Princess Mononoke (1997) ****- Due
to Disney's stubborn inability to let a huge chunk of Hayao Miyazaki's work out into the American public, I'm
not quite prepared to pompously declare this as "Miyazaki's Masterpiece!" But damn if this isn't proof of one thing,
long known to us moviegeeks; that with directors like Miyazaki and Satoshi Kon, Japanese animation isn't merely a
nice alternative to fluffier American fare, it is the forefront of modern animated cinema. But I'm digressing.
Princess Mononoke, while highlighting an obvious thematic structure (essentially, the film is 'about' the crossroads between
conservationism and human welfare), is impossible to look away from. Miyazaki, whose involvement in his films borders
on the auteristic, creates a stunning web of creative characters (I promise you, you will want a 'kodama' as
a pet) and gorgeous settings, all wrapped up in an intruiguing adventure-story plot. One of the most gratifying
thing about Miyazaki's films is that, for the most part, he creates his characters with various shades of gray (Castle
in the Sky may be one example to the contrary). It's hard to find purity of any characteristic in
any of the players involved in Mononoke; even if some of them could be more 'good' or 'evil' than others.
All of the characters are tied up in the greater goods and evils of their respective societies-- pride, ambition,
or just emperor's orders. The other area where the film's power truly lies is in quiet moments of inescapable beauty--
a giant spirit causing a forest to quake, the movement of a clan of red-eyed apes, or the title character feeding a warrior
in treatment of his wounds. A nitpick? There are times when a little environmental preaching escapes
through the cracks, but those times are few and far between. In all honesty, what Miyazaki has created is a cornerstone of
animated film and Japanese cinema as a whole. (Note: I watched the original-language Japanese version of this film.
After seeing that, I sampled the English-dubbed version. Do not watch it; the dialogue is different and far superior
to that of the original.)
F For Fake (1976) ***1/2- This hyperkinetic
documentary a testament to how much fun it is to watch Orson Welles do... well, just about anything. He's
the perfect person to dissect notorious fakers Clifford Irving and Elmyr de Hory (or Elmyr de ____, whatever
name you like), considering that in those two Welles meets his match. So we can trust him when he says that most
of the information in the documentary is true; he has neither blind admiration nor pretentious scorn for
his subjects. While delving into art forgery, Welles simultaniously examines the fakery of film (a medium
all about illusion): deconstructing sets, showing interviews from the point of view of the editing room, etc.
In effect, he never lets us become passive viewers, he forces us to sit up and be skeptical of every single move being
made. This energy does let some information fall by the wayside, and our forced alertness lets us see where
the film's final act is going even when it wishes you would just hush up and play along. But with a host as
alluring and jocular as Welles, it's easy to submit to the film's request... but just this once, right?
Fight Club (1999) (Rating Undecided)- The
best way to view this, or at least the most fun and gratifying, I think, is as what it seems to unequivocally be: a biting,
balls-to-the-wall satire. There are plenty of people, I guess, who will see this as a call to wake the hell up and fight
against a materialistic society. That's definitely a romantic way to view things. If you asked me, that's
only half the picture; rails against materialism and the mainstream have been around forever. That's not incredibly
new, and I think it's a disservice to the film to pigeonhole it to that neat little view. The film is just as critical
of its subjects: it rips apart the very idea of cultural revolution. Watch how Tyler Durden's "army" becomes just as
much of a submissive group of drones as those who work in the office with the Narrator: chanting "His Name Is Robert Paulson"
without any idea of the human behind it, blindly following a lame set of rules... they just replace one group
of loaded slogans with another. Another level of irony, that I'm not sure is really supposed to be there (but adds to
the comedy anyway), surfaces. David Fincher has a thing in this film for using pop culture's most obvious tools against
it; stylistically he makes the whole thing seem like a music video made for MTV, and he uses Brad Pitt, one of the most pampered
actors in Hollywood, as the apotheosis of counter-culturalism. If you really need more proof that the joke's on
us, you need to look no further than the last frame of the film. This is one film that may be smarter-- and a lot
more wicked-- than some think.
Perfect Blue (1997) **- After seeing
Satoshi Kon's sophomore feature, Millennium Actress, this comes off as something of a disappointment. Perfect Blue is one of those thrillers that wraps itself
up in visceral dynamite and impressive stylistic maneuvers to hide how depressingly pedestrian it really is (all the more
disappointing, since with Actress, Kon showed that he could deftly defy the bounds of genre). The central character,
a pop idol-turned-actress (or is she?) is being followed by a creepy stalker, one who goes to such lengths in his obsession
that he poses as her on an internet blog (or does he?). The initial bluntness of the film offers promise; with the stalker
revealed and the mystery out in the open (or is it?), there is a real chance to delve deep into the characters in question.
It's here that the film fails. The film turns towards some murky surrealism that turns out not to give any layers of
depth to any of the characters, but instead just offers a series of what-ifs and red herrings that go nowhere. At the
conclusion, there is a contrived and poorly written ("it is you who needs to wake up!") resolution that makes the whole thing
seem overtly shallow; even if there are unresolved plot strains to mull over. There's plenty of people who got more
out of this than I did, and who will tell me there's more depth to this than I saw. More power to them. But in
this self-appointed critic's opinion, the film tries too hard to confuse when its ambitions seem right out in the open.
