Very Bad Things
Peter Berg, 1998
At an hour and half long, I think I just watched 50 minutes of grown men yelling at each other that places my mind into a set of a 5th grade class I'm trying to be in charge of. I hate being a teacher.
So, the story of Very Bad Things is as simple as its title implies: good people do bad things. Namely, murder and maim each other. A bachelor party ends up with an accidentally dead hooker. But hey! It's Vegas! Just bury her in the desert. It takes five minutes of excellent character actors Jon Favreau, Jeremy Piven, Leland Orser and Daniel Stern screaming at each other in exactly the way upstanding middle aged men would in the aftermath of manslaughter to set the actual tone of the movie. I say five minutes, and you hear “a short period” but in the movie world, five minutes is an eternity.
We'd been led astray, with goofy soccer mom Lois (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and her camcorder making us think this was a comedy.
I signed up for a comedy. The poster told me so. The cast implied it so! And don't get me wrong, I'm one of those annoying jerks in theatres who laughs at everything from punch lines to zombies getting a croquet mallet in the head to Austen lasses getting rejected at a dance. My favorite comedies include Heathers and American Beauty.
I also get wet for movies that portray human behavior accurately – see two favorites above. So Peter Berg (wrote and directed) totally nailing how confused these suburbanites are after unexpected and reprecussion-full death is beautiful. The actors are spot on. Each grabs the personality of their character and whines, cries, yells, throws punches exactly as they should. And even though Jon Favreau's character is the protagonist, Christian Slater's character is the one directing action among the friends. That is, he picks up on how not to get caught by police and wrangles his four friends along.
All the following clean up murders and side stepping, also brilliant. It's just not funny. It's just not good watching.
The weird part is that, this easily could have been a comedy. The situations are ludicrous, the soundtrack is ironic and upbeat, Christian Slater and Cameron Diaz's characters are perfect cartoons for serial killing! The rest of the cast and the writing is just, well, too good.
Not to insult Slater or Diaz's jobs here – they are absolutely my favorite part of the whole thing. In fact, Diaz actually steals the damn show. Her 10-12 minutes of total screen time as a bridezilla who is not going to let serial murder get between her and her perfect wedding, are priceless and the best I've ever seen her. She snaps between lovey-dovey and furious in half a second. Not just with her face, with her whole body! She acts with everything she has! You can almost smell her overpriced perfume she's so good.
Since she is the lady who epitomizes the blasé tretment of murder, it is also Diaz who holds the moralistic “covering up your murders is bad” In the end the camera stays on her romping facial expressions as she cleans the house, now orphaned children, gazes at her maimed husband and his maimed best friend and goes a little Jim Carey running into the middle of the street to fall over. Goofy beyond reckoning? Absolutely. She gives me my humor! Berg's last gift is the use of a wide scope lense in a super close up of her now-deranged face, blowing her cartoonish face right up to redeemably funny proportions and then pans out to the stratosphere, leaving our adorable idiot squirming in the middle of the road.
Over all, a little too good a rendition of normal people doing bad things.
The Last Unicorn
Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr. (1982)
Because it stars a unicorn and its animated, people seriously underestimate this movie. I'm assuming you've never seen it, and if you have it was as a child. I also assume you think me silly or adorable or stuck in my Disney Princess phase for naming this as one of my favorites, if not very favorite.
First: It's not Disney by any stretch of the imagination or looseness of that term. Different studio, different animation, different sentiment, different spread of actors, made almost entirely in japan, and by actual Japanese people not weird Disney cronies overseeing anime – IE Spirited Away.
Second: Themes dealt with are way more advanced than most people watching will pick up on. These themes include: Loss of Innocence. Confronting/Losing one's Identity. Nature versus Nurture. Descent into Madness. Conquering of Fear. Coping with Annihilation.
Name me adult movies that do all these? The Shining? One of them. Independence Day/Armageddon? One. Silence of the Lambs... ok, three.
