Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Tag: movies (page 1 of 2)

Monday Movie Roundup

It hadn’t happened since July, but we went to a theater…

Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)

Zodiac tells the tale of the investigation into the identity of the Zodiac Killer who killed at least five people in northern California between 1968 and 1969. The killer wrote letters taunting police and reporters until 1974. His identity has never been confirmed.

The movie focuses on the investigators assigned the task of catching him and the reporters and staff at the newspapers to which he sent his coded letters. Ultimately, the film documents the toll the investigation takes on the people attempting to find Zodiac, particulary Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), The San Franscisco Chronicle’s editorial cartoonist who becomes obsessed with discovering Zodiac’s identity.

Ultimately, Graysmith’s research led to the 1986 book, which is the source material for the film. My wife has been bugging me to read the book for years. It’s been updated to include Graysmith’s theoy about the killer’s identity, a man who died in 1992 without ever being charged. We ordered a copy.

Whatever the killer’s real identity, this is a captivating film about obsession, and in this case, it’s not the killer who is obsessed.

Monday Movie Roundup

Happening on Tuesday again. This time I blame the internets. They weren’t working yesterday.

Syriana (Stephen Gaghan, 2005)

I broke my pledge to watch nothing new other than Battlestar Galactica until I caught up with the series, but sometimes pledges don’t work.

Syriana is kind of the Traffic of the oil industry except that the plot is thicker (yes, just as oil is thicker than bongwater). Drug smuggling is pretty easy to figure out, but the intersections between Arab nations, energy analysts, Big Oil and the US government is a bit shadier and just as sleazy.

The film is surprisingly low-key considering that it involves a CIA spy, terrorist organizations including Hezbollah, predator drones, an electrified pool, and a fair number of explosions. Everything reeks of evil, double dealing, ethics and morals of convenience, and that peculiar form of “patriotism” that justifies all atrocities, and yet everything in the film is presented in such a routine manner that it all comes across looking banal, which is, I think, the point.

The most intriguing character is George Clooney’s CIA operative, the most ordinary and believable movie spy I’ve ever seen. He’s a tool of the governement, itself a tool of Big Oil, and he carries out his assignments with diligence and a shrug. Only towards the end of the film does he finally see the big picture, and he realizes, just as the audience has finally put together the scattered pieces of this film, what an ugly picture it is.

Monday Movie Roundup

Two tales of terror…

Saw III (Darren Lynn Bousman, 2006)

Crap. Pure crap. I didn’t see the “twist” coming and I didn’t care. This was a real shame since Saw was such a fine example of the no-budget psych thriller.

Saw II was good, but Saw III was a waste of time. Its point is to make the audience cringe in disgust, but the fear never gets inside you. We went to bed laughing, but not in the same way that the brilliant Scream films make a person laugh while gettin’ skeert.

Saw should have been cut off (ouch!) after the second one. Oh, well. Ch-Ching.

An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, 2006)

Al Gore should have been our president. The sad thing is that had he been the man who narrates An Inconvenient Truth, – passionate and funny – he might have.

I read the book a few months ago (here’s the link to that post), and most of my thoughts about the subject haven’t changed and since the movie hews pretty close to the book, there’s not much point in reiterating except to say that this is something we should all be concerned about.

The film version is gripping and disturbing, at times both heartbreaking and wickedly funny. Everything a good horror flick should be. Watching it, I couldn’t help but think about the Saw films in which “Jigsaw” places his victims in traps designed to make them face their own sins and crimes, each victim forced to face his or her own inconvenient truth. Escape is meant to be excruciatingly painful, but always possible. His victims, however, are rarely able to muster the strength of will to inflict the necessary pain on themselves to escape before it’s too late.

An Inconvenient Truth explains the workings of the trap we’re in and offers a way to escape, though Gore is much for comforting than “Jigsaw’s” mechanical puppet head. The question is, do we want to save ourselves badly enough?

Jigsaw’s infamous question, “Do you want to play a game?” has already been asked.

Monday Movie Roundup

I was off Monday for Dr King and then on Tuesday and Wednesday for Dr Freeze, so this is kind of a Monday.

Sort of.

It’s also Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, but because of that Mondayesque quality, and because this is a blog, I’m pretending it’s Monday and rounding up movies.

Battlestar Galactica (Michael Rymer, 2003)

Holy Frack! How did I miss that Battlestar Galactica had returned, been reinvented and spun off into a new killer series? The “miniseries,” which plays on DVD like a three hour movie had me hooked.