I'll usually leave a film like this dying to figure it all out. But Perfect Blue disenchanted me to the point
where I didn't really care.
Harold and Kumar go to White Castle (2004)
***- Now here's my biggest problem with Harold and Kumar: if you wanted me to really believe the
title characters' desperation for the perfect burger, the movie should've been called Harold and Kumar go to the In N'
Out Burger. But hey, nobody's perfect. Anyway, after making Dude, Where's My Car? and heading plenty
of TV series, director Danny Lenier, along with a duo of writers-for-hire, finally scores with something that's
actually funny. Harold and Kumar gets its laughs by aiming its sights on racism-- that
old comedy standby-- and letting anything caught in the crossfire be collateral damage. There's plenty of commentary
here on race relations, celebrity, and attacks on the usual poser nitwits, amongst other things.
And then there are just good old, dumb laughs. Well that's refreshing. In Dude, Where's My Car?,
the comedy bombed so miserably because the leads, Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott, were two chronically unfunny
people trying way too hard; they were two stupid guys playing stupid. But John Cho and Kal Penn, our White Castle
heroes, are naturals; they know that it's a lot funnier to let the cards fall around you then to wave your arms
wildly at gags that aren't there. In other words, we can trust them with their own movie. So note
to Hollywood (and it's OK, I'm fully aware they aren't listening): It's much better to actually assess
the talent you have before putting pretty boys in front of the cameras; stop shoving the funny guys into bit parts in
lesser movies. (Note: Neil Patrick Harris also steals the show. As himself.)
Starsky and Hutch (2004) **- Not a lot
to say here, except that Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller, who are so great together, can do a lot better than this. There's
nothing wholly awful about the movie, but it just fails to be... well, funny. The talent's there; the main
duo, Vince Vaughan, and even Snoop Dogg are all enjoyable, but why can't the antics onscreen translate into laughs? There
is one hilarious moment, when Ben Stiller turns himself into some cheap salesman to go undercover ("Do it.")
Other than that, though, this one's dead in the water.
Maria Full of Grace (2004) ***1/2- Highly
recommended. Read my full review.
Velvet Goldmine (1998) ***1/2- A huge
treat for anyone who has, at any point in time, been a fan (or even casual observer of) the glam rock scene; it gets right
to the heart and soul of the short-lived movement. Todd Haynes, who brilliantly referenced (and channelled) Douglas
Sirk in Far From Heaven, takes a cue from Citizen Kane here, sprinkling his film with homage to the Welles masterpiece. And just as
William Randolph Hearst was the unofficial subject of Kane, so is David Bowie in Goldmine. Haynes
presents a cornucopia of glam personas thinly veiled under fictional counterparts, giving the film the feel and joyful
exuberance of some sort of fantasy. For the most part, the acting in the film is stellar, especially from leads
Rhys-Meyers and McGregor. One misstep is Toni Collette's performance. An actress who I usually admire, she gives
an uneven turn here, one that features a mysterious disappearing and reappearing accent. Although Haynes has
no illusions about the lives of these rockers, he still finds ways to look at it with some degree of wide-eyed admiration
(the Oscar Wilde subplot begins as a hoot, then becomes something genuinely touching). There are elements
of magic in this film. Through Bale's character, he brings the movement back home; he grounds the film so as not to
make this just another story of celebrity decadence. We see why glam rock meant so much to so many people; how
it was such a huge inspiration to such a mass beyond the mere posers and trend-followers. Haynes is
a hugely underrated filmmaker (although he gained some respect in the film-going community with Far From Heaven), and seeing this film is enough to make me wonder why more people don't take him seriously.
The Wild One (1953) **1/2- Marlon Brando,
you shall be missed. It's hard to think of anyone whose repertoire consists of more iconoclastic performances; and one
of Brando's is vividly on display here. There are probably many fond memories of this film, considering how this spawned
not only thousands of teenage girl (and probably guy) crushes on Brando, but the major teenage trends of the fifties (that
would later be glorified in films like Grease). But beyond the nostalgic images residing in people's
heads, the film itself is sort of a bust. The writing is uneven and shoddy; sometimes it's clever enough to be fun,
other times it's simply a joke: look at the scene in which Brando puts the moves on Mary Murphy in some sort of
park and the girl breaks down. Brando makes the most out of this, but I'm pretty sure this was never meant to be the
comedic scene it ends up being. Brando truly is the saving grace of this film, giving a dark and biting portrayal
that shames the rest of the film. Looking for a film on "troubled teenage youth" in the fifties? Or about how
mob mentality can get people to do inhuman things? Rebel Without a Cause and Dogville, respectively,
examine those things much more skillfully than this. (Note: A much-overlooked part of this film, Lee Marvin gives
a hilarious and scene-stealing performance as Chino. Along with Brando, he's one of the film's few highlights.)