That's right. Fuck people and their anti-unicorn prejudices.
The only concession I make on the abject unicorn-ness is the fact that the film, like The Bible, only becomes truly interesting when you interpret it allegorically. However, since people do this naturally with Alice in Wonderland it shouldn't be too hard. Besides, Peter S. Beagle, the author, also wrote the screenplay and probably saw this as his chance to re-edit his own story, cutting down on the sprawl that the adventure tends toward in written form.Θ This makes the movie so tightly plotted, with each character's appearance so distinct in the unicorn's development, one cannot help but lean on allegory.
Now, with that out of the way. We open with a wood. The animation here is antiquated by even the standards at the time – 1979. There are physical layers being filmed in Snow White era (1930s) stop motion to show depth. Its gorgeous and tactile. The trees appear two dimensional and three dimensional at the same time and it's magic. Next up, we have some relatively human men ride through this wood with a prologue of sorts: We live in a rational world and all the unicorns are dead, isn't that a pity? Except, these woods are weird? Thank creation (not god) there is one unicorn left in the world.
The audience now knows that the world is almost without unicorns. Allegorically, science has killed fancy and there are people who regret this. Further, with the established meaning of unicorns in symbolism being innocence, the world is almost completely ruined beyond innocence. Immediately we meet with the most innocent of creatures, the one that is fictional. We have a short soliloquy where she comes to first terms with the annihilation of her species, and the mystery involved in it.
Her first interaction with another creature is half a conversation with a butterfly. The butterfly's personality resembles many a nutcase throughout literature. All he does is spout off snippets of poetry and music. After listening to something like gibberish which only loosely follows the unicorn's own external monologue, she embarks on a Gilgamesh/Joseph Campbell quest.
As such, she encounters many more a helper and hindrance. Each one progresses her self awareness until she is no longer like the other unicorns she strives so hard, for so long to save. The great tragedy of this is that at its climax, she renders her own goal moot. Her brethren return but she is no longer, truly one of them. Thus, she remains the loneliest survivor of annihilation in the history of fiction.
For me, where it becomes most interesting is when she is transformed into a human. This brings up the conflict of whether we are what we look like or are we how we think. As Amalthea, the Unicorn completes her loss of sanity and innocence. Only with her helpers does the quest even stay online; she has become as wayward and easily swayed as the butterfly who inadvertently tipped the scale and convinced her off to find her peeps(and just as inadvertently herself). This vulnerability to the plot does nothing but exemplify the tenuous hold people have on themselves when thrust into circumstance. Its nothing short of brilliant.
If I were to explain fully, everything that is brilliant about this film, however, I'd write a full treatise on it, or at least a collection of essays. Have I already started this, you ask? Why yes! They should be finalized and ready to go out to magazines and literary journals the world over by the end of next year.
Mr. Ebert says you should watch this movie just because it exists. Mr. Wilde says that art exists only for this reason. As an addict of aesthetics, especially when they agree with my own sensibilities, this movie is far and away the most beautiful thing created in the last ten years. Actually, I'll get back to you on whether its the most beautiful thing from the last century. What comes close? Hmmm... a couple Picassos, Maybe some Miles Davis. Henry Fonda's face? Well, if you combined these things and added the cutest child ever to act and strung them into a complexly plotted and tightly executed conglomeration of sight and sound, you'd get Tarsem's movie here.
Plot: girl breaks arm picking oranges in orange county. Hospitalized. Man paralyzes himself jumping from a moving train to horseback as he is a stuntman in early Hollywood. Hospitalized. When bones are broken and people are confined, unlikely friendships form and stories are told. The movie follows two plots: the story that he tells her and the story of their interactions with various doctors, nurses, priests, other patients... As the two plots intertwine, we learn more about each of their lives. As with all friendships, the more we learn of each character, the more complex plot. That is, he decides to commit suicide and enlists her in smuggling him morphine pills.
I mean, you just don't get more original or interesting or complex than that!
But! Its awesome does not end there!
