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Three's Company (1977)
It had been a long, long time since I watched Three's Company on TV, so when I found the first-season DVD in a bin for $5, I scooped it up. The first thing I noticed was how comfortingly familiar, yet dated the whole look of the show is. Yes, this was actually 1977, not 200- trying to look like 1977. No cell phones, no Internet, and $300 rent! In a nutshell, the show revolves around two women and a man in their early 20s, who are living together to cut down on expenses. When I was a kid, watching it on TV, it didn't feel as relate-able as it does now, having been there as most people are in their early 20s. Each show revolves around how to solve their basic problems, while trying to keep their landlord from finding out that they're all heterosexual, yet nothing is happening between them. Why the landlord would care is beyond me, however...
Much of the slapstick physical comedy holds up very well, and is a great homage to John Ritter's talent. Although there are probably more sophisticated styles, John Ritter's never-ending pratfalls and the entire cast's misunderstandings and double-entendres are still amusing after 30 years.
The one thing I never noticed before, but notice in a big way now, is that the Three's Company universe doesn't have a problem with its own conflicted morality. Everyone seems completely accepting of homosexuality, in Jack's cover-up and in the couple next door, yet heterosexual sex between consenting adults is a BIIIG no-no! It's a comforting thought, and I'm very curious how it went over in the gay community of the time.
Overall, watching Three's Company, and Jack, Janet, the blondes, and the others get up to their hijinks is satisfying and entertaining. Forget reality TV. Sitcoms were the reason we used to watch--what happened?
American History X (1998)
***spoilers contained***couldn't it have ended five minutes earlier?
American History X is a brutal and moving portrayal of racism in late-20th century America. At first, it seems balanced and intelligent, which makes it all the more tragic. This leads a viewer to feel uncomfortable--on the surface, it seems to bring out questions of one's own views on racism, but on repeated viewings, I figured out why it left a bad taste in my mouth.
First the good: American History X is beautifully shot, with a grace that few movies achieve. Tony Kaye's background as a director and cinematographer is in music videos, but instead of quick edits and jarring effects to build tension, he uses light and textures, and often slows moments of impact so that even the most brutal scenes become a sort of ballet of forms.
In addition to powerful performances by the film's leads, Edward Norton and Edward Furlong, who are two of the best actors of the 1990s, the supporting cast brings depth and subtlety to even the smallest roles. Standouts include Stacy Keach as a White Supremacist leader, Beverly D'Angelo as a frustrated but loving single mother, and my favourite of the group, Elliott Gould as a Jewish high school history teacher, who acts as a catalyst for a couple of small, important moments in the action. Gould's performance is completely heartbreaking during one scene, where he says nothing for several minutes, but the sadness on his face says everything: "Where did everyone go wrong?"
This is the important question, and the film works hard to show the White Supremacists as a group of frustrated, angry kids who have been led to this point through the leader's exploitation. In fact, they're realistic enough that they reminded me of several of the guys I knew in high school, who were, like Derek Vinyard, so smart and informed about politics that you wondered what they could achieve if they used their powers for good. Through the narrative, we see Vinyard transform from an angry kid with something to prove into a complicated adult, who learns lessons about compassion and consequence, and tries to show them to his brother Daniel.
Unfortunately, they should have left it at that. The film fails for two reasons. The first is that the death of a major character at the end of the film, for no good reason, to me says that the writer didn't know how to end the story, and I consider this a weakness. The movie seems to be saying that violence begets violence, however, violence is usually the end result of a set of circumstances. While the film tries hard to achieve a balance that shows all the characters, white and non-white, as being well rounded, with both positive and negative qualities, I think it fails most of its Young Black Male characters.
The second reason the film fails is that by having Danny die as the result of race-related gang violence, the message of the movie underscores what the "bad" White Supremacists have been saying all along: Blacks are the scourge of the community the White gangs are trying to protect, and violence is a way of life for "those people." That's the true tragedy. It's bad enough that gangs ARE a source of identity and culture, and that so many young men live such a violent existence, but American History X perpetuates the same tired stereotypes. Will Hollywood ever break free of this? Somehow I doubt it--if nothing else, it sells.
Whatever your views on racism, whatever side of that line you're on, American History X is still a gripping movie, despite its flaws. It will stay with you for a long, long time.
