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My Week In Movies (1/16-1/21)

January 22, 2011

BLOODSPORT — I grew up watching silly action movies like this. I honestly don’t remember if I ever saw Bloodsport specifically — it all runs together with others like KICKBOXER, THE BEST OF THE BEST, and other tournament movies I don’t even remember the names of. They’re just part of my subconscious.

Anthony and I are writing an 80s action throwback, which is why we’re trying to watch so many of them. Bloodsport is so full of absurdist gold that we’ve become very tempted to just make the movie a Bloodsport spoof. I don’t think we’ll actually do that but there will certainly be a lot of references.

ALICE IN WONDERLAND* (2010) — This time last year, I was in San Diego working on the stereoscopic conversion of this film. As is usually the case, my experience with the film was merely on a shot-by-shot basis. I knew only what I saw in the shots I worked on — I didn’t know what the movie sounded like, I didn’t know the context of anything happening or how they fit together. So when people asked me what I thought of the movie, I had to tell them I had no opinion other than that visually it seemed interesting.

When it came out in theatres, I didn’t get around to seeing it, as it got pretty bad reviews and I wasn’t really interested in paying the 3D premium. I did read an early draft of the script, which I thought was pretty bad. It rushed from one plot point to the other, not bothering to make the characters interesting or help us care about their struggles. But I couldn’t know how much of what I read would get to the screen. There was plenty of time to improve upon it.

Now I’ve seen it, and it’s actually worse than the script I read. Plot points go screaming by even faster than in the script, with no clear sense of peril or consequence, character motivations are overall so obtuse I can’t even figure out what they are, let alone whether or not they make sense, and overall I just couldn’t bring myself to care about anyone or anything on the screen. I could rail on the dialogue and the performances — even that of the usually charismatic and watchable Johnny Depp — for hours.

I really don’t know who the audience was supposed to be. It seems like it’s not fun or colorful or interesting enough for kids, but there’s nothing about it that makes it worthwhile entertainment for adults, either. It’s just a big CG pile of nonsense — but not the kind of entertaining, humorous nonsense that made Carroll’s writings such classics. It’s a dull, dreary, insulting nonsense, disdainful of its characters, its source material, and the audience.

Possibly worst of all, its existence makes it unlikely that we’ll ever see a movie of American McGee’s ALICE — a much worthier “Alice returns to Wonderland years later” pseudo-sequel. On the other hand, I read a draft of the script for that adaptation several years back, and it wasn’t much better than this film turned out to be. So maybe it’s just time to put Alice in Wonderland away for a while and find some new toys to play with, Hollywood.

SYRIANA* — After the comparisons I was seeing to BODY OF LIES, I figured I should check this one out. It’s pretty hard to follow at first, but that’s probably by design, as the multiple storylines eventually start converging and it all winds up making sense by the end. There’s a superficial similarity between the films, including the juxtaposition of being the guy sitting in a comfortable office in America ordering tactical bombing runs via satellite, and being the guy actually in the shit having to deal with the human consequences of the war. It’s easy to click a joystick and mark a van for destruction, it’s harder to look a man in the eye and decide to kill him. I can see how this movie took a great deal of heat for being politicized and “anti-American.” I will say that it took a lot of balls to make a movie about the war on terror in which you wind up almost rooting for a suicide bomber by the end. But it’s much more an indictment of the oil industry and how — in the filmmakers’ opinion — it’s come to rule our society. Rejecting corporate hegemony is not the same as rejecting America’s values — quite the opposite, in fact. Corporate hegemony is “anti-American.” Unless you are the kind of moron who believes that corporations count as citizens.

Oh, and Mark Strong shows up here as well to play essentially the opposite of his BODY OF LIES role, and does it equally well. I heart him.

THE CONVERSATION — A film which could also be called “The Stupidest Spy.” Well-made on a technical level, and with pretty good performances considering the material, but the protagonist Harry Caul is dense to the point of it being a distraction to me as a viewer. Aside from falling into the tell-don’t-show trap of having characters talking constantly about what a great surveillance operative Caul is instead of letting us see anything but the one recording he does at the very beginning, Caul is paranoid when he probably doesn’t need to be and shockingly non-paranoid when any sensible person — let alone a professional wiretapper — would have their guard way up.

This is a world where wiretappers have conventions in which they meet each other and blithely give each other their actual names and addresses. Remember, they are there to talk about the latest ways to spy on people.

Harry Caul specifically:

  • makes a confidental phone call from a payphone at the wiretappers convention
  • unconcernedly gathers swag from vendors who are there to advertise their capabilities to bug any object
  • brings rival spies back to his workshop where he is currently working on a confidential recording which someone has already tried to steal
  • lets these professional bugging artists — one of whom made a sales point out of his ability to conceal a bug in under two minutes — out of his line of sight, constantly
  • not only plays this confidential recording in the workshop without even thinking to check for bugs, but plays it for a woman he has only just met at the spy convention who is wearing all manner of eminently buggable jewelry.

