Friday, August 26, 2011

A Nihilist Marxist Action Adventure Melodrama?

You have one truck moving south at 45 mph, following another truck moving 6 mph. How long before they meet each other and BLOW THE EFF UP? As if Algebra wasn't stressful enough! My favorite part of this genre pastiche were the scenes that amped up the tension involving the trucks and the nitro: loading the cargo, the driving scenes, blowing up the rock in the middle of the road. I knew stuff was going to 'splode, but I honestly didn't know when or how. So those moments were genuinely exciting for me. I also liked the way the tension of the situation exposed the true character of the four men--Luigi and Bimba come out pretty good, Mario and Jo, not so much.

The rest? It was odd. The first hour is a slow burn--establishing the desperation of the workers who take the quasi-suicidal mission in the midst of a sort of semi-offensive comedic portrayal of the South American villagers and expats. I would have appreciated all this scene setting a lot more if the socioeconomic critique was carried out. But then (spoiler alert), when the nitro hits the fan, the philosophy seems less Marxist than nihilist. We never really know what happened to the truck, and Jo's (spoiler alert again) last words coupled with Mario's fate seem to suggest that everything is ultimately meaningless. Nice and French, but it didn't seem to go with the rest of the movie.

I also wasn't a huge fan of the ending. It seemed tonally weird and a little too pat. I was *certain* Mario was going to hit the stray canister of nitro they left by the road, which would have been sort of "Final Destination" fun. But the pathos I think the last image was supposed to evoke left me hollow.

So, I'm glad I saw it, because it is quite famous, and the way the drive is filmed is pretty genius. But it didn't quite live up to my expectations. What sayeth the book? And how did you like Linda the Bimbo, Nat? Is she the one related to the director? That wouldn't surprise me.

Super Mario Kart

My favorite line of the whole film: "Mario says, 'Screw you.'" (Too bad Mario then totally undermined the line with his immediate and later actions.) Whenever I've played any sort of Mario video game, I'm pretty sure the thing is just repeating, "Mario says, 'Screw you'" the whole time. I'm not talented at video games.

Anyway, this film. I was nervous to watch this one because of the comment from Tracy's dad about testing blood pressure medicine and, well, it's French and I don't have a good track record of liking French films in this little project.

And this one isn't adding anything to the plus column really. Maybe because it's because I have normally exceptionally low blood pressure or maybe my heart is filled with cement or maybe it's just because I caught a glimpse at the film's running time, but I was pretty sure that nitro wasn't going to blow before around the two hour mark. And, lo and behold, Bimba's rock-moving home-made bomb exploded at 1 hour and 56 minutes and is the first explosion. Because of that, the whole process of loading the trucks, the constant smoking near explosives, Jo's jumping out of a moving truck to vomit, the whole "washboard" experience, and the strange turn-around on rotten wood situation didn't stress me at all. I'm a pro at being tense--just ask my back--but I honestly felt none during the movie until the let's-drive-recklessly-down-a-mountain and flash to dancing scenes at the end of the film But, I was also pretty sure of the result of that scene--I just don't like windy roads.

For quite a few of the "stressful" moments in the film, I was just thinking, "What the fuck?" Why, for example, does Jo need to walk in front of the truck through the oil? It's clearly stated several times that if they stop, they'll never get out and he's already walked through to clear the way of obstacles. And, simple common sense says not to walk in front of a truck carrying more than enough nitro to blow your two friends and their truck to smithereens--and especially not when it's being driven through waist-deep (flammable!) oil. Seriously. That's Wile. E. Coyote logic.

Other than that, the character development is a plus. The film definitely takes the time to create these men and gives them situations in which their true characters are built and divulged at key moments. The demise of the various characters is a problem (in the complete lack of explanation) but the larger problem is that we're only seeing the development of the four ex-pats. Anyone close to native to this part of the world is strikingly problematically represented from Linda the booty shaker to the saloon owner whose name escapes me to the revolutionary woman to the various extras along the way. If we're going to watch a film about the desperation of men and the poverty of a country caused by the oil-greed of Americans, we need more than caricatures of everyone but the four main guys.

