Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Canadian Bacon (1995)

Director: Michael Moore
Starring: John Candy, Alan Alda, Rhea Perlman, Rip Torn, Kevin Pollak

This is Michael Moore's only fiction film (though I still found it in the "documentary" section at the video store) and the last movie John Candy ever made. Also, it's about Canada and Americans' weird views of Canadians. So I, as a half-blooded Canuck and self-proclaimed Michael Moore devotee, surely could not miss this film. Or so I thought... Maybe my expectations were too high, but I was disappointed with Canadian Bacon. I found it poorly written, surprisingly unfunny, and the political commentary not nearly as biting as I'd hoped.

Alan Alda plays (with little enthusiasm) an inept American president struggling with falling approval ratings. His advisors (Rip Torn and Kevin Pollak) convince him that he must start a war to spark the interest of the American people and kick-start the economy. When Russia refuses to comply, they are grasping at straws, on the lookout for random evil-looking Arab terrorists (sound familiar?). Enter Bud Boomer (John Candy), an equally inept sherrif of small border-town Niagara. When he and his buddies (Rhea Perlman and others) attend a hockey game just over the Canadian border and criticize the beer, a stadium-wide fight breaks out and they are kicked out of the country.

Sheriff Boomer's Canadian fracas is just what the president and his advisors are looking for and they move to start a war with our neighbors to the North; A cold war that will bring together the American people against a common enemy and behind their president, but in which no blood is actually spilled. Anti-Canada propaganda and faked Canadian attacks are launched, and Sheriff Boomer and friends, urged into a state of hyper-patriotism, become mixed up in the whole affair and plan their own attack on Canadian shores. To add to the confusion, we have a crazed and bitter weapons manufacturer using a secret weapon to take control of American missile bases, setting them to attack Russia, and making it look like the work of Canadians. Who will stop the war now?! Needless to say, Niagara's citizens play a role in the wacky wrap-up to the whole fiasco, but not before we are subjected to a whole lot of Canadian jokes (some of which, to be fair, are extremely funny) and a lot more ineptness on the part of the politicans (and the script).

So where did Michael Moore go wrong? True, the idea is not extremely original- similar plots have been done, and better, by Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Wag the Dog (1997) for example -but it still could have been a good movie. One problem is that subtlety is not Michael Moore's forte, and this story could have used some. Instead he wacks us over the head repeatedly with the most obvious ideas. Another problem is the script; the dialogue is so wooden and the scenes all so unlikely it's painful to watch. The plot leaves plenty of loose ends and has way too many wacky cliches that just don't work together. And while I have to give credit where credit is due to some of the great Canuck jokes and some pretty good anti-American ones, by and large for the amount of talented comedians in the film the laughs are few and far between. So while it's always interesting to catch a glimpse into Michael Moore's psyche and enter the unlikely world of Hollywood lefty politics, I think you'd do better to watch any of his fine documentary(-ish) productions instead (Roger & Me, TV Nation, The Big One, The Awful Truth, Bowling for Columbine, and reportedly coming soon, Fahrenheit 9/11).

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1996)
Director: Errol Morris

Here's a movie that has been on my list to see for a long time. Morris has directed a slew of other highly creative documentaries, the most well-known (relatively speaking) being The Thin Blue Line and A Brief History of Time. But to call this film a documentary would be doing it an injustice. It builds on the idea of documentary but then turns the genre on its head. Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is more like a filmic collage. A really bizarre and amazing collage.

Errol Morris begins with four incredibly weird characters: A circus lion trainer, a topiary gardener who sculpts huge bushes into animal shapes, an expert on the African naked mole rat, and a guy who builds strange walking insect-like robots. Where did he find these people? They're all pretty amazing in their own right, but the film does not limit itself to simply showing what each of them do, how they do it, how they started doing it. Their explanations, insights, and strangenesses are cut up and spliced together with circus footage, old movies and cartoons, and other random stuff. The results are all these unusual juxtapositions, some of them really funny. A few themes and parallels arise but they're not forced. Mostly it's just a flood of strange and wonderful images and ideas. Add to this Morris' unique filming style-- lots of canted (tilted) framings and crazy angles and lenses --and the whole thing is visually stunning. The soundtrack, composed specifically for the film, adds to the effect of heightened stimulation.

