The Number 23 * * ½ Directed by: Joel Schumacher / 2007
Growing up, my favorite number was 23. It was the number that Michael Jordan wore on his Chicago Bull jersey, as he basketball-baptized my bright eyes in front of the television and on my bedroom wall posters. I couldn’t wait to match my favorite number to my age. However, 23 was one of my worst as I dropped out of school, moved to a big new city and into a cavernous, cold and dilapidated home at the edge of the Kansas City ghetto, flat broke and with a ton of roommates who never wanted to do the dishes or take the trash out. We made the most of it and I have some fond memories, but 23 was still my worst year. However, that year isn’t nearly as bad now in comparison to the Joel Schumacher suspense cheese fest “The Number 23”. I can’t help but admit that I enjoyed watching it for a little while and managed to make it through Jim Carrey and all of his cheesy, terrible suspense acting, bad-tatt-sax playing gory as it took him what seemed like two weeks to get to the poor payoff of a half-inch thick book that he seemed to be voraciously reading through. It just so happened to be January 23 when my wife and I popped this one into the player, but by January 24 I had forgotten I’d even watched it.
The opening credits to "Heaven's Gate" had me thinking the "sooooo bad" rumors were true as it listed four film editors. Not necessarily a bad thing to have more than one editor, but add this figure to a near four hour viewing time (cut from the premiere's five hours and out of over 220 hours originally shot!), an ill-fitted track record of critical punishment and industry controversy, a bloated budget and production blunders, outlandish animal abuse (which prompted humane movie regulations), immediate career failure and reputation to celebrated director Michael Cimino (Oscar winner for "The Deer Hunter") and the eventual fall of United Artists and loss for more director-driven pictures. So, I was expecting the eye-roll frustration of the butcher block equivalent to an old man "Southland Tales", one of the most disappointing blunders of the 2000's. But, what I found was the exact opposite, an amazing, jaw-dropping gorgeous and ambitious achievement in cinema art. I want to watch it again and again. I want to own it. I want the original 5 hour cut. I want to digest all 220 hours. "Heaven's Gate" is one of the greatest, most original Westerns ever made and although 1980 beat it to Hell, nearly thirty years has served it well.
My interest in "Heaven's Gate" started to percolate about five or six years ago as I began to explore the deeper cavities of the Western genre. However, every time I was about to make a move at getting my hands on the movie, I ducked out and trusted the reviews and the movie's infamous role as one of Hollywood's most epic blunders. But, at the same time something drew me to it as I just wanted to see it for myself, see what the fuss was about.
To paint a picture, Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate" is like a beautiful super-steroid-sized love child of Robert Altman's "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" and Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven". And it's as big and sweeping as "How the West was Won" and "Once Upon a Time in the West". I don't like it as much as those, yet it's so much more and every bit worth the watch and some. And watch you must, as it boasts some of the biggest and brilliant cinematography and memorable scenes at the movies. I disagree 100% with legendary critic Roger Ebert's 1981 review when he claims, "...this movie is a study in wretched excess. It is so smoky, so dusty, so foggy, so unfocused and so brownish yellow that you want to try Windex on the screen. A director is in deep trouble when we do not even enjoy the primary act of looking at his picture...It is the most scandalous cinematic waste I have ever seen..." Geesh, Roger, I don't know what movie you saw, but my eyes were glued!
I think "Heaven's Gate" is a worth while piece of film history and American history. Set in 1890s Johnson Country, Wyoming, "Heaven's Gate" depicts the real life war between land owners and European immigrants who wanted a slice of the American dream, just like those before them. But, in the end I think it's Michael Cimino who got his dream, as "Heaven's Gate" may have paid the price and executioner's slice, but it's priceless film execution. I'm sure some movie goers and critics would call it fool's gold, but I find it to be the real deal. And in about thirty years I'm pre-inspired to revisit Richard Kelly's "Southland Tales". Well, not really, but I will revisit the Kevin Costner flop "Waterworld", as in 1995 it was introduced by critic's as "Kevin's Gate"!
Filmmaker Danny Boyle might be best known for his heroin addicting "Trainspotting" and global zombie fest "28 Days Later”, but it’s his string of recent films that I think are grooming him up for Steven Spielberg-like stardom. It wasn’t until recently that the ever evolving Boyle’s work struck me so with this idea as I re-watched “Millions” and “Sunshine” and just got back from his latest crowd pleaser, “Slumdog Millionaire”. 2005’s “Millions” captures the childlike magic of “E.T.”, but trades in an extra-terrestrial for a bag of money. 2007's “Sunshine” is a special effects space suspense that rivals most of Spielberg’s futuristic adventures.
