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This film changed my life. There's no other way to say it--the grandeur of the landscape, the courage of the title character and that scene where he chases the raccoons off his porch wearing nothing but long johns and a smile. A little more about the title character: he is every bit befitting his name, tough and chewy and, yes, a bit sour on the outside, but the more you take him into your heart, the more you grow to love the old cuss. He, and his beard, will stay with me forever. This I know. My friends and I watched this small masterpiece several times after discovering it on the rack at the Miranda Market in rural Southern Humboldt County, and I can say with certainty...it just keeps getting better. Watch it. Today.
The Californians (2005)
I live in Marin County where this flick was filmed and was an extra in it. I remember watching Jonathan Parker direct his actors and thinking, "This is gonna look better in the finished product. It HAS to." Because what I was seeing looked laughably amateurish. If not for the presence of name actors like Noah Wylie and Illiana Douglas, I would have assumed I was watching the production of a student film.
Well, when this baby finally hit screens at the Mill Valley Film Festival, I was surprised to find my suspicions had been correct: no amount of editing or re-packaging was gonna polish this turd.
What's too bad about all this is that, at its core, the movie had some good ideas. The ongoing battle between slick, greedy developers and aging, environmentalist hippie boomers is a very real one here in the Bay Area, and there's ample hypocrisy and fodder for satire on both sides.
But Parker gets lost in a sea of tired clichés and labored, talky dialog and in the end can't decide what kind of movie he wants to make. Is it a satire of the tug-of-war between progress and preservation and the colorful players involved? Or is it a sappy, love-triangle romance? Or how about the tale of a short-sighted man's redemption by way of a flighty young songbird? The Californians tries to be all these things (and more) and ends up being nothing more than a muddled, uneven mess.
Pride & Prejudice (2005)
Okay, I recognize that what follows is not so much a critique of this movie as it is a critique of this genre, and that as period costume dramas about the trials and tribulations of people who sit on windowsills staring pensively into the distance go, this one is decidedly above-average. Good costumes, some fine acting (especially from Donald Sutherland as the weary-eyed father), nice set design etc., etc.
But, what I can't help wondering is this: What, exactly, is the appeal of movies like this? Why are we supposed to care about the outcome? What are the stakes?
In all of Pride & Prejudice, we do not see a single person doing actual work, except perhaps for the men in white wigs whose job it is to pull out and push in the chairs so that the various noble diners do not have to be troubled with such annoyances. The parents of Elizabeth, Austen's purportedly feminist heroine, are the "poor folks" in the story, desperate to marry off their five daughters so that they are not left to a life of--what? Sitting around staring pensively out of small windows, rather than large ones?
At its core, Pride & Prejudice is supposedly the story of a headstrong young woman who refuses to bow to the demands and pressures of anyone, who speaks her mind despite societal pressures that insist she be silent and subservient. But in the end, what does Elizabeth do? (I suppose I should issue a spoiler warning here for anyone who hasn't read the book and/or seen one of the eleven-thousand film and television adaptations) She marries the man we all knew she was going to marry from the start, presumably to go off and live in his big house to sit on his big windowsill and--well, you can probably guess the rest. Here's a hint: it'll involve staring and being pensive.
I realize that as a young male I am not the target demographic of this movie and others like it. Yet I consider myself reasonably open-minded, both cinematically and otherwise. My idea of a good movie does not necessarily involve explosions and copious nudity, those these things never hurt.
No, what I can't abide by is a story about stiff people who speak stiffly, do very little and end up virtually where they started, with the only real question being what gown and corset combination they'll put on next. Much more effective, I think, would be a story about the working class during the era in which Austen focused her novels--the blacksmiths and the shoemakers and the farmers, those people who knew what it meant to get dirty and sweaty and bloody and speak their minds, and who were too busy living to stare pensively off into the distance.
Wow. I don't really know quite how to review a film that serves as the ultimate culmination of my childhood fantasies, when I used to run around the backyard with a blue-painted broom handle imagining what it was like when the Jedi ruled the galaxy "before the dark times," wondering what the circumstances were that led a noble Knight of the Republic to become the most feared baddie in the galaxy. Now I know, or at least I know how Goerge Lucas imagined it all going down.
I think this is a movie that is in many ways wholly unique, because it has lived for so long in the minds of so many. When Vader says to Obi-Wan, "so we meet again, at last," you--or at least I--always wanted to see so badly their last meeting.
Well, now we've seen it, along with a handful of other glossy, digitally-enhanced snapshots from a galaxy far, far away.
I could go on and on about the wooden acting, the horribly stilted and clichéd dialog, the over-reliance on special effects and the lack of genuine character development. But I'll leave that for others. What I will say is that this film, more so than either of the other turgid prequels, left me feeling like I'd just watched a STAR WARS movie. I walked out of the theater humming the opening theme, wishing for the first time in too many years that I could be a Jedi. For all its flaws, this movie re-invoked that old feeling I got the very first time I watched those yellow letters disappear into the vastness of space.
I gave this movie a 5 because it will really divide the movie-going public. For many, it'll be just another bloated summer blockbuster. But for those who, like me, still sometimes let their minds wander to those afternoons in the backyard, it will be two-and-a-half hours of Star Wars.
Ganjasaurus Rex (1987)
Campy Stoner Fun
I admit I'm not an impartial critic in this case because I grew up in Southern Humboldt County where this "film" was made; I know several of the "actors" and a couple of my childhood friends even make cameo appearances. But that said, this is the kind of movie that will really tickle a certain demographic. People who love things that are, as my old manager used to say when I worked at a hipster video store in Marin County, "so bad that they come out good on the other side." Everything about this movie is horrible, from the poor sound quality to the amateur acting to the Ganjasaurus himself, who is actually a toy--that belonged to my pal Travis --held by an always-visible hand. But beneath all this awfulness there's some genuine laughs, most of them coming not from the script but the giddily god-awful execution of this whole weed-infused enterprise. You better believe everyone involved in this movie knew exactly what they were doing, tongue-in-cheek doesn't even begin to describe it. Maybe "joint-in-mouth" would be a bit more apropos. The bottom line? If you like beyond-campy movies and/or puffing the magic dragon, do yourself a late nite favor and track this dirty little gem down.