Much has changed. Starbuck is a woman, but still plays cards and chomps cigars. Baltar is, well not exactly evil, but certainly self-centered and instead of sitting on that throne (what did he do up there all day?) he’s totally in lust with a sexy Cylon who looks just like a human.

The new twist on the Cylons was my favorite part. I love that just before destroying the twelve colonies of man, the Cylons created artificial humans. Creepy as the old robots with the buzzing red eye were (and are) this is scarier in a more existential way.

The miniseries sets up the basic plot from the 1978-79 TV series about the Galactica leading a ragtag fleet in search of the legendary thirteenth colony: Earth. Cmdr. Adama’s revelations about Earth at the end of the show carry a great twist and are wonderfully handled, altogether indicating that this is a show for these times. I can’t wait for Netflix to deliver season one.

The Night Listener (Patrick Stettner, 2006)

Billed as a thriller, The Night Listener sets the viewer up for something, well, thrilling. What we get, though, is a very interesting film about hope and the lengths we will go to know that we matter to someone.

Robin Williams’ performance as an aging radio raconteur is compelling, and I found myself hoping that he would find what he sought, the one listener who understood him. Someone to whom he mattered.

In short, a beautiful film.

Monday Movie Roundup

I haven’t watched a single movie since July (when the last Monday Movie Roundup appeared). It’s not that I don’t like movies – it was my first profession, after all – but I just don’t find myself wanting to invest the time.

Or perhaps it’s that once perfection was achieved with Lord of the Rings, there has been really no need for any more movies to be made.

But seeing as how Hollywood hasn’t yet packed it in, something was bound to strike my fancy…

Serenity (Joss Whedon, 2005)

Though not watching movies, we have been catching up on old TV shows that we missed, and the best of these was the unfortunately short-lived (damn you, FOX, are you good for anything!?!) Firefly. The series follows the adventures of the crew of Serenity, a firefly-class starship, who earn their keep running smuggling and petty crime jobs out on the border planets where the all-powerful Alliance doesn’t have much authority.

Visually, the show is a wonderful hodge-podge of science fiction technology blended with the imagery of the old west with its gamblers, gunfighters, outlaws and saloons. Such is life on the border worlds. I loved it immediately when I realized that it played with the best ideas of Lucas’ Star Wars universe (imperfect technology, space pirates, charismatic scoundrels) without doing all the do-goody rebel alliance business. Of course, Captain Mal Reynolds used to be a rebel fighter, but his side lost the civil war and he lit out for the territories in his old freighter.

We watched the eleven episodes that aired and immediately rented the film Serenity, which picks up two months later and attempts to tie up most of the loose ends from the series’ early cancellation. I won’t say much about the film except that I enjoyed it, and wish mightily that there will be a sequel someday.

The Firefly universe is one of the richest and most fascinating that I’ve seen in a long time. It’s full of potential, and I’d love to see it explored more thoroughly.

Damn you, FOX. Damn you to the border moons.

Old Photo Friday

This is from my days as a camera assistant. It was taken on the set of The Substitute Wife, a movie-of-the-week that was filmed around Austin early in 1994.

That’s me with the slate standing next to Lea Thompson. Of the three stars on that set, Lea was the only one who wasn’t full of herself. The other two managed to make life miserable for everyone from the director all the way down to the lowliest film loader (me), set PA and sound assistant (my friends).

It was my first gig on a big budget set, and for the next few years, I got quite spoiled by all the perks. It was a fun and exciting career when I was younger, but as it turned out not something I wanted to spend my life doing.

The Path to 9/11

Yesterday, I posted about the historical aspects of the ABC/Disney movie The Path to 9/11. Today, I look at the movie itself.

As many liberal bloggers have complained, there are a number of distortions in the film that shove excessive blame onto the Clinton administration. The movie is also unkind to Bush’s people especially Condoleeza Rice and even Bush himself who, although he isn’t seen, has to be pushed by Cheney into giving the shoot down order.

Interestingly, the movie’s biggest gripe isn’t with Democratic or Republican administrations. It’s with the way in which risk-averse bosses stifle the ambitions and big ideas of their underlings.

The heroes of the film, Richard Clarke and John O’Neill, are repeatedly frustrated in their efforts to kill Bin Laden during the Clinton years. When the Bush administration comes in, it’s nearly impossible to get “the principals” to think about Bin Laden in the months preceding 9/11.