It honestly doesn’t seem like it should work, but it does, and intoxicatingly so if you just let it in. I'm not sure where it would fit on a Spielberg meter, but it simply fits in the equation for movie magic. “Slumdog Millionaire” is about a young man who grew up an orphan in the slums of India. He’s a contestant on India’s “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” and is under suspect from the show’s host and producers as to how he’s able to answer every question. With each question, flashbacks to an on-the-edge childhood in the harsh slums reveal his solutions, along with a life-longing love for the girl of his dreams. The results are certainly movie magic, but they’ll have most anyone with a heart glued to their seat in suspense and hope. Some people in the showing I was at were outloud a-buzz, verbally coaxing and helping the characters to fulfill their wood-be destinies by the end. One woman I noticed hit a boiling over point and left the theater to calm down. The film isn't perfect and it will have some eye rolling naysayers when it comes to romanticized love and will power, but this film is a bitter-sweet symphony. It’s joyous. It wears heart with pride. It is what it is and I was extremely taken by it. If hope and soul is too much to ask for, then you shouldn't be watching. It's sad when people start giving up, even at the movies.
Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” combines an entire career of well-rounded, hip, skillful and illustrious moviemaking, creating one of my new favorites. Simply put, this guy makes great movies that are worth multiple viewings. I don’t think he has a bad film in him, but his best involve children and money. With a cast and setting primarily in India, one would think this film would get shuffled under this time of year with movie-goers, but it speaks volumes and is a must-see for anyone who loves the art of storytelling magic at the movies. Even if you find a loss in relation to it, there is something unique in the experience of walking in someone else's shoes and turf. Hopefully some will learn a thing or two about what other people in the world suffer through daily, maybe even in your own back yard. There is something special seeded within this movie and you’ll take it home to plant with you, again if you just let it in. The only problem I see right now is that it’s just not in enough theaters and Boyle isn’t quite yet a Spielbergian household name. But, he’s well on his way. And if “Slumdog Millionaire” is in a theater near you, you better be well on your way.
Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog * * * * * Directed by: Joss Whedon / 2008
Joss Whedon is no stranger to musicals. If you’re up on “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer” you’ll be one to agree that one of the creator’s finest moments with his beloved series is “Once More with Feeling”, the all musical episode. The show has a huge cult following and so does that episode as it has nationally toured for fans to watch and sing-along together. Heck, my wife and I own the episode (actually, ALL OF THEM) on DVD and we still shelled out ten bucks a piece to see it on a big screen and with mega-Buffy fans crawling out the wood work.
The writer's strike of 2007-2008 was a major bruise to many a Hollywooder and especially to the fans who saw their favorite T.V. shows and stars cancelled for several months. During that time I wasn’t too heartbroken, rather optimistic, and wondered aloud what wonderful projects would spawn. Just because there was a strike, didn’t mean that writers would stop writing, or thinking for that matter. There is no off switch on creativity. Joss Whedon saw it as the right time to turn to his backburner (which I imagine is just as full or fuller as his front one). Something purely amazing, positive and groundbreaking came out of this time. It's a genius, clever, funny and inventive project named“Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” and I won't spoil any of it for you...just see it. See it four times or more.
Originally release in three fifteen minute free online segments last summer, “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” is now available on DVD and it even features an all musical commentary. Joss Whedon + Neil Patrick-Harris + Nathan Fillion + Felicia Day and Company = PURE GENIUS. I’ve seen it four times already and it’s better with each sing-along. All-around, “Horrible” exceeds above its name to that special pile marked “Greatness” in my DVD collection. I just hope this one takes to the road because it demands attention on a big screen and with a big, sing-along audience. If there is another strike, let’s hope Joss Whedon tinkers with this idea. Heck, let’s hope he does a full-blown musical someday!
The Day The Earth Stood Still * * 1/2 Directed by: Scott Derrickson / 2008
I don’t know why it took me so long to figure this out, but Keanu Reeves is at his best when he's at his worst (remember "My Own Private Idaho"). This guy needs to be in a movie with a side of David Caruso. To cherry the top, let's throw on a Kevin Costner. Now, that would be an event that really would make the Earth stand still and/or slip on her own peel.