He is subsequently shocked to discover that the swag pen he got — from a vendor whose business it is to put recording devices in things — has a recording device in it; and to discover that the woman he met at the spy convention was, in fact, a spy.

Seriously, what am I supposed to think about this imbecile, movie?

The icing on the cake, of course, is that none of this really matters, because despite his paranoia and losing the tapes, they actually got back to his client who pays him in full. What was the point of all that, then? And I won’t spoil the third act, but it was also pointless since Caul is only an observer, not a participant, in the events going on. Which was probably thematically intentional given his line of work, but I thought it just rendered the whole thing pointless.

The more recent THE LIVES OF OTHERS took similar ideas but managed to fill the time with tension, pathos, and interesting characters rather than just a bunch of semi-hostile and directionless dialogue. If anyone can give me some context as to why THE CONVERSATION was great in its time (it was nominated for screenplay and Best Picture Oscars), please enlighten me.

GOODFELLAS* — On the other side of the coin, here’s a movie that does live up to its status as a modern classic. I could list off every aspect of the movie and call it great individually, but it’s just a great film overall. Didn’t like the one-time breaking of the fourth wall, but otherwise highly entertaining, well-made on a technical level. It was very interesting to see this movie after being well familiar with movies that have since been very heavily influenced — GOODFELLAS clearly contains the DNA of Quentin Tarantino’s personal style, and P.T. Anderson’s BOOGIE NIGHTS almost feels like the same movie in many respects, both narratively and stylistically.

Most of my experience with Scorcese has been his recent stuff, which has not impressed me. But I loved this one, so perhaps if I see more of his early stuff, I’ll have a better appreciation of his later work, and his legendary status.

Also, Ray Liotta laughs weird.

INK* — After failing to interest distributors at festivals, INK apparently gained a cult following after making its way around the torrent sites, and built up some buzz as a gem of DV Rebel-style low budget fantasy filmmaking.

Let’s give credit where due: this is a low-budget digital feature, it got shot and completed out of pocket and they put it out into the wild. This is an achievement no matter how you slice it — I myself have yet to get over that hurdle. So any first feature without a major financial backer gets an A for effort.

That being said, watching this movie put me in mind of those restaurants that offer you a prize if you can eat a giant steak in one sitting. Anyone who can watch this entire movie in one sitting deserves a medal.

I only managed to watch 45 minutes of this movie, and even that was broken up into three sittings for me. With an hour still left to go I just gave up on the film. Everything in this movie is bad, to the point that it’s mostly incomprehensible and almost totally unwatchable. Acting and production value are terrible. The characters are uninteresting and dialogue either doesn’t make sense, is off-the-wall inane, or is so on the nose that you can’t stop being distracted by how completely the opposite of human conversation it sounds like.

There’s no narrative or editorial flow — the movie overcuts not only the action scenes, but many of the dialogue scenes. There’s literally a walk-and-talk scene where the characters turn around and walk the other way on every other line, for no other apparent reason than that the corridor they were in was too short, and the only way to keep them walking through the whole scene was to have them go back and forth over the same stretch of rug. I don’t think they were trying to be funny, but then again it’s hard to tell what they were trying to do at any given point. The VFX mostly consist of crappy default lens flares and running the footage backwards, and the color grading (almost certainly via Magic Bullet Looks) is turned up so high all the time that it’s impossible to tell when we’re supposed to be in the real world and when we’re in the world of dreams — it’s all one big white-diffused monochromatic muck.

There are a couple of cool ideas — as far as I can tell, it’s a story about two factions of mystical beings, one of which brings dreams and the other nightmares; and the design of the “nightmare” bringers is simple but effectively weird — but overall it’s painfully amateur hour. The movie is trying to be stylized without understanding what the style signifies, and so no unified style can emerge.

Shot choices and editing feel totally unmotivated and make it seem like someone watched movies to see how they shoot them, without bothering to understand why those other filmmakers made the choices they did. Cool shot, bro. I’ll just stick that somewhere in my film at random.

Example. You know that shot in like every movie with a field, with someone running their hand over the stalks of wheat/grass/whatever as they walk by? There’s a shot like that early on in this movie, except the grass at the location isn’t tall enough, so the lady is just holding her arm vaguely, pointlessly, out to her side.

I wanted to watch the whole thing in order to give a fair impression of it, but I just can’t bring myself to let this incompetent crap leech another hour from my life. Might be a good drunk movie with a group of friends, but it’s pretty clear why they couldn’t get distribution.

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