Whale Music (1994)
offbeat and beautiful***spoilers contained
I'll tell you a tale of the summer of 1994. A friend and I attended a Canada Day concert in Barrie, and it was a who's who of the top Canadian bands of the age. We got there about 4am, waited in line most of the morning, and when the doors opened at 9am, we were among the first inside the gates. We then waited and waited in the hot sun, slowly broiling but we didn't care, because the headliners were among our favourites. At one point, early in the afternoon, I sat down and dozed off with my back to the barrier. I was awakened to my shock and dismay by a shrieking girl wearing a Rheostatics t-shirt. This is the reason I have hated the Rheostatics to this day. There's nothing reasonable, nor taste-determined, nor really anything except their fandom. Snotty of me, isn't it? So, I, in my hatred of the band, have denied myself the delight that is Whale Music.
Desmond Howl had it all. It's hard to say what he's lost, since he lives in a fantastic mansion wedged between the ocean and the mountains (the BC region where the movie was shot is breathtaking). The life most of us dream of is dismantled by dreams, phantoms, and his own past, until the day a teenaged criminal breaks in...and, trite as it sounds, breaks him out.
Canadian cinema suffers from several problems. Generally, a lack of money, as well as an insufferable lack of asking for help (as if somehow the feature would cease to be Canadian) leads to lower production values than American or British films, and most people don't like to watch anything that sounds or looks like, well, not like an American film. Next, Canadian screenwriters often seem so caught up in being weird that they lose sight of how to tell a good story, and tell it well. Third, they seem to think that gratuitous nudity (often full-frontal) makes something artistic. I'm sure anyone who watches enough Canadian movies, especially late at night on the CBC, knows exactly what I'm talking about. It's almost like a "don't do this" handbook exists out there somewhere and Canadian film-makers threw it out a long time ago.
In the 90s and 00s, however, some films (such as Bruce McDonald's work and the brilliant C.R.A.Z.Y.) have broken this mold, and managed to maintain what makes them Canadian, while holding onto watchable production values and great stories. Whale Music is such a film, on the surface. Deeper than just its Canadian-isms, it's a deeply moving story of a man who's lost his grip, through grief and excess, who is redeemed by music then by love. And that redeems even the Rheostatics. :)
Just lately, I've been picking really nasty, exploitative revenge movies that pretend to be empowering to their female subjects, but the writers and directors still have to align the narrative into a male fantasy. It's a tricky boundary to walk, but .45 does it by introducing a whole cast of characters you just can't give a damn about, then wallowing in their pathetic lives. Overall, it's not really a bad film, but what makes the difference between a bad film and a good film is the compassion the audience feels for its characters, and unfortunately, Milla Jovovich's character is a manipulative slut. I was amused by her, saddened by her, then bored with her and finally just annoyed.
The plot is simple, although the director tells it out of order to try and make it more interesting. A woman is in a bad relationship with a petty thug, and rather than do the righteous thing and kill him herself, or the legal thing and have the cops deal with it, she finds a way to get her friends to take care of him for her. I didn't read the DVD cover closely, so I was expecting a heist/Bonnie&Clyde type movie, but what I got was a tale of a bunch of nasty, trashy people. They all kind of made me sick, but the worst was Milla's husband, a brutal criminal named Al. He's jealous and petty, but they have a lot of good sex, so this compels her to stick around. Finally, she has enough when he lays into her one night and accuses her of sleeping around (it's clear that she has, but no one deserves what she gets). He beats her badly, which I found unusually upsetting.
However, my sympathy didn't last long, when instead of pressing charges and having the animal locked up right away, she involves her friends in trying to frame him for murder. I don't care how many people someone screws at a time, but using their emotions and letting them think you're promising something is just wrong, and in the end I was left feeling that she was far worse than Al. I guess that was the point.
I feel that art is meant to entertain, to inspire, to challenge, and to make you feel like the characters have changed through the course of the narrative. I was disappointed.
Spanking the Monkey (1994)
**may contain spoilers**misery loves company
Having "come of age" so to speak in the mid-1990s, I pine for the 1993-1998 period, for music, films, and (lack of) fashion. I know those days aren't coming back, but when I feel most "grown up," and the most like a loser, Spanking the Monkey is a film I'll return to watch again and again. Because no matter how unsuccessful I am, or what's expected of me that I'm failing, I could never be as big a loser as the lead character! Jeremy Davies plays Raymond Aibelli, a promising first-year university student pressured into giving up a prestigious internship to care for his mother during the summer. Mom is Alberta Watson, a woman who is very sexy but incredibly needy, and not just because she's got a broken leg. Raymond's dad is away on a business trip, and Raymond rattles around the house trying to maintain a sense of himself while being crushed under the pressure of his forceful family members. We laugh at him as he fumbles his way through brushing the dog's teeth, his awkward attempts at a relationship with a young neighbour, and we start to feel the tension stretch itself out as he takes care of his mother.