Ok, so yeah can you tell? I liked it. A lot. But I should mention that I don't think my roommates (hi Rob and Kate) were quite as into it. If you are expecting the whole thing to "come together" at some point then you'll be disappointed. There's no clear narrative, and I guess it's kind of a brain workout to keep up with everything. I know I was confused at some points about what the hell the characters were talking about. Sometimes with the voice-overs you even lose track of who is talking about what (are they talking about evolution of mole rats or robots? About how to control lions or bushes?), but that is part of the fun too. The whole thing makes you feel kind of crazy. It's a great ride.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Chutney Popcorn (2000)

Director: Nisha Ganatra
Starring: Nisha Ganatra, Sakina Jaffrey, Jill Hennessy

This movie represents another step in my endless search for good dyke films, which, believe me, are few and far between. This one speaks to many different issues: Lesbian communities, the difficulty of acceptance in other cultures, family problems, and untraditional pregnancy, just to name a few. Sound heavy? It is a bit in places, and it does tend to bog down at times (thanks in no small part to the huge amount of horrible musical interludes--why must so many dykes have such terrible taste in music? Another whiny guitar-playing songwriting chick I do not need). But Chutney also delivers some very funny moments and some very sweet right-on observations that are mostly worth the rest of it.

Director Nisha Ganatra wrote and stars in this film as Reena, an Indian-American artist in a long-term relationship with Lisa (Jill Hennessy, who is pretty hot). Reena is locked into a constant struggle with her mother and sister, whose traditional views exclude her lifestyle choices; they refer to her lesbianism as a disability that must be gotten over, invalidate her girlfriend by refusing to treat her as anything more than a roommate, and constantly berate and make fun of her art (she draws henna designs on beauty shop clients and then photographs them in artful composition). To be fair, Reena is pretty selfish when it comes to her family too; she misses her own sister's wedding reception, and then remains entirely unsupportive when she and her husband try and fail to conceive a child under the hopeful eye of her mother. Meanwhile, she spends her days with a crew of lesbians at the beauty shop who are all dealing with relationship issues, and who hang around outside the shop commenting on the chicks who pass by and whether they are dykes or not.

Then Reena gets the idea that she could be the surrogate mother for her sister, who is depressed because she is barren. Everyone, her friends, her girlfriend, her mom, her sister and brother-in-law, is shocked and almost everyone thinks it's a bad idea. Reena actually has to convince her sister to give it a shot. Even then, after a few weeks her sister realizes it's putting too much stress on her marriage and asks her to stop trying. But by then it's too late, Reena is pregnant, and now she decides she wants to keep the baby. Lisa freaks out, as does her mother who thinks no one without a husband should be a mother. It's tough going for awhile but eventually most of her family and friends come around, won over by the prospect of a grandchild or a cute little baby to hang out with.

Alas, this movie suffers from a common affliction that I've diagnosed in other dyke films: Too much focus on the story and making sure it truly speaks to lesbians, and not enough focus on making it a good movie. The filming was sub-par and a lot of the acting was pretty wooden (with some notable exceptions, and I have to mention Ajay Naidu, who you might recognize from Office Space, for spicing up his small part so irresistibly). But Chutney also succeeds where many other dyke films fail: Reena's problems are multiple, interconnected, and complicated, as they should be. Though the emotional twists and turns might make your head spin, the characters deal with them in a refreshingly straightforward manner.

And there are a few really memorable moments that made the movie worthwhile for me. I particularly enjoyed Lisa's mom, who accuses her of being a "deadbeat dad" for leaving her pregnant girlfriend. I should also add, for those of you horndogs out there, that if you're hoping for some real hot dyke sex scenes they're few and far between. There's a good film buried in Chutney if you can find it, even if it didn't come together as much as I had hoped.

(p.s. You'll have to search for this film at your local indy video store in the lesbian/gay section. It's probably not at Hollywood or Blockbuster.)

Monday, January 19, 2004

Heaven (2002)

Director: Tom Tykwer
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi

I stumbled upon this film with the help of a friend (thanks Jenna) who brought it over while I was recovering from the flu. I knew nothing about it when we turned it on, which is my favorite way to watch a movie (if you want to enter it the same way, skip the summary two paragraphs below). It's by the director of Run Lola Run and The Princess and the Warrior, but though I recognized his style in its eye for visual detail and space, Heaven is a bit of a departure in terms of pace and simplicity.

Maybe it had something to do with my fever, but I found myself totally engrossed in this movie from the very beginning. Call it a thriller, the story from the get-go was riveting. Tykwer really accomplished the perfect suspense in the opening scenes; suspense as defined by Hitchcock, where the audience knows everything that's about to happen (and the people on-screen don't) and that's what makes it so nail-bitingly good. But if the start of the story is predictable, none of the rest of the narrative comes close. We really have no idea what's going to happen next, and in fact the movie morphs into many different things: romance, drama, crime thriller. I enjoyed the ride.

