Archive for the ‘movies’ Category

Latter Days, the movie, a touching love story

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2004

Ladder Days is a movie about Mormonism and being gay, set right here in our very own West Hollywood. It’s a little predictable and formulaic, but also funny and touching. I especially liked the part where the gay missionary’s own dad is the church official in charge of the church “court” where the missionary is booted out of the church.

Definitely worth watching. I also loved the soundtrack. Steve Sandvoss is especially good as the missionary, the New York Times praising him as “…giv[ing] Aaron a dignity, sweetness and humor that do a great deal to redeem the clichés built into his character.” IMDB gave this movie a rating of 6.8, but that was biased downward by a lot of “1” (lowest) ratings, presumably by Mormon homophobes, who are predictably bashing the movie without having even seen it.

The Matrix: Inverted

Wednesday, November 19th, 2003

“Matrix” held out incredible promise. I just watched the first movie again. The premise, the writing, the execution were all acts of genius—which is, unsurprisingly, why the movie was so successful.

The Wachowski brothers then set about squandering the franchise. Essentially nothing happened in Reloaded. They insulted movie-goers and Matrix-lovers around the world with a vacuous, poorly-executed story. They completed the travesty in Revolutions. There were some good effects, but the story lacked any imagination. At the end of the third installment, the series stands at the brink: they need a sequel to complete the story (if they could figure it out), but they had pissed away the market receptivity to any such sequel.

Even a beginning screenwriter like me knows what the right conclusion should be the Matrix story. Keanu will eliminate the matrix, but first he has to free all the humans in the farms to keep them from dying. He does this in an incredible guerilla raid (together with Bruce Willis, of course) on the farm, with hundreds of thousands, or millions, of humans detached from their connection to the matrix and sliding down those great slides they had in the first movie into the river or whatever it was.

Then Keanu goes into the Matrix, which by now is populated only by bad guys, and does the kung fu thing to kill them all. Keanu cannot really act but that’s not that important since all he needs to do now is to find the computer where the matrix is running and finally shut it down for good.

Keanu and the newly freed humans all return to Zion, and have a fabulous party lasting for days and weeks. This part of the movie should contain lots of sex.

But then Keanu notices a black cat walking by a doorway. A few seconds later, he notices the same black cat walking by the same doorway. If’s deja vu all over again. That’s right. Zion is just another matrix. All the people there, including Morpheus, are just creatures in the larger matrix. Now we see what Keanu’s real purpose in life is—to break through this greater matrix. His first surprise comes when he finds that Trinity is nothing more than a creature from the new Matrix, one of the bad guys/girls sent in to prevent Keanu from figuring out what’s really going on and trying to kill him if it looks like he is going to.

That’s a sequel that I would have given my left arm to see.

Why does movie rain look so fake?

Tuesday, September 9th, 2003

We now have fancy computer graphics technologies which can do entire animated movies like Finding Nemo, or create a hundred bad guy clones like in Matrix: Reloaded. So why does movie rain still look so fake? The only rain I ever see in movies looks like it’s being poured from a pitcher. In my life I’ve probably experienced really heavy rain only a half-a-dozen times, yet’s that’s always how the rain looks in movies. I guess computer graphics can’t help out here yet because although it could certainly do the rain itself, it can’t do the rain hitting the people’s clothes and the street. But what would be so hard about building a better rain machine, with settings like light drizzle, sprinkle, or misty rain?

Living Forever

Tuesday, August 12th, 2003

I still remember quite clearly when I was about five or six, I suppose, and got told in Sunday School about the good news: after we die, we get to keep on living forever!

That seemed like a really bad idea to me at the time, and it still does. Actually I got reminded of this watching that old Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise movie, “Interview with the Vampire”, which is about this nasty problem of living forever, among many other things.

I’d never had much of an urge to see that movie, thinking it was just a stupid vampire flick. Then someone gave it to me and I had nothing better to do than to actually watch it. Turns out that in addition to being a meditation on eternal life, the vampire motif works well as a metaphor for basic aspects of human existence like the nature of transformation and desire. Too bad I’m not coherent enough right now to embroider meaningfully on this theme.