The director's commentary notes the "forced intimacy" of caring for an invalid, and I found that to be an apt description, as Raymond carries his mother to the washroom, helps her in and out of the shower, and smooths moisturizer on her legs. This turns into an awkward foreplay (eeyuw!), but the subject matter, while certainly a dark taboo and fantasy, replaces shock value with something much more subtle and complex. It's not a tale of incest so much as a complicated look at the way family interacts, and how the things an individual wants can get overlooked when having to look out for everyone else.
The most notable thing about the movie is the acting on the part of the leads. Jeremy Davies, still relatively inexperienced at the time of the movie, plays the angst and frustration of the situation with both sensitivity and a slow-burning tension. Alberta Watson, who could have been hammy or shrewish in the part, instead captures a full range of emotions from embarrassment to manipulation to a passive-aggressive anger directed at her son, for being the reason she had to sacrifice her own dreams.
As weird as your family is, be glad of them, and as badly off as you think you are, someone else has it worse.
The Core (2003)
craptacular! **contains possible spoilers
Well...The Big Dumb Action movie sub-genre known as the Disaster Movie certainly has its share of expensive, implausible examples: The Day After Tomorrow, Armageddon, etc. The Core sits right alongside these movies and outdoes them in dumbness. While it wasn't horrible, and had moments of being a fun ride, The Core was far from great.
The plot is just about as ridiculous as it gets: the earth's core has stopped turning, and a crack team of "experts" has to (what else?) set off a nuclear warhead to start it up again. These include the Aryan (blond, built, square-jawed) academic played by Aaron Eckhardt, the SuperWoman navigator played by Hilary Swank (i.e. White American Alpha male and female), plus a French guy, an old guy, and a black guy. Who do you think is going to kick it? The team inside the Rocket to the Centre of the Earth plays out its inner tensions against the team on the surface, which includes the always awesome Alfre Woodard as a sort of Lt Uhura whose responsibility seems to be to talk to the team, Richard Jenkins as a by-the-books-need-to-know Military Overlord, and DJ Qualls as comic relief-cum-hacker. Even though the cast choices are great, unfortunately the characters have barely even enough character to be stereotypes, and their real purpose is to move around the movie magic of a planet falling in on itself.
So a giant penis, I mean rocket drill, hurtles in a large vagina, I mean tunnel, into the earth's core, which calls up all kinds of images about returning to the womb. They've made it out of some magical substance that gets better the more pressure you put onto it, cooled it with liquid nitrogen so it'll withstand the nine THOUSAND degree heat, and made its occupants into superheroes that can casually lift a series of warheads and move them into separate compartments for detonation. Not to mention the super-laser beam that will blow holes through rocks, allow the ship to glide through, and have the holes effortlessly close behind it. All of that is taken care of in the whole "willing suspension of disbelief" that's necessary to watch a movie like this, so I'll forgive it, because of the sheer joy of any disaster-movie. You watch it to watch the heroes get stressed out, and overcome it through the overwhelming force of their American spirit.
And boy, is this movie American. Not only do you have the clean-cut stone-chiseled action heroes win, but for some reason, the entire PLANET is screwed, and the Americans seem to be the only ones with the brains or powers of observation to even notice, let alone try to fix it! Never mind the other hundred or so "First World" countries that might possibly have scientific researchers or be looking at electromagnetic activity.
If you want depth or character or a believable plot, this isn't the movie for you. If you want a fun ride, good actors who must be doing this for money, and a vast imagination that compensates for its implausibility, enjoy. Myself, I couldn't help thinking of DJ Qualls' comment in the commentary for Hustle and Flow--he was proud they'd made H&F for less than $1 million, because he'd watch other movies and think "You spent $XXM on this?" Indeed.
Treed Murray (2001)
solid writerly movie***contains spoilers
***contains possible spoilers*** As a fan if "indie" cinema, and what they used to call guerrilla (sp?) film-making, I'm always very intrigued by movies that take next to nothing and make it into a lot. The way to do this is with a good cast, and a solid script, which Treed Murray has.
