It's an odd combination, but it really does work quite well. It feels kind of strange, though, watching the paradigm shift. The world isn't going to be the same, and while Journalism will eventually find its proper home after the sinking of the newspapers, right now we're entering a time when this kind of story would be nigh-impossible to actually come about. The idea of a newspaper having the resources to dig into a conspiracy? Well, that's hard to do if the newspaper is owned by corporate business interests. Impossible if there's no funding for that kind of in-depth research. Ridiculous if there's no power to protect sources and go where one shouldn't in pursuit of the story.

It's a digression, but that the movie left me with those feelings is only to its credit. To turn back to it, it's a tightly plotted political thriller with a great cast. I'm never a Russell Crowe fan, but I have to admit that he always is a credit to any movie he's in. And Mr. Affleck is the perfect actor to portray a Senator. It's impossible to tell with him what's real and what's artifice, and the role suits him.

It's a great movie. I'd recommend it for anyone with even the slightest interest in the subject matter or genre.

The Fast and the Furious (***)
So I picked this up at Walmart for the hell of it on Friday night after seeing State of Play, and rewatching it is kind of a frustrating experience. See, this is one of those movies that is going to go down as the kick off of a franchise that's become pretty good in the past two movies. But this one isn't so great. In fact, it's sometimes infuriating.



See, the whole point of any decent car movie is to see these powerful, behemoth vehicles doing things that a normal person could not make them do. It's pushing the limit on what can be done with something that is normally so ordinary. The drivers are exceptional, the equipment is top notch, the magic the two make is thrilling.

Unfortunately, in one of the first noteworthy scenes of the movie, the majority of the race is done in CGI. Which exhibits a lack of faith in the subject matter that I find disturbing. A director who can't trust the cars to sell themselves is a director who hasn't committed to the idea of making a car movie.

That said, it's a solid enough film, and the second half is much better about this than the first half, with some solid races and an absolutely killer final crash that's all in camera and breathtaking for it.

This one is eventually going to go down as a guy movie classic, I think, so going back to it is to acknowledge its influence. Unfortunately, Tokyo Drift and Fast & Furious are much better films, but will likely suffer for not coming first.

The Darjeeling Limited (***)
This one's confusing. Because I really adored the first half of this movie, only to really lose my patience with it in the final 30 minutes or so. You see, this is a quirky movie about some idiosyncratic brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrian Brody, and Jason Schwartzmann) who take a train ride across India for reasons that aren't originally clear. It's a movie about dysfunction, about the relationships between family, about growing up and growing together. It's a nice film.

It just makes its point too damn early. There's a moment towards the hour point of the film where all three brothers are sitting around a campfire bonding. And everything that comes after that is simply a retread of that moment. I don't know, call me crazy, but I felt that the pacing on this one was all knocked out of alignment near the end.

That said, I did enjoy it. It's got a great style, and is shot well, and the three leads are genuinely funny. I just ... didn't enjoy it as much on the exit as I did during the watching.

10 Questions for the Dalai Lama (****)
Despite being more than moderately curious about Buddhism, the history of Tibet and the Dalai Lama has never really been a big subject for me. I knew about it, of course, but not in such detail as this documentary provides. Shot by a man who spent the month before a 10 question interview with the leader of Tibet-in-Exile travelling through the land and taking in the religion and traditions of the people, this is an intimate and compassionate look at the displacement of Tibet and the history of the region, including the Chinese invasion.

It all culminates as the director sits down and talks with the Dalai Lama about the nature of happiness, cultural change in the face of globalization, the problem with China on the international scene, and other things. What's remarkable about this movie is the Dalai Lama himself. Here is a spiritual leader who embraces what is new and different, a man who's devoted to learning and understanding not just his faith, but things all over the world. As you watch this man dressed in monks robes fiddling with electronics, or talking about quantum theory, you can't help but be amazed that in a world where all too often religion goes hand in hand with closed-minded zealotry, here is a man who can embrace his faith and the works of humanity all in a single grasp. A man who believes in peace as a road to solve all problems. A man who laughs even when faced with a bleak, unwinnable position, because he refuses to be a victim and refuses to resort to emotional vengeance and self-destruction.

It's inspiring, just to watch him. This is one of the few times I've ever been moved by the statements and arguments of the leader of any faith. And I think that it is worth experiencing, whether you would agree with him or not.

Dark City (*****)
Talk about going out on a high note. This movie was a recommendation from a random person on twitter, and I added it mostly on a whim. Little did I know what I was walking into.