What we also need to see? The result of the freaking nitro being carted to the middle of nowhere. I've watched this nitro being hauled for the better part of two hours, I want to see the explosion. Damn. It.

And the book says what?: Apparently, I'm made of steel. "A withering depiction of greed and the corrupting influence of capitalism disguised as an adventure film,  . . . Wages of Fear justifiably stands as possibly the most tension-filled movie ever made." Really?! Tracy, is this the most tension-filled movie you've seen?

Further, "set in a slum of a South American crossroads where wanderers and vagabonds end up after they have nowhere else to go, and where we learn that the rogues willing to risk their lives for money are in many ways almost not worth knowing. Their suicidal actions are driven by selfishness and desperation, traits to be exploited by the opportunistic corporation that cynically holds out the carrot on the stick for these de facto mules." Ok, so it's a problem to call a person a mule, "de facto" or no. I also think that Luigi, and probably Bimba, are worth knowing. The guy who kicks the dog? No. The other nameless ex-pats? No. The saloon owner? No. Mario? No. And, Jo? Certainly not. But Luigi and Bimba seem to have honestly good qualities about them and we have to remember that Luigi is trying to leave because his job will kill him. He otherwise did not complain except about Jo--and I started complaining about Jo before Luigi did.

The book continues: "Indeed, full of distrust and dislike, the motley crew of mercenaries act[s] with a primal, feral quality, posing as much of a threat to one another as the truckloads of explosives do to them all. It's a lose-lose situation, as the finish line promises financial reward at the cost of spiritual ruin." This I disagree with. It's important to note that Luigi and Bimba ARE likable AND work together to solve problems AND actually work to carry out the task assigned them without bickering or being too chicken to be effective. Only two of the motley crew of four act as described above. Further, the "spiritual ruin" comment is a bit of a stretch. We have no indication that Luigi or Bimba are being ruined in any way other than bodily. And Mario and Jo were obviously already spiritually ruined long before we meet them in this film.

So, yeah. Happy to have seen it before I die? Sure, why not. But not for the reasons the book lists. Probably just because it's kind of super famous and influential.

Random question: Do boys have to pee on everything? Girls would never think to pee on the blown up rock.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Le Salaire de la Peur [The Wages of Fear] (1953)

So if my father's enthusiasm for this film is any indication, "The Wages of Fear" should give us a fun time. And by "fun time," I mean "hours of stomach-churning anxiety." The plot traces a group of workers so down on their luck that they agree to transport truckloads full of highly explosive nitroglycerine across perilous mountain paths in order to extinguish an oil well. Guess where the oil well is? South America. Guess the nationality of the impoverished volunteers? A hodgepodge of Europeans. And guess who owns the oil well? That's right . . . Team America! Mayhaps there be an economic critique in them there perilous mountain paths? Either way, it promises to be an entertaining one: according to Dad, the movie was shown to patients in blood pressure medication trials in order to simulate a high stress environment. Yeesh. Well, here's hoping this Palme d'Or winner can redeem France after "La Captive"!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Favorite Intolerant Idiot?

I saw Borat in theaters with my partner in crime in South Carolina as USC grad students when it was first released. We had an additional connection in that our good friend had just adopted a tiny blonde girl from Kazakhstan. I'm pretty sure we both also had (and still do) a major crush on Sacha Baron Cohen.

Surprisingly, Borat holds up to a second viewing. I was worried that the "oh my god did he just say that" and the "gotcha" aspects would be diluted. But, no. I found myself laughing and then immediately cringing and hiding my face behind my hands because really? Someone said that? ON CAMERA?

The DVD, of course, offers extras in the form of deleted scenes. Most are only ok and it's pretty obvious why they were "censored by the Kazakh government" but this one grocery store scene killed me (the audio is SUPER quiet so turn up all volume controls and still listen closely):

This video is cut a tad short--Borat goes through the butter and starts in on the milk before the DVD extra is stopped. I love the patience of the grocery store guy (apparently in South Carolina) but I also love just being able to see SBC trying his damnedest to rattle this guy.

