August Recap

Movies

Night Watch (imdb)
This was Russia’s entry to the Academy Awards in 2005, and judging from that and the trailers I’d seen, I was really hoping it would be great. It’s the first of a proposed trilogy dealing with the on-going supernatural battle between good and evil, fought unseen to most humans by races of superhuman creatures (they’re human, or were at one time, but with special senses and powers–it’s sort of like Star Wars force sensitives put into the vampires vs. werewolfs milieu of Underworld). The underlying mythology is extensive and detailed, and pretty interesting as a premise. Unfortunately, the movie was so torn between its concern for plot complexity and its preoccupation with cool visuals that the whole thing ended up coming out a muddled mess. It’s like the scenarist handed them a perfect, pristine backstory, and then they called in a bunch of rewriters and editors who said “okay, take that, leave that out, put that over there, throw this in on top, etc” until you can’t hardly keep track of who’s doing what, much less why or what the consequences will be. This is a problem. I wanted to like it so badly, and on one level, I did. The visuals are good (though the quick editing–pandemic in action films these days–lessens rather than magnifies the effect), the themes are intriguing (the main character, a good guy, has to protect his son, who is becoming aware of the supernatural powers he has, from the bad guys, but in doing so, may in fact lose him to evil…each person must choose his own side), and if the other two parts of the trilogy are made, they may in fact make this one clear enough in retrospect that the entire work is much greater than the sum of its parts. I think that potential is there. Unfortunately, Night Watch on its own doesn’t work.
Average; I don’t know whether to upgrade it because I liked the underlying potential so much, or downgrade it because it failed so nearly completely to realize that potential, so Average it stays.

Scoop (imdb)
You never know what to expect from Woody Allen anymore. I was hopeful going into Scoop, based on the quality of Match Point, and his recasting of Scarlett Johanssen, but also a little trepidatious, because Match Point, after all, was a thriller/drama, and Scoop is a quirky comedy, though still with a mystery/thriller angle; perhaps Woody hasn’t yet regained his comedic ability. Also of concern was the fact that Allen refrained from acting in Match Point, but took a rather large supporting role in Scoop…Allen is a director to be reckoned with, but adding the paranoia and neuroticism inherent in his films to his extremely neurotic acting style is often too much, especially as he’s gotten older. Thankfully, he continues his now two-film streak, and Scoop is an extremely enjoyable, if slight, entertainment. Granted, Allen does go overboard as an actor, and repeats his character’s jokes a bit too often, but Johanssen stands out as a calming force, despite the fact that she does, in some ways, share Allen’s mannerisms (a piece of directorial advice that’s a little iffy, but seems to work for the film overall). She is a journalism student who is visited by the ghost of a preeminent journalist who has recently died before getting a chance to follow up on a tip to an extremely juicy scoop–a series of unsolved murders attributed to the Tarot Card killer may, in fact, have been committed by the son of a prominent English Lord. Johanssen jumps on the story and insinuates herself into the English gentry to try to expose this Lord’s son, who turns out to be Hugh Jackman looking extremely, um, exposable (take that how you will). Tagging along is Allen, as a vaudeville magician who gets roped into playing Johanssen’s father for her little charade. There’s nothing really deep or profound to think about here, as in Match Point or Allen’s best films of the ’70s and ’80s, but it’s a rollicking good time without pretensions of being anything more.
Well Above Average

Little Miss Sunshine (imdb)
I have never been to a film that roused the audience as much as this one did–the entire theatre erupted into delighted laughter so often it became impossible to keep track. It would have been worth it just to experience the audience enjoying itself so much, but the film deserved every outbreak of emotion, both laughter and near-tears. It is, in fact, a great example of the quirky independent film–each character is well-defined with dreams and aspirations, quirks and weaknesses. If they get a little caricaturish at times, it’s due to the necessarily short amount of time we have to get to know them. Think of Arrested Development smashed into an hour and a half. Greg Kinnear plays Richard, the father of a family which includes: himself, a motivational speaker trying to get a book deal; his wife Sheryl (Toni Collette), overworked and stressed as she tries to care for her family without a real income from her husband, but who cares deeply about the desires and goals of her children; their teenaged son Dwayne (Paul Dano), who has taken a vow of silence until he gets his pilot’s licence and reads Nietszche constantly; their young daughter Olive (a remarkable turn by Abigail Breislin), who wants desperately to win the Little Miss Sunshine beauty contest; his father (Alan Arkin), an irascible and outspoken old man who supports Olive unequivocally, but in a somewhat unorthodox fashion; and Sheryl’s brother Frank (Steve Carrell, who is awesome), a recent addition to the family due to his recent suicide attempt. Put all of them in an old Volkswagen van with a faulty clutch for a three-day road trip to the beauty contest finals, and chaos ensues–but so does love. It’s a very successful amalgamation of comedy and pathos, of quirkiness and relatability, of witty dialogue and spot-on performances.
Superior