Dark City is a neo-noir about a world where nothing is as it seems. Memories are faulty. The hero wakes up remembering nothing with a dead hooker in his room. There are men in black coats after him. There is a wife he doesn't remember, played by the enchanting Jennifer Connelly, playing a jazz singer who steals the show whenever she stands in front of the microphone in one of her vintage, solid-color dresses, the bright spot of an otherwise mundane world.

This is a movie about mystery. A movie about identity. It did what The Matrix tried to do better a year earlier, with more regard for having substance. It's empowering, it's mysterious, it's unknowable and yet familiar. I can't heap enough accolades upon it.

Go see it. Seriously. The director's cut can be picked up for cheap at Walmart, or you can netflix it, or whatever. But it's a brilliant film that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to EVERYONE. I don't even want to talk about it, for fear of spoiling things. Just ... go see. You won't be disappointed.


And there we go! Next week is already pretty planned out, though I wouldn't be surprised if something out of the norm shows up in there, too. So far on the agenda we have the following movies coming from netflix:

City of Lost Children
2 Fast 2 Furious

And on Friday I'm planning on seeing Earth, Disney's new nature documentary that looks gorgeous. I'm not even into nature docs, but it's utter eye candy and digital theaters mean that I'm willing to see things just to look at them and drool for a while.

Until next week, enjoy! Time to get working on the script!

(p.s. Lovely readers, I'm planning on getting the script up on the blog once Script Frenzy is over for anyone to read. Look for that in early May some time, I'll have to figure out how to host it and all that first.)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Travel Urge in the Dead of Night

It's late. 2:37 to be exact, though I think it feels closer to midnight. That's because I slept way longer than I had any reasonable excuse to sleep today. Six hours. And that's after the six hours of proper sleep I got between Friday and Saturday.

I didn't mean to, but my saturdays trend towards a lot of sleep. I don't know why. Perhaps because I'm so chronically sleep deprived during the week. I know the rule is that you can't 'catch up' on sleep, but your body does accrue sleep debt. And I somehow doubt that my body would accept a deferred payment plan or a government bailout for my sleeping schedule.

I have the urge to climb into the car and take off for parts unknown. I get these urges from time to time. Especially now that the weather is reasonable. I've had my window open all day and outside of the rise in noise level, one couldn't tell. Which means that winter is officially dead and gone, at least for another handful of months when it comes around again, an uninvited guest that always comes at the wrong time and stays too long.

I won't go anywhere, not the least reason being I have nowhere to go. Where do you go at 2:40 AM when there's nowhere open and no destination in mind? When you're by yourself, nowhere. You just look out the window at the street lights lining an empty road and your mind dreams up warm meadows of grass moving in shadow where you could be if you weren't here listening to music in the same room that you live in even when the weather is terrible.

You know, somewhere away from the cityglow, where you could maybe see some stars. It's bad enough around here that I couldn't tell you if the night were truly clear or not. Too many lights. Maybe I would go out several miles from town and there would be nothing. No stars, no moon, just the heavy ceiling of the air keeping me from the heavens. That kind of darkness would be absolute. I'm pretty sure I've scared myself off of traveling.

The most substantial roadtrip I ever took was with my family one year to South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore. I suppose that 'family' isn't entirely accurate. I went with my great aunt and my mother and brother. My father was never big on family vacations. His opinion was that he had spent his life travelling the world and had settled where he was, and he didn't see any point wasting a lot of energy going back out again.

I didn't see much effort in going out simply because I wasn't interested. I brought along a book. It was Stephen King's The Stand which I checked out of the library even though I was only a tyke and the book was clearly labelled adult. I'm pretty sure that the librarian was grateful that there was a child interested in reading more than she was in what was 'proper'. This was before the Harry Potters and Twilights of the world. Childhood literacy was a bigger concern. I imagine it still is, but nobody's paying as much attention.

I remember the van eating up miles as I lay stretched across the back seat (even then I was nearly too tall for that, the idea of doing it now seems laughable) delving into worlds beyond anything I had ever imagined before. Looking back, locked in a car with my family was probably what made that book so magical to me, reading about people moving across the topography of our country even as I was doing so. But now, with the urge to travel nipping at my mind I wonder if I missed my enjoyment in the activity.

Probably not. I was always a terrible passenger.