Bad Movie Prize

Wednesday, July 30th, 2003

I like Sakiko’s idea of a special annual bad movie prize. It’s really a reverse prize—the “winner” has to pay. The money could go either to help develop a new, better generation of directors and writers; or, it could simply be given back to the unfortunate slobs who wasted their money going to see the movie. We really want to punish the people who made the big stupid movies that made a lot of money, so the amount of money they’d have to give back would be proportional to the film’s box office take—maybe 20%. That should get their attention.

Especially for bombs like “Matrix—Reloaded”. Its box so far is three hundred million or so so 20% would be like sixty million. Here’s a movie without a plot, without a script, without characters, without anyone who can act, and barely anyone who can put together an action sequence. For that, I can go see Hong Kong kung fu flicks anyway. The only possible reason in life for this film, as far as I can see, is to set the groundwork for the third movie later this year, sure to be equally inane.

Fortunately, the American movie-going public is not really as stupid as the producers of this travesty appear to think. Box-office receipts fell off much faster than is normal for a movie like this after word got out about what a dog it was.

Another good candidate for the 2003 prize would be Legally Blonde 2. I can only imagine the discussions that went on in producers’ offices leading up to the creation of this bomb, as they snickered over how much moolah they could extract from clueless moviegoers for any old movie with the Legally Blonde name and Reese Witherspoon in it—who, by the way, is getting much less perky and cute as time goes on. Beyond her, again, there’s no story (OK, there is one, it’s just very stupid) and no acting. Of course, with box office receipts at only $80 million, at 20% the fine would be a mere 16 million dollars.

Winged Migration

Sunday, June 15th, 2003

We went to see Winged Migration. It’s GREAT!

This is basically an hour and half of the most wonderful bird photography you will ever see. It has beauty; family; nature; death; humor; grandeur; strangeness; love; and dance. There is no plot, other than the hundred little plots occurring as the birds make their 500, 1,000, 5,000, or 10,000 mile trips every spring and fall.

This movie was nominated for an Academy Award in the Documentary Feature category but inexplicably failed to win the award.

See it at your local movie theater. There’s a website here.

Finding Nemo

Sunday, June 15th, 2003

What impressed me most about Finding Nemo was the computer graphics treatment of the water. Water surfaces, waves, surf…far beyond what was possible algorithmically or computationally even five years ago.

Of course, the movie is also great fun to watch, with great sight gags and superb voice talent. The plot is a bit predictable, though.

Genji—A Thousand-Year Love

Friday, November 2nd, 2001

On October 26, 2001, I attended the world premiere of Toei’s new movie “Genji—A Thousand Year Love”, or, in Japanese, “Sennen no Koi—Hikaru Genji Monogatari” (home page). The premiere took place at the historic El Capitan theater in the middle of Hollywood. Yoshinaga Sayuri, who played Murasaki Shikibu in the movie, graced the premiere with her presence, as did numerous other celebrities. Toei made this film as a celebration of its 50th anniversary.

If Toei’s intent was to showcase its movie-making prowess, it succeeded, but not in the way they wanted to. The movie is a sterling demonstration of just how completely and stubbornly Japanese cinema is stuck in the past, a startlingly comprehensive catalog of every poor cliche of Japan filmmaking since the war, covering every conceivable aspect of cinema—acting, scriptwriting, photography, and special effects.

Perhaps the problems started with the selection as screenwriter of the geriatric Hayasaka Akira, who penned a series of forgettable scripts over the last several decades, most notably “Seishun no Mon” and its sequel. The first and only notable aspect of this particular script is the way, in the words of the program, that it “entwines the real life of Lady Murasaki Shikibu…with the action and characters of the novel itself.” That concept itself seems workable, if not very original, The execution, though, is wholly uninspired, as if Hayasaka was writing the script on automatic pilot.