Anyway, see it before you die? Definitely. It's hilarious and a terribly honest look in some cases at the attitudes of Americans. While we have the horribly intolerant we also have the sweet grocery store guy and the wonderful kids in Atlanta who are more than happy to share their culture with some random dude who walks up in the dark. Unfortunately, if you get the idea that maybe we shouldn't be intolerant of other countries (or have absurd ideas about other countries' cultures) because we, too, have our bizarro intolerant idiots, you're probably already way ahead of a black prostitute being the call-the-sheriff last straw.

What says the book? More or less the same thing (I did actually read the entry after typing the above, pinky swear): "Watching our bumpkin wander into the wide world and discover he's a rube and philosopher, the brunt of his adventures actually falls on his interview subjects who presume their superiority, thereby exposing themselves as hate-mongers and fools."

Commence Moviefilm!

I remember laughing my ass off at "Borat" in the theatres. Haven't seen it since, and whereas part of the funniness, I think, was being surprised at what was coming, watching it again was delightful just to see Sacha Baron Cohen's barely masked delight when the people he encounters actually out-stupid Borat. By a lot. Some particular highlights in racism and homophobia include the old dude at the rodeo in Virginia, and, sadly, the fine young University of South Carolina students. It takes a lot of blithe dumbness to make Borat look like your straight man. However, some people can end up looking pretty good. I'm thinking of the driving instructor, and the kids in Atlanta. I also love the 1000% commitment of the film to creating this character, down to the menu options on the DVD.

In terms of watching this before you die, I'd say yes, if only because trapping people in "gotcha" moments on film, whether for good (the infamous "macaca" moment, the guy who posed as a billionaire donor to get Scott Walker on the phone) or ill (the collected works of James O'Keefe) have become part of what's expected in political and pop cultural discourse. I'm not sure it's a totally rigorous commentary/critique on American mores, just because the situations, whether partially scripted or not (and I think some of them had to be), and story are so highly choreographed, if not outright contrived. That's not a bad thing, just makes it more a sociological study of humor rather than American culture, I think. Of course, we all know sociology isn't my strong suit!

I would like to conclude this post with an open proposal to Sacha Baron Cohen. Of marriage. Any time, any place, SBC.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Proust? Really?

So, most effed up couple we've encountered so far? I mean, even George and Martha from "Virginia Woolf" at least had a method to their madness. Simon and Ariene are like I imagine T.S. and Vivienne Eliot were like, except I bet they weren't nearly as boring in their mutually destructive dysfunction.

I know foreign films are paced differently, but am I wrong in thinking this one was just painfully (and needlessly) slow? I also had just about enough of Simon's one expression of anxiety and nausea. His performance must have been the inspiration for Natalie Portman's perpetual mask in "Black Swan." I was *screaming* (literally, out loud) at them to break up already all the way to the aunt's house, and moaned NOOOOO when they decided to stay together. I mean, Ariene's possible lesbianism is really the least of their problems. Her passivity, narcissism and compulsive (bad) lying paired with his little sleeping beauty fetish give them quite enough to get on with.

Anything positive? The visuals were pretty. Other than that, it was a dud for me. What does the book say? I have a feeling all that "au contraire" was supposed to be meaningful, but I was just too bored to care. One vote for Borat.

I wanted them to drive off that cliff.

Seriously? I needed to watch this before I died? (at least according to the older version of 1001) The only check mark I'm putting in the "pro" column here is that I never have to watch it again. Ever.

In the "con" column: I don't know exactly how to express my dissatisfaction with this film. I was really, sincerely hoping that Simon would kill Ariane at some point, that Ariane would run off and leave Simon (or kill him), that Simon would jump out the window, that they'd drive off the cliff on the way from the aunt's house while kissing . . . That something, ANYTHING, would happen. Her drowning is not satisfying. Ariane taking Simon down with her was the only solution I'd be happy with. And I was really only going to be happy if that happened within 10 minutes of the movie starting so I could watch a real film.