I didn't appreciate travel until I started driving. My brother goes to high school for another month in Gretna, a small nigh-rural town on the outskirts of Omaha. To get there, you can take the interstate most of the way but it eventually exits onto a two lane state highway that cuts through fields where horses are penned and corn grows and other fields that simply grow wild grass because nobody farms them. I used to, for a very short time, live in this small town. I have no fondness for it, but that's how it was.

But driving from that little place into the city where everything I cared about was became an experience. Cars have taken on, over time, a transformative quality for me. They are more than simple tools for transportation, but are the conduits of our urging for freedom and change. They turn will into action with little more than the hinge of our foot and the turn of our hands. We don't even have to get up and we can fly across any land we dare traverse. Is this not marvelous?

These were the times when I was a creature of darkness. Not so melodramatic as that, perhaps, but I was often out until all hours of the morning. And I became quite adept at night driving, watching my car eat the miles between one place and another, the road unspooling out of the narrow field of view of the headlights. This is out where there were no lights, where there could be anything out in the road that you couldn't see. Where the darkness felt a little more real and your movement through it a little more important, an island of technology driving through a sea of wilderness.

But the driving bug isn't the travelling bug. See, there are two different ways to experience travel. Travel by yourself is about the satisfaction of an act done mindfully. You exist, you have a goal, you make it happen through your action. Driving requires a certain minimum of engagement that keeps you aware of what you're doing. The Buddhist way prescribes being aware of the present moment as the highest form of meditation. To drive in an engaged way is to meditate in motion.

But a trip. A trip is a more ephemeral thing. A trip is about a companion and the experience. What you're doing is irrelevant. The driving part is only because it's the easiest to take. A trip is about being with someone and going on this shared experience away from both people's comfort zones. It's about the connection that forms when you GO with someone.

It doesn't matter if it's a friend, really. It helps, certainly, but so long as the person isn't insufferable a sense of bond will form between the people on a trip. It can't help but do so. Because deep down, people on trips all know that the trip itself is a unifying ritual. People go, people experience in tandem, and what comes up between the people on a trip is a result of the bond that forms due to shared experience.

One time I was travelling into the woods to go camping with some friends. We were young and it was late and my friend's father was driving. It was another night when the darkness was absolute. The beat up old truck was tearing through the night and on the radio came Little Red Riding Hood by Sam the Sham and the Pharaos. And we all sang along and it has a togetherness and bonding that still carries with me to this day. When I hear that song, I feel the night and the summer wind and the darkness and the vibrations of a battered old vehicle on a forgotten road.

I remember the time I was on a church trip (back when I did such things) and the annoying, hyperactive brat of a kid one night decided to pick on me, the quiet studious one. We were at a lake in Iowa. The night ended with me throwing him into the water. People cheered. I remember sitting on the sandy beach and feeling everyone's satisfaction that the act was done and their shame that it wasn't them doing it. I had just reacted without thinking. I remember being concerned about the mosquitos. But I also remember that he didn't bother anyone quite so aggressively again.

I remember walking through a closed open air mall in Tucson just last year with a dear friend of mine. The air was drier than it is here, so it felt cooler. The mall at night, with the lights dimmed, felt like a graveyard. We stood at a balcony that overlooked the city, on an elevation that had the rest of Tucson spread out in front of us. And serendipity, that magical force that turns the ordinary into the miraculous, summoned a fireworks show in honor of something (we still don't know) over the dim city lights. I remember standing with my arm around her and watching the fireworks and feeling a transient feeling of contentment. One of those moments where the universe brings all things together.

I remember walking through downtown Lincoln with my roommate at the time, the dead of morning when we made our way through the historical district. We were talking about the supernatural on a day devoid of life. We were feeling the power that moves through buildings and the tingling feeling that comes when you feel like a place is haunted, whether you believe it or not. We both looked on a building that I, to this day, would not go near in the darkness and would hesitate to enter on a busy day. And not just because of some of the stories I've heard about it.

These are journeys. Going. Doing. Sharing. Existing in a space with another person, bouncing off of one another. Energy is the vibration of atoms, brushing up against one another. People act the same way. The force of our bonds, the lives that we share, are enriched by our own vibrations, the energy that's released when we come into contact, even if we repel each other.

Often especially when we repel each other.

Long roads. Some day I'm going to make my trip, but I lack a destination or a companion. I don't need both, but I need one of them. Until then, I'm going to look and dream and wonder at the roads. The possibilities. What will the sky be like when I finally go? Will there be someone sitting next to me to take it all in, to share in the experience? Or will it be me and the world as the unknowable machine driving it all, the window open and the music up?