Ironically, the villains deal with the same frustrations as in a scene in which Khalid Sheik Mohammad is told that twenty planes is too many and that he should think smaller.

Those damn bosses. If only they’d just let their staffs do what they want, the respective organizations would be far more successful.

The film itself is tedious beyond description, especially the second half. The pacing in part one is better, but probably only because so many different incidents are covered that it has to move fast.

It’s really not bad until the 1998 embassy bombings at which point the wheels come flying off the cart when a shrieking CIA analyst storms into George Tenet’s office and through bitter tears, blames him and all the other ditherers for not taking action on Bin Laden.

From that point on, it becomes increasingly clear that the movie has a political agenda to sell, which is that Clinton and by association all Democrats are weak on terrorism and partially to blame.

The second half drags as the filmmakers linger on every detail of the days leading up to the attacks at which point they capture the explosions, breaking glass, and terrified faces in a fetishized orgy of slo-mo violence.

The movie was in desperate need of editing, not just for accuracy, but for pacing. An hour and a half could have been cut from this monstrosity and a tightly focused work of entertainment could have been made.

Why anyone would want to be entertained by a depiction of these events is another matter which leads me back to the thought that writer Cyrus Nowrasteh and director David Cunningham may not consider this entertainment but rather document.

As it is, the movie is an overtly political, ponderous, slow, inaccurate, deliberately misleading alternate history of recent events.

Oliver Stone would be proud.

Update: Good accounts of the inaccuracies in The Path to 9/11 can be found at Media Matters and Ruth Marcus’ Washington Post column.

Postliterate History and The Path to 9/11

We watched part one of The Path to 9/11 last night. I followed much of the political hoohah around it, but ultimately decided I’d take a look at it myself. I would have reviewed it earlier, but I was not sent a preview copy unlike, apparently, every conservative blogger.

Oh, well, I suppose I can forgive ABC its oversight.

I wanted to watch the film as a student of film and history because it gives rare insight into how historical events are reshaped when retold in the visual medium.

Robert Rosentone’s book Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History, which I discovered back in my grad school days while researching World War Two films, presents a fascinating exploration of how historical films (esp. narrative films) change people’s perceptions of history:

In privileging visual and emotional data and simultaneously downplaying the analytic, the motion picture is subtly – and in ways we don’t yet know how to measure or describe – altering our very sense of the past.

This alteration of the past becomes especially important to consider as increasing numbers of people get their history from visual media. Rosenstone describes a shift to a postliterate society in which reading becomes less important than viewing; images and emotions more important than analysis; entertainment more important than anything.

Here we are now. Entertain us.

This works because film pretends to reality. By appearing realistic, a movie can become for many viewers, a record of reality. What happens to a society that bases its decisions about the future on a manufactured past? We may be about to find out.

The best history of what led to the attacks will probably not be written for many, many years. I think the best we have now is the 9/11 Commission Report, which I read shortly after it was published.

The relationship between the ABC film and the report is the biggest issue for many people because of how the film assigns blame. There is plenty of blame to cast around, but ultimately the blame – all of it – rests with the murderers who planned and executed the attacks.

Clinton and his administration could have done more to stop this in the nineties. We should remember, though, that whenever Clinton did try anything (for instance the cruise missile strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan) he was called on the carpet by a Republican party more interested in his sex life than national security.

Bush and his administration could have done more in the first months of his presidency, but he inherited a certain complacency about national security issues from the GOP of the nineties and was generally more interested in cutting taxes and clearing brush on his ranch.

Carter and Reagan could have allowed the Soviets to crush the Mujahadeen instead of choosing a ‘death by a thousand cuts’ policy that now is directed at us. We could blame the British Empire even for leaving such a mess from their imperial days in the region.

You can blame all the way back to the beginning of time, but when memories are short and an election looms, the neat package of narrative film can create a nice, easily digestible version of recent events that for many years will become the remembered history.

It’s as the great director John Ford once said, when choosing between myth and reality, print the myth.

With the mid-term elections approaching both sides seek any advantage and in this case the left claims, not without justification, that the right gets an advantage from this film that at times does make the Clinton administration look weak and timid. The right is seizing control of the myths.