The plot is basic: an advertising executive gets chased by a group of teenaged criminals. He climbs a tree for safety, and spends the night there. The kids decide to stick around (rather than do the easy thing and leave with his briefcase), and what follows is a tense character study that ends in violence. The lesson here is the old cliché, "Be sure your sins will find you out." Although there's nothing altogether new on the character front (rich white guys, thick headed but loyal white trash guy, white trash chick, and a couple of badass black kids that are twice as smart but lack direction), the thrill of the movie is watching the characters interact. The writing mostly rings true, and the actors and filmmakers worked hard to avoid the worst of the predictables. At the end of it, you're not left feeling good about the characters' lives, and I found myself really thinking of them as people and wondering what would happen next.
The setting of the movie only barely distinguishes itself as Toronto. The one down side to the movie is that in trying to examine the race divide, which is just as clear in Canada only much subtler than in the U.S., it underscores its own racism. You know the rich white guys are going to be fine because hey, they're rich and white. The white trash dude will be fine because he's also white and male. The chick will be fine because she can always sell her a$$ or have a kid and go on welfare (in Ontario the stereotype is reduced to that--we take much better care of our poor here than in the States but it doesn't say much for women or the poor). But you have the feeling that the kids who are truly screwed are the black kids. Shark, who at least had his gang at the beginning, isn't left with much, and Carter's left with nothing at all. Although you know it's the truth, it's still an awkward one, because I think we escape to movies to watch the people we wish we were. It's uncomfortable when they fail.
Stranger Than Fiction (2006)
it will break your heart then mend it**possible spoilers
Normally, my renting of Will Ferrell DVDs is reduced to one mood: stupid comedy. I assume, now I know wrongly, that Ferrell is pretty much a one-note performer, and most of his movies while occasionally extremely funny are also pretty ordinary.
I was pleased to be wrong with Stranger Than Fiction. Actually, I saw hints of it in Bewitched--somehow, with a good haircut and some designer clothes, they managed to make him (dare I say it?) almost sexy and a leading man. But StF really opened up a different side of Ferrell. In addition to the comedy of the situation, Ferrell brings life and depth to Harold Crick. If anyone ever told me that I'd cry seeing Will Ferrell cry, I'd have thought they were nuts.
I'm a fan of unusual narratives, and I particularly love anything "bookish," or literary, whatever that means. And much of what directs me to movies is my fascination with narrative, which Stranger than Fiction delivers with grace, warmth, and spirit.
Stranger than Fiction is the story of Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), an ordinary man leading a very lonely life. He's an IRS agent, and fills his days with numbers and order. When he meets a baker, played by the always-adorable Maggie Gyllenhaal, things start to look better for him. But there's a problem: he thinks he's going crazy, because he's hearing a voice, narrating his every move. "Accurately. And with a better vocabulary," he notes to a psychiatrist. As it turns out, he is the main character in a novel by Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), a British writer who writes beautiful tragedies, but has run into writer's block.
It's a fine, brainy, sweet piece for any actor, but what surprised me is that Ferrell actually CAN act. Who knew? What makes the movie so likable is the relationships between its central characters, particularly Ferrell with Dustin Hoffmann (a literary professor trying to solve the mystery of who's writing Harold's life), the artsy-cynical Thompson with Queen Latifah (an assistant hired to help the author make her deadline), and Ferrell's scenes with his newfound love, Ana. One heart-melting moment was Ferrell's serenade, after having learned just one song. I also enjoyed Hoffman's witty, understated performance, particularly the scene where he breaks the bad news: for the book to be a success, Harold will have to die. Rounding out the stellar cast are some funny cameos from Kristin Chenoweth as a BookTV interviewer (check the DVD extras), and Linda Hunt and Tom Hulce as a pair of befuddled psychiatrists.
On the down side, I found myself comparing the writing to Charlie Kaufman, which is inevitable. Unfortunately, StF is not quite up to the standards set by either Adaptation or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. As long as you try to forget you ever saw a Kaufman film, Stranger than Fiction sets a high standard--hopefully, we'll get to see more of this Will Ferrell in the midst of the Anchormans and Talladega Nights.
Harsh Times (2005)
grim look at the lives of men **possible spoilers
As a fan of both Christian Bale and Training Day (also written and directed by David Ayers), I picked up this DVD on a whim, without knowing anything about it. Although the Training Day comparisons are inevitable, HT is an entertaining and thought-provoking ride, alternately frustrating, brutal, and surprisingly moving.