The idea is that Shikibu is called back to the court in Kyoto to train a nobleman’s young daughter in the arts necessary for her to be chosen by the Emperor as a member of his harem, and eventually, it is hoped, to mother for him a son who would be in line for the throne. During the training Shikibu tells the young woman, Shoshi, about the novel she is writing. We then experience the story of the Tale of Genji itself through the inevitable flashback mechanism. During her talks with Shikibu, Shoshi makes a series of vapid comments about Genji and the story, each giving the movie makers the chance for additional shallow observations on the moral of the Genji story. According to the movie notes, when Genji’s pathological philandering finally drives Shoshi to ask “What is it that men want?”, or something along those lines, Shikibu “pointed the way to her enlightenment by giving her a message that shook her to her soul”. As far as I can tell, that earth-shattering revelation was something along the lines of men wanting variety. Amazingly, the film leaves us with something that is decisively less than the sum of its parts—either the Tale of Genji itself, or the story of Murasaki Shikibu.

The viewer is left slack-jawed by the selection of the Takarazuka actress Yuki Amami to play the role of Genji. For those acquainted with Takarazuka, it is an all-female musical group, where even male roles are played by the girls. The Japanese preoccupation with this idea of girls playing boys, or its converse, the onnagata males playing female roles in kabuki plays, is a complete riddle to the average foreigner. There must be something profound here related to the Japanese conception of male and female and their respective roles in life. In any case, I cannot see any meaningful reason in this film to cast a woman as the dashing Genji character. It would seem that he should be the personification of masculine charm, so why is he being played by a woman who actually has plucked eyebrows and wears lipstick?

Or perhaps, muses the Western viewer, this is all part of a huge put-on, a sly parody! That explains it! The caricaturized delivery of lines, the absurd shot composition, the bizarre casting decisions, the weird Seiko interludes—Toei must just be making huge fun of itself, of the half-century of formulaic period dramas it has produced. Alas, this theory greatly overestimates the Japanese sense of humor. Every indication is that the onagenarian executives at Toei intended to, and thought that they had, created a new landmark in Japanese historical drama filmography.

I mentioned the photography. I am no student of Japanese film, but the images here are instantly recognizable as being in the mid-20th century style of five decades ago. We see the wide screen filled with intensely bright, contrasting colors, resembling paint-by-numbers pictures painted with a palette that included far too many pure, piercing greens, reds, and blues, whether it be the shots of Genji’s fabulous Pavilion of the Four Seasons, the evening sky over the buildings of the royal court, or the provincial home by the ocean where Murasaki lived away from the capital. These images repeat endlessly, without connection, overly rich festivals of color appearing one after the other, without transition. The overall effect is simply numbing.

One of the most puzzling things about this film is the role of Seiko Matsuda, the washed-up idol singer from the 80’s. Looking quite strung out on speed, Seiko appears in a handful of singing and dancing interludes completely detached from the flow of the movie. The songs are fine if you like Seiko and she can still belt out a tune, but the poor girl looks as if she never passed lip-synching 101. More basically, it’s a complete mystery what Toei was trying to accomplish with her appearances. Perhaps the octagenarians planning the project thought she would appeal to the “younger” generation.

The Genji website says the the budget for the film was 1.4 billion yen, or about $12 million at current exchange rates. Of course, the Japanese stars work for far less money than the eight digits per picture that their top American counterparts get. but still this is a real low-ball affair by American standards. Toei might have been willing to spend more money on their big anniversary movie, but the producer and director probably have been making movies on the cheap for so long they would have had no idea how to use the money anyway. Remember, this is the company whose main claim to fame is the 48-film “Otoko wa Tsurai Yo (It’s Tough Being a Guy)”, the budget for each installment of which was probably more like $5M, if that.

Certainly they did not spend the money on any special effects. The special effects here look like those from a semester project in a high school film class. Let’s see, to create the illusion of flames around Genji in a dream he is having, how about shooting some burning paper, then layering that image over that of Genji half-transparently, resulting in something that looks like a 50’s TV program? Why am I not surprised? Photography was handled by Tatsuo Suzuki, who has handled that chore in a prodigious 57 forgettable films since his debut more than three decades ago.