What the film leaves out is the complexity. Filmmakers tell simple stories that focus on a small number of issues and characters through whose eyes we see larger events. The problem comes in that these simple stories have the effect of personalizing and simplifying history as well as localizing it into the framework of the narrative.

We lose sight of the fact that Clinton did try to kill Bin Laden. We lose sight of the fact that these problems go back much farther than the 1993 WTC bombing.

In our collective aversion to complex issues and our desire to win partisan advantage by equating our political adversaries with our mortal enemies we choose a new, and yet, very old approach to understanding our past: storytelling.

Rosentone describes historical film as being analogous to the oral story telling tradition:

Perhaps film is the postliterate equivalent of the preliterate way of dealing with the past, of those forms of history in which scientific, documentary accuracy was not yet a consideration, forms in which any notion of fact was of less importance than the sound of a voice, the rhythm of a line, the magic of words.

Film moralizes and takes away the gray areas that exist everywhere in life. It attempts to represent reality in a way that can be grasped in two hours, in a way that entertains. This is as old as humans telling stories around the fire, and it’s very satisfying.

Furthermore, a good story needs heroes such as the investigators working tirelessly to stop the terrorists. It needs villians such as the Al Qaeda terrorists themselves. It also needs tragedy such as a nation wounded by a tragic flaw: the cowardice and moral weakness of its leader.

Tragedy is powerful stuff, but it’s also a dramatic construct and not a very useful tool for examining history. In this case, it has the effect of laying blame on Clinton instead of on the partisan zeal with which we do political battle. It obscures the fact that blame falls on our way of doing politics at the expense of the country.

The greatest problem comes when societies mistake their stories for their histories. Truly a tragic situation, for it gets in the way of learning from the past, leaving us to repeat its mistakes.

Monday Movie Roundup

We actually went to a theater!

Lady in the Water (M Night Shyamalan, 2006)

Perhaps I’m the only one, but I really liked Lady in the Water, the latest offering from M Night Shyamalan. Reviews of Shyamalan’s films tend to begin with praise for the Sixth Sense and then a comment about how it’s all been downhill from there. Frankly Sixth Sense, while good, is not my favorite of his films. That honor goes to Unbreakable.

Lady in the Water is a bit of a departure for him. It does not have the Big Twist that is the hallmark of his films (especially Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, The Village) in fact, it’s pretty straightforward as to what is going on.

Cleveland Heep is an apartment manager trying to find out who’s using the pool after hours. He falls in and is rescued by the midnight swimmer: a water nymph straight out of an old bedtime story. She’s here to help save humanity, but she doesn’t know how and so Cleveland must help her before she gets killed by a scrunt. It sounds silly and we know all this before the credits even roll, so where’s the fun?

For me it’s that once Lady gets past a slow start, it’s really very funny. Most of Shyamalan’s films have moments of quirky humor, but Lady in the Water is full of it. It’s a funny movie that is at once beautiful and whimsical, not meant to be taken too seriously, and yet it speaks eloquently to the unseen potential that we all carry around with us and are often too blind or afraid to see.

Monday Movie Roundup

They say crime doesn’t pay, but it can be pretty lucrative.

Employee of the Month (Mitch Rouse, 2004)

This was interesting. What exactly is Employee of the Month? Romantic comedy? Cynical black comedy? Journey through despair? Buddy flick? Crime thriller? Or something else entirely. I wasn’t sure until it was over, and I don’t want to give anything away but it was good. It seems muddled until act three at which point I saw everything clearly, realizing that nothing was muddled except my own expectations, as it hurtled towards a strange and satisfying conclusion.

On the surface it’s about a loan officer (Matt Dillon) who loses his fiance and his job on the same day. He seems like a good-hearted decent guy, but maybe he’s not. Whatever he is, he’s having a pretty bad day. Or maybe everything is going perfectly. Check it out.

Be Cool (F Gary Gray, 2005)

I hardly remember anything about Get Shorty, but that doesn’t matter in this sequel about the further exploits of goodfella turned Hollywood player, Chili Palmer since it works as a stand-alone film.

When Be Cool opens, Chili (played by John Travolta basically doing a more likable version of his Pulp Fiction role) has grown bored with the film business and wants to make it in the rough and tumble music scene. Naturally his background helps him navigate a world of thugs, playas, gangstas and wannabes as he tries to break an up-and-coming young singer and help her get a good record deal. It’s a good-natured and at times wickedly funny movie that’s worth the watch.

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