Monday, May 21, 2007

Maybe it’s the weather, maybe it’s something else (i.e. Lost), but not only have I not been motivated to do any writing, I haven’t really been watching many movies to begin with. The sunshine and warm temperatures have been beckoning, their hold stronger than my living room couch, but nonetheless, here’s a recap of April 22-May 12, 2007.

MASH, Robert Altman, 1970

Some critics argue that the practical jokes suggest an Animal House style of juvenile humor. While certain later works (for instance, the Porky’s series) might attempt to emulate MASH’s comedic tones, the Altman film is on a much deeper, more intelligent level—instead of dumb, horny frat house types, substitute doctors plucked from their regular practices and lives and shipped off to war. The hijinks and silliness is their way of dealing with the difficult circumstances. At times the characters can be harsh—but really, Hot Lips deserves it, doesn’t she?

Jesus Camp, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 2006

This documentary is one of the most frightening movies I’ve seen in a long time. This particular group of evangelical Christians, led by Children’s Minister Becky Fischer, essentially brainwash their preteen congregants, claiming that they’re more apt to “learn” when they're young—in actuality, they’re more susceptible, easily persuaded. Thus, we have 11 year-old rat-tailed preachers, 9 year-olds awkwardly proselytizing unsuspecting bystanders at a bowling alley, young ballerinas worrying that they’re dancing “for the flesh” instead of for the Lord. One gets the impression that they don’t even really understand what they’re saying. “God is great” constantly flows from their mouths, but what does it really mean? No one ever delves any deeper.

The scene depicting young Levi’s home schooling is rather unsettling—his mother asserts that creationism is the only possible answer to “all the questions,” and asks if he got to the part of the reading assignment that explains how science is meaningless. (“Pretty cool, huh?”) Even more disturbing is the statistic that 25% of the U.S. population is evangelical (although I get the impression that not all of them are quite as crazy as this), and their ties to the Republican party, which they deny despite their worshipping of a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush (idolatry, anyone?), not to mention their rigid anti-choice stance, which seems to point towards a clear political aim.

Thankfully, there is a voice of reason, a breath of fresh air amidst the madness, in the form of Mike Papantonio, a Christian radio DJ who completely opposes the methods and viewpoints of Fischer and her cohorts. At one point he speaks to Fischer on the air during a call-in segment, challenging her on some very valid points, and, unfortunately, receiving vague, evasive answers.

There’s a scene in which Fischer comments that after seeing Jesus Camp, “extreme liberals” must be “shaking in their boots,” and I’m pretty sure that that’s the only thing I can agree with her about.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Alex Gibney, 2005

This might not have been the best movie to watch after Jesus Camp, in terms of affecting my already pessimistic view of the world. Instead of fundamentalist Christians who want to train their children for another Crusade, we’re presented with businessmen who are so greedy that they rejoice as California burns, since the state’s “energy crisis” is raking in millions of dollars for the company. To be honest, I still don’t quite understand what Enron did—trading bandwidth? What does that mean? When describing a company’s precise function to the average person becomes complex and hard to explain, that, to me should raise suspicion. That they also couldn’t explain where their money was coming from should have triggered an alarm, a wailing siren, signaling that further investigation was in order. This seems to be the film’s underlying theme: why did no one question them? How was this allowed to happen?

The documentary was released prior to the trial results, and it would be interesting to see an addendum to the story detailing this aspect.

No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese, 2005

This is the story of how Robert Zimmerman became Bob Dylan, chronicling his formative years in Minnesota, his move to Greenwich Village, meeting his hero, Woody Guthrie, and so on, up until the point when he took an eight-year break from touring. The film sheds some sympathy on his reputation as bit of an asshole, detailing how people tried to pigeonhole him as a folk singer when he wanted to branch out. If journalists asked him dumb, cringe-worthy questions, he appropriately gave them smartass answers. (When asked how many protest singers there are, he replies, completely deadpan, that there are exactly 136.)

I’ve always been more of a casual Dylan fan; I hadn’t even realized there was such conflict among fans over his decision to go electric, which is a pretty good indication of the extent of my expertise. And I have to say, while his folk songs are great, I can’t identify with all the folkies who thought acoustic music was pure, and rock n roll a sellout (???)—I prefer my music loud and distorted, thank you. In the final scenes at the Newport Folk Festival, when Dylan says to his band members “Play it fucking loud,” I had goosebumps crawling up my arms. Here he is more or less uttering a big “fuck you” to his audience, to Pete Seeger, one of his idols, who said he would have cut the chords if he could. (Dylan did admit that he was heartbroken over Seeger’s words, but he nonetheless stood firm in his convictions.)