Dave Chappelle's Block Party * * * ½ Directed by: Michel Gondry / 2006
Unlike most everyone I know, I’ve always found Dave Chappelle’s brand of humor more obnoxious than hysterical. He’s just never rang much of a bell for me. The same reaction comes from me with hip-hop and rap music. I have found it recently to be one of the more creatively fused genres of mainstream music, but I guess I still just don’t “get” it. However, something almost magical happens on screen when combining the two and I was no party pooper with “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party”. The only finger I can put on it is heart. And whether its Dave’s day-to-day with ordinary people or mega musical stars sharing time and gifts with a struggling-yet-strong community, this documentary wears it in a unique way.
Surprise, yet no surprise, steering the ship is director Michel Gondry. I honestly doubt I would have wanted to see this movie if Gondry’s name hadn’t been attached. However, his signature movie moves are not attached, and that’s not a bad thing with this documentary as he restrains himself just enough to make something new and true to its source. It seems to me that Gondry was influenced greatly by the Brooklyn block party for his charming "Be Kind Rewind" set in New Jersey.
I think it was a smart move for Chappelle to go with Michel and for Michel to go with Chappelle. It doesn't make sense on paper to me, but it somehow works. Gondry is no stranger to music, good times and heart. His signature videos and features have made his name the modern movie definition of unique and hands-on, childlike innocence with a master’s glue. Here, Gondry scales back on the block, observing Dave and his party guests and diving into neighborhood history and pride. What could be a ho-hum affair is stitched together in a very fresh, watchable and heartfelt way, even if you're not a fan of Chappelle or hip-hop and rap music.
The Wackness * * * Directed by: Jonathan Levine / 2008
It's a summer heat wave in 1994 Manhattan. Mix tapes are blastin' the breaking beats of A Tribe Called Quest and newcomer Notorious B.I.G. Graffiti mural tributes to Kurt Cobain are still fresh on the walls. Mayor Rudy Giuliani is cleaning up the storefront prostitution, pornography and drug dealing. Though, he forgot to have his cronies check out a banged-up flavored ices cart missing letter labeled "F ESH & DEL CIOUS", employed by recent high school graduate Luke Shapiro (played well by Josh Peck). He’s not a bad kid, just a little misguided, and mostly on the prowl for one last great New York summer before college and life starts aging. Oh, and Luke wants to spend his last great summer (or at least a weekend) with the girl of his dreams. Instead he spends most of his summer with her step-father.
The treats in the cart aren't for everyone, but given the circumstances, it's better summer profit than selling treats to cool down. Besides, the dough might be needed to keep Luke’s family from being evicted. Even though he’s playing with potential fire, you kinda feel for the kid and want to see him succeed and help see that he gets through his summer of restlessness. For some people Luke’s treats are used to cool down with. In particular, his psychiatrist Dr. Squires (fantastic choice for Ben Kingsley), whom he trades dope for therapy. Quite a deal, like a trick-or-treat, as both have a high street value. But, it's the value of their relationship that is worth more by summer's end. It’s an interesting match to light, an eighteen year-old kid who doesn’t realize he’s on the cusp of life and an aging has-been who wishes to re-hash his glory days.
Normally, I'd be very frustrated with a movie like "The Wackness", and after forty minutes into it, I didn't know if I wanted to keep it on or keep groaning at the characters instead of watching them grow. However, I try to finish movies in hopes for on-screen redemption and development and I think it paid off. "The Wackness" is fresh and delicious at times, even when it seems to be muddling over with the saturated indie cliché market. It’s not perfect, and there are some things that don’t quite do it for me (to mention, a hippy Mary-Kate Olsen…she is still little Michelle Tanner to me!), but something in the lives on screen had me listening and keeping tabs and they felt like they had strings running to reality in some aspects.
As the heat waves are traded for crashing ones on the beach at summer's end, something valuable is found and to be cliché, a changing of the tides roared in. I'm thinking these characters are still breathing…still developing...still unfolding. They’re still out there slicing their own waves and turning tricks and treats in a present New York City aged fourteen years with them.
So here's the deal. Roger Ebert writes critiques with biases, so I can too. His main beef seems to be that any movie that depicts misogyny in any form is lower than low. He famously hated David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" for this, for example. At the same time, it is obvious that Isabella Rosselini took the leading lady role in that film on her own initiative. People do not tend to star in movies at gunpoint. So if Lynch was indeed unnecessarily cruel to Rosselini's character (Keep in mind, her character, and not her), it is because his script called for it and she rose to the occasion.