Cate Blanchett plays Phillipa, an Englishwoman living and working as a teacher in Italy, who is obsessed with taking down the drug ring leader who indirectly killed her husband and whose operation is slowly taking over her young students. She beseeches the caribinieri (Italian police) to help her, but they ignore her, so she takes matters into her own hands and ends up in jail. During the prolonged interrogation, Phillipa is unexpectedly and quietly befriended by her translator Filippo (Giovanni Ribisi), who helps her escape and endangers himself in the process because he has fallen in love with her. The two take to the Italian countryside where they have the luxury of living simply and endlessly gazing into each other's eyes despite being hunted by the very pissed off caribinieri. Don't worry, I won't tell you the ending.

Both Blanchett and Ribisi do an amazing job with their characters. Blanchett is totally kick-ass and hot throughout, and Ribisi is so good at the subdued emotions thing, they complement each other perfectly. The Italian landscape is sweepingly gorgeous and the composition of every shot and every visual detail unusual and beautiful. The love story is unexpected and perhaps unbelievable, but that doesn't spoil its lovely simplicity, and it generally manages to avoid cheesiness too (aside from a couple of scenes towards the end). There's also some really nice portrayals of family relationships, which play off the same successful principle of subdued emotion that runs throughout the whole of the film. In fact, the plot is generally devoid of unnecessary information. And to its credit, the violence in the film isn't treated lightly, but challenges you to put yourself in Phillipa's position.

I just kept thinking how with a slight twist Heaven could have been a really typical shoot-em-up Hollywood film, and how much they would have fucked it up. Instead, it turned out to be an unexpected treat that somehow managed to incorporate thrilling suspense with simple love.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

The NeverEnding Story (1984)

Director: Wolfgang Peterson
Starring: Noah Hathaway, Barret Oliver

If you're like me, you probably haven't seen this movie since you were a kid, and maybe it freaked you out at the time but you still remember it fondly. I was wondering if it would stand up to the test of time. Some childhood movies, when you revisit them as an adult, still hold true as a great flick (The Goonies for example), while others (Gremlins) make you wonder what you were thinking. NeverEnding Story is definitely of the former variety.

The movie stars Barret Oliver as Bastion, a kid whose mother has recently died and whose father keeps telling him to quit daydreaming and start facing up to his real-life problems, like his bad grades and the bullies at school. But don't worry, we don't have to spend long in his depressing real life. Running away from bullies, Bastion wanders into a creepy old bookshop run by a creepy old man who hates kids for withdrawing from the world of books. But Bastion has buried himself in all the classic adventure novels and hungrily eyes the strange book in the old man's hands. He warns Bastion that this book is "not safe" and not for him, so he of course grabs it when the old man is on the phone and runs away with it under his shirt. Bastion bypasses math class and runs up to the school attic (conveniently empty and scary) where he buries himself in the book.

At once we are whisked into a world of wonderful Jim Henson-esque fantasy, a world full of strange creatures, idealistic people, and childhood hunters who must save the land of Fantasia. Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) is sent on a quest to find out how to stop "the Nothing," a horrible all-consuming nothingness that will soon destroy their world and the empress with it (what a great scary idea, nothingness instead of something is always way more frightening). Bastion, of course, sees himself in Atreyu, or at least we do, and as he follows his wonderfully imaginative journey the worlds of fantasy and reality blend more and more. Very cool.

The values instilled by this movie are more uplifting than I remembered: That children really do have the power to change the world if they only believe in themselves, and that the problem with the world is not that people fantasize too much but that in fact they have lost their dreams and this is making them empty and hollow and therefore easy to control by evil forces. Ok, so I don't know, maybe kids today are getting that same message from Secret Agent Cody Banks or Spy Kids, but NeverEnding Story accomplishes it with such beautiful simplicity and seamless storytelling and visual originality. Could I rave a little bit more? Honestly, if this sort of thing sounds like something you haven't forgotten how to enjoy, grab a beer or a joint or whatever and bliss out. Or what the hell, watch it with your kid if you've got one. Maybe they're jaded by all the video games and high-tech action flicks they're used to, but I would hope they could still enjoy a great movie that stimulates their imagination.

(p.s. As a side note, I have to mention that my roommates and I looked up Noah Hathaway (who played the child-hero Atreyu) on the internet after we finished watching the film and found that he is now a real estate agent! Wouldn't it be great to buy a house from the man who once rode Falcor the luck-dragon and slaughtered the evil Nothingness?)

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