Harsh Times follows a few days in the lives of two men, Jim (played by Bale) and his best friend, Mike, played by Fred Rodriguez. Jim is a white guy who grew up in LA's (Latino) "hood" and has now returned after a six-year stint in the US Army, and Mike is his life-long "homie." Both are directionless, and spend their days looking for work and getting wasted. Like Training Day, the story mostly revolves around two guys driving around in a car, and LA is as much a character in the story as Jim or Mike. Ayers himself, on the commentary, describes HT as "a love letter to LA," which of course makes us question the relationship.
Bale's acting is seamless, as the story examines the roles that men play: Jim's deference and attention to detail as "super-recruit" for a job with a federal security company, his cruel and almost-robotic violent outbursts, his swagger and machismo with his friends, and his love and tenderness for his girlfriend in her Mexican home, the only place he's at peace. Rodriguez provides an excellent foil as the best friend who's been everything to Jim, a home, a family, an ally, and a rival, with both men alternately encouraging and questioning each other's actions. The main difference is that Mike, while immature (which is destructive to his relationship with Sylvia, a former homegirl-turned-lawyer who's outgrown Mike), is not a bad man. His relationship with Sylvia, played by Eva Longoria, is what raises him to a place he might not have gotten to on his own. Just a side note, the post-feminist academic in me wonders why Sylvia sticks around ("A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle," stated by uberfeminist Gloria Steinem, also Bale's stepmother). Many of the women in the film are portrayed as these virtuous, forward-thinking academic types, who seem to choose to stick with shady gang-bangers for no reason other than they've been together a long time. Don't they meet any nice boys at school? I'll have to trust that to Ayers' writing logic, since it's never answered in the film. Their relationship also provides the standard action-movie formula that it's the love of a good woman that's the honour and glory of a man. *yawn* While I was a bit disgruntled with the lack of depth the female roles had, I was pleased with the casting choices of sexy, curvy Latina women--not a stick figure, a facelift, or a pair of implants in sight. You almost forget it's LA!
Jim, by contrast, has a dark side that was released in the Army, which he's subsequently unable to fully control. Bale draws on his own darkness, played so well in both The Prestige and American Psycho. As events unfold, Jim's choices lead to a series of exponentially more violent and troubling actions, and ultimately a tragic but somehow unsurprising conclusion.
In the commentary, Ayers notes that even in film, actions have consequences. And the actions and consequences in the film have an unnerving way of making the viewer wonder what they'd do differently, or what really makes us better than them. From the start, you feel that these guys are doomed, and you're helpless to do anything but watch the events play out. Although Bale's performance and Ayers' writing create both sympathy and irritation with the characters, Harsh Times is neither smug nor heavy-handed, as it might be if handled differently. While violence as a social problem can be easily written off as an economic and racial divide, this changes when viewed in the context of the lives of real people, which the characters in Harsh Times nearly are. The movie is a brutal but cautiously loving portrayal of a man gone wrong, and ultimately, it's his ordinariness that makes it compellingly, uncomfortably real. Harsh, indeed.
better than average but doesn't live up to its name **spoilers**
**possible spoilers contained** Terminator 3 was roundly slammed by critics and fans alike, but having waited 12 years for it, I was prepared to enjoy it no matter what, and was actually pleased with the results.
It's been 10 years since the events of Terminator 2 and John Connor has managed to avoid any traceable records, living "off the grid." When the new Terminator, a femme fatale played by Kristanna Loken arrives and kills off some of his schoolmates, it's up to JC (get it?) to save humanity, with the help of Good-Guy Terminator Arnie, and Claire Danes as former girlfriend/future wife. Violent Oedipal imagery abounds, when we find out the empty "womb"/tomb of his mother, MIA Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), contains some heavy artillery. The film, which is basically a chase movie like the first two, ends on a down note. Where T-1 and T-2 were hopeful about the fate of humans, the final installment lets us know that we'll all be responsible for our destruction.
While not nearly up to the standards of special effects and intelligent narrative set by the first two movies, T-3 was a cut above most bonehead action flicks, and it still manages to make the audience think. It certainly missed both James Cameron and Linda Hamilton (whose ignoble death was not befitting the mother/Amazon we loved from T-2: "There are 206 bones in the human body. That was one."). I'll continue to love the series, because it's compelling and smart without losing the action, and I look forward to the next one. I'll bet Arnie won't be required, since digital imagery has come a long way. We'll see.