What either person was getting out of the relationship, I don't know. What I was supposed to get out of viewing their relationship, I don't know. Why it was in the book, I don't know (I don't have that copy in LA with me).

I'm going to assume that it being French and a looser than loose adaptation of Proust are the reasons.

I do know that I'm not posing any argument for it having been removed from the list.

Monday, August 8, 2011

La Captive (2000) and Borat (2006)

Well this is going to be an interesting double-header. To remind you of the rules of the game, we've rolled a film that got bumped (La Captive), so we're also watching one that is a new addition to the latest edition of 1001 (Borat). Apparently, the almighty editors weren't so much feeling a loose adaptation of the fifth volume of Proust's "In Search of Lost Time," detailing a a wealthy man's imprisonment of his lady friend because he suspects she is leading, ahem, a lesbian double life. No accounting for taste. No, they were more into a very attractive and intelligent British man making himself look like a very ridiculous and ignorant Kazakh in order to expose the prejudices and foibles of Americans (some University of South Carolina students make a memorable appearance. Go Cocks!). Haven't seen Borat since the theatre, but I for one am looking forward to the encounter with the garage sale gypsy!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Gian Hu is hard, but love is harder

This morning, I read an (old) NYT article that discussed whether Michael Bay flicks, notably Transformers 3, could be appreciated on some level for their aesthetic style. I am insulted on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's behalf. The one thing I remembered about this movie, which I haven't seen since it was in theatres, and one of the reasons I bought it, was that it was gorgeous. And it is. The fight scenes, the desert, the bamboo grove, my god, the bamboo grove! To me, its one of the most elegant and delicately beautiful films I've ever seen. Now, I haven't seen a lot of kung-fu flicks, so maybe they're all stunning. But this one is my particular poison.

Over and above how much I respond to the look of the movie, I really dig the ideas, too. I think you could work up a pretty interesting feminist reading of this movie. You've got Jen chasing and trying to wield the big old phallus (played here by the Green Destiny sword) only to learn that what really matters in combat, and in life, is experience and maturity. Also, as any graduate student writing a dissertation can tell you, there's no worse mistake than picking the wrong mentor. (However, even Jade's villainy stems from patriarchy. To paraphrase Chris Rock talking about OJ Simpson, I'm not saying she should have done it, but I understand.) In some ways (except for the end, which I'll talk about in a second) this reminds me of a superhero origin story--we watch Jen grow up, come into herself as a woman, and learn to manage her remarkable gifts.

I'm also a sucker for a good why-god-why love story, and this film has two of them! I really like the idea that these brave, kick-ass warriors are all crap at love and talking about their feelings. Along those lines, how do you read the leap at the end, Nat? Has Jen finally learned to be selfless and is giving her wish/life so Shu Lien and Mu Bai can be together? Or is she such a Giang Hu rock star that the fall won't even kill her?

Kung Fu is for Girls, too

I watched this one when it was first released and swiftly bought the DVD. Combining households with J 3+ years ago means we now own two copies. I think we're both ok with that.

I've seen a few kung-fu movies (as well as the delightful Kung-fu Hustle) and hang around an aikido dojo regularly but I wouldn't say I know what I'm talking about at all in terms of the actual martial credibility of the film. I do know that there is a certain martial group that believes in this ability to "fly" and I know the fighting doesn't look fake. It looks like they're really going to whack each other's heads off with swords. Plus, what may matter more, the emotion behind the fighting looks real. Martial ability was not sacrificed to use "actors" and acting was not sacrificed by using martial artists.

Beyond the film looking real it also looks amazingly unreal. The colors and landscapes of the film are gorgeous! As are the costumes.

Besides all of that, I'm not sure what to say about the film. It's lovely, it's heartbreaking, it's funny, it's sweet, it's romantic, it's tense, it's harsh, it's sexy, it's AMAZINGLY positive for women . . . It's just a damned good movie. Ang Lee is basically a genius. And, really, any time you want to give Chow Yun Fat or Michelle Yeow a sword, I'm there.

So, what says the book? Basically the same things I said above. Glad we're finally on the same page.