During the recording session of “Like a Rolling Stone,” he says there’s never been a song like that one, and wonders how people will react. While I like the song, I’d never thought of it as particularly groundbreaking or mind-blowing—and yet, in the festival footage, audiences were indeed freaking out, their minds blown. I came away from this film with newfound respect for Bob Dylan, wondering whether I would ever experience such outrage, confusion, or bewilderment over a simple song.

Last Year at Marienbad, Alain Resnais, 1961

In this early film from Alain Resnais, a contemporary of the Nouvelle Vague (though not necessarily part of the movement), a man who we only know as X meets a woman named A in a vast, ornate mansion. X tries to convince A that they met a year before and made plans to meet again and run off together—she, however, says that he’s mistaken. What follows is a surreal, impressionistic exploration into the psyches of the two characters (the mansion’s endless mazelike corridors evoke the corridors of the mind), and by the film’s end we’re still left uncertain of the truth.

I didn’t love this film, finishing it more of out of determination than enjoyment. This is what the average person imagines when picturing a pretentious foreign film, replete with annoying organ music.

Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, 2007

I waited a little too long to see this; due to its labeling as a box office flop, every time I made plans, the theater where I had intended to see it was no longer showing it. Thus, I ended up going to Times Square, a tourist hub that I usually try to avoid at all costs. I had briefly imagined that seeing it there might enhance the atmosphere, as 42nd Street would traditionally have been the setting for a grindhouse double feature thirty years ago, but alas, it’s really not the same without the XXX theaters and homeless people ambushing your windshield with squeegees and buckets of nasty-looking water.

Grindhouse demands to be seen in a theater, as it’s really more about the experience of going to the movies in the 70s than the films themselves. I had the good fortune of being amidst an enthusiastic crowd, who cheered, applauded, groaned, and called out “oh shit!” at all the appropriate moments, significantly heightening the viewing experience. I also enjoyed the artificial flecks of dust, pops, and stutters, though at times it feels a bit overdone—one missing reel would have been clever, but one in each film, both accounting for a particularly sexy scene, seems kind of contrived. The fake trailers, however, were brilliantly over the top and hilarious. Among the highlights are Machete, an action film (mexploitation, if you will) about a Mexican assassin hired by the U.S. government, featuring Cheech Marin as a machine gun-toting priest (“God forgives. I don’t.”), and Thanksgiving, a holiday slasher film about a killer who dresses up as a pilgrim. Thanksgiving almost earned Grindhouse an NC-17 rating due to scenes depicting a cheerleader stripping while bouncing on a trampoline, and a decapitation occurring as the victim’s girlfriend performs fellatio on him.

Robert Rodriguez’s zombie flick Planet Terror, the first of the two features, accurately recalls the typical 80s horror movie, replete with a post apocalyptic feeling of perpetual darkness (these characters never see the sun), a wholly appropriate synthesizered score, and cheesy blood and gore effects. It features a wide array of horror elements, including a Texas barbecue joint (somewhat reminiscent of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, although the proprietor isn’t the villain), a military base as source of all the mayhem, a rich scientist (okay, the part about him wanting everyone’s balls was a little weird), and a heroine with a machine gun for a leg (she receives this awesome appendage right before a triumphant, climactic battle scene, a la Evil Dead 2).

Tarantino’s Death Proof is a bit of a 180; it’s a (winning) combination of car chase and serial killer flick, recalling the likes of Vanishing Point, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, and Gone in 60 Seconds (the one from 1974, hello?). The homage is quite literal, as the characters actually reference these three movies repeatedly, the 1970 Dodge Charger from Vanishing Point playing a key role in the plot. Rarely, I’m sure, did the original grindhouse movies refer to other grindhouse movies; the fanboy aspect is glaringly evident.

One of Grindhouse’s flaws is that both movies are a little too long (the producers are fairly certain that its three hour-plus length is one of the major factors contributing to its flop status—that and people seem to be confused by the concept of a double feature). Death Proof especially has an odd structure. The film is pretty chatty, even for Tarantino, with a lot of extraneous dialogue. Way too much time is spent getting to know the first group, right before abruptly killing them off (albeit in a gruesome, creative, and unexpected manner). And despite the amount of time we’re subjected to the first group's mindless banter, the second band of girls is far more memorable and likeable. There's also a lack of symmetry; when our villain, Stuntman Mike, singles out his next victims, the audience becomes acquainted with them, but unlike the first half of the film, he never interacts with them prior to his attack. The plot would have been more satisfying if there were more of a balance, the variance occurring when the second group comes back for revenge.

Regardless, this was thoroughly entertaining, and completely worth fighting through hordes of gawking tourists and journeying all the way up to the sixth floor of an obscenely gargantuan movie theater.

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