Filmed in over 20 countries with a minimal of computer imaging, The Fall questions the power of imagination in a time period where people decided that moving pictures were both the new life and ultimate death of imagination. While it makes no effort to assert philosophy, The Fall exudes simple, childlike morality which is actually refreshing in our super gray world of ambiguity. What is bad? What is wrong? Manipulating children into aiding suicide: its bad, its wrong, it may be the ultimate bad wrong you can exert with your power as an adult. What is selfish and useless? Suicide. Period.
Tarsem sees little point lollygagging about thought-heavy things once these black and white morals are dealt with. Because of its moral simplicity the story becomes doubly potent and heart breakingâ€”you as viewer are sucked into the child's earnest perspective, pretty much regardless of how cynical you may think you are.
To make this all the more realistic, our lead actress, Cantica Untaru, is a young Romanian lass who actually barely acts. She was told â€œthis is a movie set, this is your co-star, this is the story.â€ Beyond that, most is ad-libbed. Her costar, Lee Pace, who I hope to see in many more things, knew what he had to say and where the story had to go, but beyond that... They even went so far as to not let him out of character the whole time so they were constantly interacting, as his character is paralyzed from the waist down, this includes him being in a wheel chair for the whole of filming. It comes through most poignantly. Love it.
Lemme see... Special effects are minimalist. It's one of the main appeals of the film as a whole. That fade from butterfly to island? Done the old fashioned way-with splicing of gelatin, not with photo-shop. I don't even want to try and comprehend how long it took them to set up the one desert shot that segues between the marriage and the death sentence scenes. Colors are all more vivid and enhanced, but not annoyingly so. Wash out filters are only used subtly, most glaringly in the last scene where Orange County and Alexandra's experience of it are nostalgia-ized with a sepia hue, but again, its acceptably subtle. Black and white is used only because it has to be in the plot. Slow motion is used perfectly â€“ not too much. Supporting cast, supports. Everything that seems out of place or odd is only as such because it fits the mind of an 8 year old in a foreign country imagining a story being told to her by an almost stranger.
When you're finished watching this the first time, you are nothing but stunned. Done the second, you start thinking about it, realize there's nothing to think about beyond the mastery of the film-making itself. Every detail your over analytical mind tries to pick apart and apply some obscure philosopher to just points back to the plot. Third watching, you start wondering how the hell long the story boarding must have taken.
Mark Palansky (2006)
A trendy romantic comedy made for/by nerds who watched too many Tim Burton movies as kids.
This fairy tale is based on Hans the Hedgehog. Usual love story, blah blah blah, but there is a curse on either the girl or the boy because of an ancestor’s misdeeds making them unwillingly anthropomorphic, in this case a pig snout and ears on poor Penelope’s (Christina Ricci) otherwise adorable face. Yet our young heiress, Penelope, is looking for acceptance as a pig faced girl via marriage. Enter the suitors. Shoulder devil character Edward (Simon Woods) and shoulder angel character Max (James McAvoy), As it turns out, are both out just for the fortune, as you’d expect, but neither know beforehand of her facial deformity. Normal plot line follows… Girl tries to find herself, chooses wrong boy for wrong reasons etc.
Although this makes the film ultimately predictable you should not be disappointed because, well, you’re watching a romantic comedy. Thus, you should not listen to other reviews you may have ingested on this movie. It’s your own damn fault for watching a PG kid movie that easily doubles as perfect first date material.
Even in this ground though, there are a few too many exaggerations. The idea of men literally throwing themselves out the window to escape Ricci’s prosthetic is silly. She’s way too cute, even deformed, to try to escape. Also, defenestration is illogical when there is a perfectly well shot stair way directly in front of you, especially when our writer and director went to such lengths to make this appear a feasible thing to happen in a modern New York/London setting.