My bias with "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button?" I thought the storyline was gimmicky from the get-go, prior to even seeing it. "A guy who ages backwards?" I thought. "Puh-lease." This meant, of course, that I delayed seeing this film because I didn't want to see it. My girlfriend Becki, on the other hand, is a huge F. Scott Fitzgerald fan, and since the film is based on one of his short stories (Note: How did a short story turn into such a long film?) I knew I would be seeing it regardless. Plus, DJG liked it a lot.
That being said, here is my reaction to the film: I didn't like it. But it's not because it's not made well. It is. It is a good film, and I would be hard-pressed to say otherwise. But my biases went deeper and deeper as the film went on. I used to love tragic love stories, and anymore I am tired of them. I am tired of them precisely because I have had too many of them myself, and I cannot help but believe that Cupid need not be stupid. This film did not delve into the stupid Cupid realm of romantic love, but did romanticize tragedy in my book, and I just cannot do that anymore on a personal level. It's like when I was a kid and I ate too many sausage patties at a prayer breakfast I attended with my Dad, and I got sick and developed a taste aversion to them as a result. I could not eat sausage for 10 years after that. I think I have a taste aversion to tragedy when it comes to romantic love. I just cannot suffer it anymore.
Benjamin Button and his soul-mate Daisy "meet in the middle" because she starts off as a girl, and he as an old man who is aging backwards. I realize this is creative stuff, and it is fun and endearing at times as well. I just didn't like it personally. When he and Daisy have a child together he leaves them because he doesn't want his daughter to be his playmate as he becomes progressively younger. He doesn't want to confuse her with this. At the same time, is this really something a child could not handle? I mean, if Daisy can understand the idea of a child in an old man's body, why could her offspring not fathom something similarly strange? Benjamin leaves Daisy and his daughter to protect them from this sort of confusion, and I hated this. Love is messy, and to me this felt like love behind glass -- like that accursed rose in "Beauty and the Beast" and that is under a glass case. It is removed and ultimately unattainable. I just do not see life this way anymore, and seeing the film was like getting a whiff of a worldview gone by, and one that I still have an aversion to. Romanticizing tragedy is not something I can handle anymore. I handled it far too long on a personal level as it is. But that is okay.
As films go, it recalled two that struck me in very divergent ways: "Meet Joe Black," another Pitt starring-vehicle, "Forrest Gump," and "Bicentennial Man." In "Meet Joe Black" and this film, Pitt plays a man who is essentially an observer whose main role appears to be to experience new things in life, to marvel at its wonders, to bear witness to the glory of the beauty of the mundane. There is something truly cinematic about this -- about filming a person's inner experience in some way, and making that the plot. It's very existential, and I like this. But I also think it is a flaw as well, as people are more than observers. They are participants as well, and although Benjamin Button participated in his life in many ways I didn't get the sense of any inner turmoil, of any struggle, of any of the mess that seems to be part and parcel of being human. To me he felt like a man who was watching life happen at a movie theater on the screen in front of him, and somehow his life managed to be a pretty interesting story, so good for him. There is nothing wrong with this, but I just could not identify with that, despite the fact that I often feel like a man who watches life unfold on a movie screen. It's a bit of a paradox, isn't it?
DJG informs me that the same screenwriter who wrote "Forrest Gump" wrote this as well, and it shows. Benjamin Button, like Forrest Gump, is an utterly unique individual who provides the viewer with his own unique insight into life, the world, etc. This works well, but ultimately his life boils down to a series of notable events that, when strewn together, form a chain of pearls on a narrative necklace of sorts. His life is extraordinary, and great care is given to chronicling these events. I talked with Becki about this and, specifically, how we do not experience life this way in first person because we live in what C.S. Lewis called "The waiting room of the world." We have all the lag and drag and ho-hum we need and then some. We do experience life as a series of entertaining fireworks, and perhaps this is why I have a problem with Button's status as an observer who seems content to experience his life in this manner. At the same time, when the Italian neorealist filmmakers decided it would be interesting to film real life, I ended up thinking "I'll take the fireworks instead. Why watch life unfold as it really does when you could do the same without paying the price of admission to a film?"