Ossessione (imdb)
Ossessione is based on James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice (which was filmed by Hollywood in 1946, and more unfortunately in 1981), and also ranks as one of the first films considered to be part of the Italian neo-realist movement. Personally, it didn’t seem terribly “realist” to me, but that’s largely because the acting style hasn’t caught up with the other elements. The woman particularly overplays her character to the point of incredulity at times. The story, as in the book and American film versions, concerns a drifter who stops in at a gas station and insinuates himself into the life of the propietor and his much-younger wife. Before long, the drifter and wife have planned to get rid of the husband, who is decidedly in the way of their being happy together. That scene is particularly well-done, as neither of them explicity says what they’re planning to do, yet it’s completely clear. There’s also a young girl whom the drifter takes up with at one point (he’s not quite as committed as his murder accomplice is to the relationship), and I laud her performance as indicative of the sort of freshness and realistic acting that will characterize much of the neo-realist movement once it really gets going. Basically, the film has a lot of great elements, but they didn’t add up to a great film for me.
Above Average

The Island (imdb)
Great premise, average execution. Pretty much what I should have expected from Michael Bay. Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johanssen are part of large group of people confined to a futuristic, sterile outpost due to the contamination of the earth…all except for “the Island,” where everybody hopes to be chosen to go. Except, all that’s a lie created to keep the inmates content; in actuality, they’re all clones created for the very wealthy as organ donors. There are a lot of very interesting ethical dilemmas that could be explored here–the rights of clones as opposed to their “owners,” the fact that the head of the corporation creating the clones has lied to the public (who all think that the clones have no consciousness), the knowledge that Johanssen’s double is going to die within hours without an organ transplant and leave behind young children–but the film doesn’t explore them hardly at all. Once the McGregor figures out what’s going on (a conclusion which isn’t sufficiently explained, either), the film goes into total “free the clones, preferably with as many explosions and chase scenes as possible” mode. Which, again, to be expected from Bay. McGregor and Johanssen are very pretty. And there are a lot of explosions. Sometimes that’s enough, but in this case, with so many big ideas hovering below the surface, it simply wasn’t.
Average

Triumph of the Will (imdb)
Welcome to an all-but-impossible film to review. Triumph of the Will is the record of the 1934 Nazi Party rally, held very soon after the death of Hindenberg, which essentially made Hitler the supreme leader of Germany. It is the propoganda film to end all propoganda films. The question that has plagued film critics for decades is this: is it possible to evaluate this film on its own terms as a documentary film, and separate it from its propogandistic purpose and the knowledge of everything that the Nazi party would do over the next ten years? And of course, being me, I was like, of course! Technique can always be evaluated separately from ideology, right? But now I’m not sure. Because the whole time the camera was proudly surveying Hitler’s Youth Camps, and the whole time the hundreds of batallions were marching through the streets of Nuremberg, and the whole time the people were cheering themselves hoarse for the Fuhrer, I couldn’t help but be horrified, thinking of what would happen–what these boys, some of them ten, twelve years old, would be doing in ten years time. And it’s not as if the whole agenda was kept quiet–in the speeches preserved from Hitler, and Himmler, and Goebbels, and others, though it’s not emphasized as much as the desire for a strong German fatherland, there are explicit references to the necessity of preserving the Aryan race, no matter what, and retaking the lands that were split up after WWI, etc. It’s all there, already. And the most unbelievable thing is how small a man Hitler was. He doesn’t seem to be a strong leader at all. But boy did his speeches get everyone riled up, even though they were little more than patriotic drivel. It’s really incredible, the power he was able to gather to himself. I noticed that watching Downfall as well, but here…this is actually Hitler. One thing that did come out was how demoralizing the reparations of the end of WWI were to Germany, which goes a long way to explaining how quickly Hitler was able to rise to the position he did. See, I did an entire reaction that’s all about ideology. Wow. There’s a lot of rather boring marching and stuff, but even there, Triumph of the Will is chilling to watch. Must-see if you’re at all interested in Germany or WWII history.
Above Average