I say trendy because of the sets, props, costumes, chosen actors reflect the tastes of a savvy graphic designer trying to tap the imagination of a 14 year old girl in the early 21st century. Bright colors, slight goth tint, east side New York setting allows for many a spunky supporting role, including our producer Reese Witherspoon, and two hot for now, but otherwise vaguely androgynous and British male counterparts ala Orlando Bloom.
All these roles are perfectly executed. Otherwise cut and dry characters pop with actual acting. Everyone knows Ricci and Witherspoon of course, they are solid both in art house and popular flicks. McAvoy is on the rise to similar stardom what with The Last King of Scotland and Atonement under his belt, likewise Peter Dinklage has been in numerous critically acclaimed films like The Station Agent plus a cameo opposite Will Ferrell in Elf. Who we don’t know so well is Simon Woods, but he too plays either serious Octavian in HBO’s Rome or wickedly doofy suitor to Keira Knightly in Pride and Prejudice. If the subtly of this cast’s humor and earnesty is lost, this too is your own damn fault for giving up on what is a lovely movie, if a bit stretched in places.
Mostly it is sweet girly candy with a subtle flower motif that easily could have gone the way of Tinkerbell and friends, but didn’t. Soundtrack, likewise.
Fritz Lang (1931)
Fritz Lang’s actually lesser known masterpiece is bedrock for film and society and societal observation/interaction in a post world wars world.
After Metropolis’ flop at the box office (though massively loved in later years thanks to Superman cartoons and Herr Goebbels) Lang turned to much more naturalistic fare and turned from the overly stylized world of German Expressionism.
Though some overt lighting, exaggerated camera angles and a fresh-from-silent-acting Peter Lorre may stage-ify M, its illustration of paranoia in civilization is still cutting edge. M follows the capture of a pedophiliac serial killer; sure it’s a cliché to today’s CSI and Nancy Grace-drenched audience, but in 1931 it was still pretty chilling.
What sets M apart from other psychological thrillers (either then or now) is the focus on fear due to physical violence rather than the violence itself. That is, the only evidence that a small girl is abducted is a symbolic balloon tangling in some electrical wires.
Instead, Lang follows an interlaced plot of Berlin’s police force and Berlin’s criminal force. Due to this especially hateful crime, both sides of the law are out for Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre). This is where the only dating of the film occurs: Fingerprinting seems to be a new fangled invention.
This leads us to the idea, and conclusion of the film, that primitive passion is way more effective than coolly cornering a criminal. The mob boss has the bright idea to hire the homeless to track for suspicious characters. Lang interlaces this with coppers rounding up the usual suspects and filling their cells with obviously innocent run-of-the-mill criminals in a giddy blaze of self righteousness.
Yep, we never see that little girl again, and the police pretty quickly forget about the mother; the mob boss never cared that there was a mother in the first place. What they don’t lose sight of is Peter Lorre and his creepy cum cute chub.
A beggar chances on the killer and chases him down. Only here does the title become apparent. The beggar draws a giant “M” in chalk and nonchalantly slaps Beckert’s shoulder so all the mob scouts can join in the chase.
What ensues is a chase scene shot from above to emphasize a rat maze claustrophobia. The only comic relief in the film comes at this point where the petty criminals act as we would expect a swat team to do. Eventually they ferret him out of a dark and sodden wood hole in the attic and take him down to their world—a cement walled basement! There, they continue their sham of justice (lest we forget that earlier in the film they were being strong armed by the law because they were the only people worth suspecting) with a fair trial. Despite a riveting plea for mercy on Beckert’s part (a performance worthy of Charlize Theron’s MONSTER or Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal) the “jury” quickly devolves to a mob again, complete with pitchforks.
Beckert, coming so close to being sympathetic in the face of this mob, is saved only by the law who breaks in at the last second. Their only ability, the whole movie, is to track normal criminals, and track them they do, just in time to claim credit for the arrest.
Statements made by Lang: Pedophiles and murderers suck, but mass paranoia is scarier. Also, Johnny Law is next to useless unless you are committing a crime committed by these five guys over here first.