The "Bicentennial Man" reference came to mind because it is a movie that begs you to "hug the sadness," so to speak. Robin Williams played an emotional android who watched loved ones come and go, and eventually asked for a chip to be implanted that would allow him to die. "Love the squishy sad sadness of the sad, sad, sad story you are watching," it seemed to say. "I don't want to hug your sad sadness," I wanted to say. And I didn't. Same with this film. Its emotional tone and timbre were just not to my liking.
It really is a good film despite the fact that I disliked it so much. It features beautiful cinematography and solid acting. Cate Blanchett, as always, is perfect. And it has much to say about the nature of loss in life and the way we perceive the stream of people who populate our lives and gradually leave them over time. It is worthwhile and necessary for us to learn how to cope with loss, and Benjamin Button learned to cope with it at an early (late?) age when he was an old man/baby and he lived among the elderly in a turn-of-the-century nursing home/townhouse of sorts. He is able to offer unique insight into the nature of loss, and perhaps for this reason he is justified in leaving Daisy and his child because leaving them now is better than leaving them later, at least in his mind. I just couldn't buy it or invest in it emotionally.
Am I glad I saw it? You bet I am! I enjoy going to the movies when I can, and it is rare that I can. So Becki and I went and enjoyed ourselves, and I simply walked away with this trail of brain-crumbs behind me as I left the theater. It wasn't a bad experience. It was just an experience, and it made me aware of how I have changed over the years. I am glad Becki enjoyed it, and I appreciate David Fincher as a director. I just could not empathize with the story in a positive way.
DJG has noticed recently that Woody Allen tends to play the same character over and over, and others have noted throughout his directorial history that he simply playing himself repeatedly. Such is the case with his character in "Crimes and Misdemeanors," but not in a bad way necessarily.
There are two parallel narratives in this film that only momentarily converge, and Allen's character is part of the weaker of the two stories that appear here. We have seen and heard his story before, but here it is perhaps a bit more affecting than usual. Here he is the soon-to-be divorcee, the rejected suitor of another, and one whose convictions about his filmmaking and art in general are unswerving and immune to compromise. Well, sort of.
The real sell here is the Martin Landau story, which is as real and tangible and affecting as anything I have ever seen in Hollywood. Caught between a mistress who wants to expose the affair they have been having and his wife of 25 years, he makes a decision that haunts him doggedly. This is where the film puts a microscope to the human condition and makes moral pronouncements and delves into personal responsibility and theology and the nature of reality. It is really pretty profound, and definitely worthwhile.
At the end of the film I found myself wondering exactly what the Woody Allen narrative was trying to say, but only because I was so affected by Martin Landau's portion of the movie. It was so good that it was distracting, and though it may be lopsided for this viewer, it was worthwhile nonetheless.
Just Add Water ****
As I watched this film I could not help but think of Tom DiCillo's excellent, underrated "Box of Moonlight." It has a certain homespun, homegrown quality to it that is awkward but also honest, and it lampoons small-town life, meth-labs, druglords, and culture on the skids. It is an ode to white-trash, and it is a portrait of white-trash turned to gold.
At the beginning of the film I was put off by its flavor, certain that the writing was sub-par, the characters subhuman. But as things progressed I found myself making odd connections with these strange folk, and by the end I was cheering along with them. It's an odd little parable about life at its lowest and the redemption that can follow us into the dark unknowingly. I recommend it highly.
Burn After Reading ****
I had heard enough negative criticism about this film that when I finally saw it Friday with Becki, my girlfriend, I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It may not pack the same sort of existential punch that "No Country for Old Men" did, but I don't think it ever intended to do so. This is the same Coen formula that fueled "The Ladykillers" and "Intolerable Cruelty" -- two films that are considered lesser in the Coen canon, but that are still better than most films made by other aspiring filmmakers.
We watched "Fargo" immediately after this and I was struck by how both films manage to focus on man's capacity to ensnare himself in traps of his own devising. "Burn After Reading," in particular, is circular (as Becki pointed out) in its design, with its characters chasing their tails like dogs that don't really know any better. Unlike dogs, however, they should know better. That's what makes this film ultimately entertaining, absurd, and enjoyable. As humans we live in the Theater of the Absurd, and "Burn After Reading" is a great example of that old line about man being on the stage of life only for a day. He frets and frolicks, and then he is gone and his place remembers him no more. Is it futile? Does it have to be? Maybe there is some food for thought here after all...
I have been writing a book titled "The Stained Glass Kaleidoscope" since October of 2007. This blog is an attempt to keep an ongoing account of the creative process, the culture I consume as I proceed, the research I undertake in the process, etc.