Grand Illusion (imdb)
You ever watch a film and have the feeling while you’re watching it that it’s a great, great movie? Sometimes I feel that when the credits roll, sometimes I feel it a few weeks later, and once in a very long while I feel it before the first reel is through. Grand Illusion is that sort of movie. For some reason, I expected Grand Illusion to be one of those anti-war movies that’s good, but not terribly enjoyable. But those fears were gone a mere ten minutes into the film, and my only concern was whether the rest of it would keep the same high. And it does. The story concerns two French officers in WWI captured by the Germans in the first few minutes–the rest of the film is about their time in the prison camp and their escape attempts. Along the way is some wonderful comment on the way WWI totally changed war, not only in actual combat (of which there’s almost none), but in the conception of the army. The German commander of the prison camp gives preferential treatment to one of the officers, because they are both noblemen, holdovers of a time when military leadership was the province of the nobility, and this–at least according to the German man–gives them more in common with each other than either has with their own fellow officers. I was a little skeptical of the easy time all the Frenchmen had as POWs, but director Jean Renoir claimed he took many of the scenes from firsthand stories from relatives in the war. I don’t know. Anyway. The scenes of cameraderie as all the POWs plan their escapes, the grimly triumphant joy that breaks into “La Marseillaise” when the prisoners hear that France has taken a town from Germany, and the despairing disappointment when the next day, Germany takes it back (“there won’t be any of it left,” one of them realizes), the passing of an entire way of life in the figures of the gentleman officers, the extremely beautiful section near the end, after the commoner officer escapes and hides out with a young German widow and her daughter–so many scenes worth remembering. In a way, it feels like three films in one, but it makes one whole that’s absolutely perfect. And every once in a while you’ll hear me caveat an older film by almost apologizing for the acting style…no need to do that here. There isn’t a wrong note hit, there’s not a hint of overacting (even by Erich von Stroheim as the German commander); in fact, all taken together, these are some of the most natural and fitting performances I’ve seen in a long time. I wanted it to keep going forever.
Superior

Books

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick (audiobook version read by Paul Giamatti)
I must admit to finding it pathetic that the only book I finished in all of August was an audiobook that I listened to in its entirety while driving from Waco to St. Louis. And I can’t even really blame school, because it didn’t start until the third week of the month! Still, if I only had one book in the month, A Scanner Darkly deserved to be the one. It’s an excellent example of the paranoia school of sci-fi, and honestly, it helped me understand the movie (which I saw last month), a lot better. I think I ran down the story when talking about the film, but I’ll do it again. In the future, a drug known as Substance D has taken hold of the population–it’s highly addictive and mind-altering, and eventually causes death. The main character, Bob Arctor, is a user and dealer, but he’s also an undercover cop working to out dealers, and he spends a good deal of the time surveilling himself and his friends. As the story goes on, the D affects his brain more and more, causing him to really split into two people, the dealer and the cop. This is MUCH clearer in the book than in the film. In the film, it’s unclear whether he knows at the beginning that he’s both Arctor and the cop, though by the end he certainly does not. In the book, he certainly knows at the beginning that he’s spying on himself, trying to find out who his supplier’s supplier is. His self-knowledge grows successively weaker, though, and by the end, he’s completely shocked when the police psychiatrists inform him that he is Arctor. I thought the book did a much better job with that part of the story, but I’ll need to rewatch the film to make sure. Like the film, it’s very trippy, but it does explain things a little more–that can be good or bad, I guess, depending on how into ambiguity you are. Also, since I listened to the audiobook version, it’s appropriate to point out how awesome Paul Giamatti is. I already knew he was an awesome actor, and it was the fact that he was reading that pushed me into getting the audiobook (normally I disagree with the way the reader reads a book so much that I can’t listen to audiobooks), and it was well-worth it. Even if you’ve read the book, I recommend checking this out from the library or something, just to experience Giamatti’s genius.
Well Above Average