Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Cheap Critic: Children of Men


Children of Men is an astoundingly good film... in almost every way. The acting, direction, cinematography, pacing, editing and visual style are all top notch. The film is a textbook example of how to use a camera to tell a story. I could go on for hours singing the technical merits of the film and still not do it justice. My readers are hereby commanded to immediately go out and see it, those who haven't already, because my readers deserve the finest the cinema can offer... and because I am curious how many of you will have the same problem I had with the film -- the constant indecision you feel as a viewer, about whether to rise above the rather flabby writing, or to go ahead and let it bother you.

Children of Men

The easiest way to explain my problem with the film is to ask you to perform a small thought experiment. Please imagine that the "Chairman" on Iron Chef America develops a case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and becomes obsessed with broccoli. Every week when the chest opens to reveal the secret ingredient it is the same thing: broccoli. Week after week, season after season: broccoli.

Battle Broccoli #248

Now there is nothing wrong with broccoli; it is a very healthy, wholesome food -- high in fiber and vitamins, and low in fat -- but it also has a strong distinctive flavor and after a while one could get tired of it. The Iron Chefs may be mighty men of culinary science but after a while even they might start to run out of ways to feature broccoli.

That is more or less the problem I find myself confronting every time I go to the movies these days. The secret ingredient is almost always the same. The "Ominous Parallels" between post-9/11 western societies and Germany between the wars is an interesting enough notion, and one you could do well to explore in a film or two, but it is not an interesting enough idea to serve as the basis for all of the movies coming out of Hollywood year after year.

To be fair, while I do tend to like broccoli when nicely prepared, with the "Ominous Parallels," not so much. I thought Leonard Peikoff overtaxed the notion in his book by that title a quarter of a century ago and I find the most recent resurgence of the concept among the trendy, anti-war left even more annoying.

Alfonso Cuarón is clearly an extremely talented filmmaker and if anyone could make P.D. James’ novel fit into the marxist mythos of Ominous Parellels he is the one. But he couldn't quite accomplish it and arrive at the end with a film that makes any sense. Some people I know (the Teleodaughter, for one) very much admire the book and are rather cross at Cuarón for trying. Me, I haven't read the book so all I noticed was that the film is ultimately hollow at the core -- but Hot Damn! what a surface it's got!

For other views of the film, both better written than mine, I recommend these reviews: Don't blame me for 'Children of Men' by Mark Steyn and Children of Men Gets It All Wrong by my friend, Bill.

So, in conclusion: Iron Filmmaker, Cuarón has labored mightily to produce Children of Broccoli but I say it's spinach and I say the Hell with it!

When Life Gives You Grapes...

grapes > > > > > vinegar

...Make Vinegar!!

Considering College a report on access to education featured on WUNC, our local NPR station, tells us that
More Americans are going to college than ever before. But a closer look at the numbers reveals some troubling realities. Low-income students are even less likely to go to college today than high income students were 30 years ago.
Shocking, isn't it? Sure, more people are going to college in absolute terms. And yes, this includes more low-income students (who are half-again as likely to get a BS than their parents were) but today's low-income students are "even less" likely to get that BS than the rich kids were a generation ago. Seems an odd statistic, doesn't it? Comparing one group today with another thirty years ago? And, for that matter, why is it "even less?" Usually the term "even less" is used when something stands out in a world where things are bad or getting worse. But everything in this picture is rosy. Is it just me or are they grasping for any bad news they can find here?

News flash: I have "even" less money in the bank than Bill Gates! *sob*

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Cheap Critic: The Fountain


The Fountain is a risky film for which to attempt a plot summary. It cuts back and forth between three stories featuring the the leading couple, Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, in different (but similar) roles. One story is set 500 years in the past, one in the present and one 500 years in the future. Possible explanations for how the plot spans a thousand years are 1) reincarnation, 2) near-immortality, 3) the past and future scenes are from a book that one of the characters has written, or 4) some other new-age mumbo beyond my ability to understand or care. None of these quite seems to fill the bill so one probably needs to combine them to fully explain the plot -- which I will not attempt.

If you simply must have a plot summary I can recommend one by Ian Dalrymple. Dalrymple tries fairly hard to summarize the plot in his review, No Shiny Pennies in The Fountain, and does a fairly good job at sorting out which parts of the film are merely fiction and which parts are meta-fiction (fiction-within-a-fiction). After laboring mightily to summarize the plot he goes on to pan the film for reasons that are fairly sound although some of his critique comes from his religious perspective which not all readers of this blog will share.

Nonetheless, even leaving out his religious criticism there is quite a bit to dislike about The Fountain which is alternately pretentious, ponderous and dull. Having said that I must admit to having rather enjoyed the film for reasons that have little to do with its artistic merit. I found the film very nostalgic because it does a brilliant job of channeling the year 1970 for which I have very fond memories.

To start with, the part of the plot set in the present is basically Love Story. If you don't remember Love Story it concerns an attractive young couple who frolic in the snow ...


The Fountain


Love Story

... until the girl becomes sick ...


The Fountain


Love Story

... and dies. Our hero is left alone and all he has to console him is the idiotic tag line for the film. Death is the road to awe and Love means never having to say your're sorry, respectively.

In addition to this Readers Digest version of Love Story The Fountain had these really good 1970-style visuals for which we apparently have to thank Brad Pitt. You see, Pitt was originally cast in the male lead but he and the director had a falling out half-way through the filming and the project was put on hold for a couple of years. When it re-emerged with Hugh Jackman in the lead it had about half the budget it had before. In place of the rather expensive computer effects originally planned they used miniature photography of chemical reactions (crystals growing, oil films, etc.) which are visually stunning but give the film a sort of Roger Dean meets Barbarella vibe.


The future sequence takes place in a large bubble zooming through outer space with our hero and a tree inside...


... which rather reminds me of Roger Dean's logo for Virgin Records, not to mention his Floating Islands stuff...

<< Sorry, can't find an image to go here >>

... and even more reminds me of the bubble that protects Pygar and Barbarella from the Matmus.

So, my recommendation: by all means go see The Fountain but get a copy of Barbarella
to see with it. It'll give you a whole different slant on the film.

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Polish Egg...

dumbrowskiIf you will bear with me, a quick joke to start things off:

Comic: FIve dollars says you can't answer a few simple questions about Polish history.
Straight man: You're on.
Comit: What was the name of the most famous Polish-American baseball player?
Straight man: No idea.
Comic: That would be Babe Ruthski. I'll give you a second chance. How about the pole who invented the telephone.
Straight man: Well, I'm not sure...
Comic: Alexander Graham Bellski. One more chance; are you ready?
Straght man: Yes, I think I am.
Comic: Ok, here's your last question: Name the Polish egg that fell off the wall and all the kings horses and all the kings men couldn't put him together again.
Straght man: HAH, I've got it! That would be Humpty Dumpski!!
Comic: Your'e close. It was Humpty DumBROWski!

My more perceptive readers will have noticed that the joke is only mildly funny. To the extent that it is funny at all it is because we can see that the rules are rigged so the Rube can't win. No matter what he says the rules can be changed so he is wrong.

On the other hand, despite not being particularly funny it is a very servicable joke. I'm not sure how long ago I first heard it; It's been at least a decade, maybe more than one, and I think about the joke frequently and tell it occasionally. It's a joke that everyone should know for reasons of cultural literacy. It installs itself in your brain and gives you another way to see the world as a funny place.

Recently the joke whispers to me while I am listening to critics of the President's new plan for Iraq. Many of them are on record as having recommended key features of the new plan prior to it's announcement when they were complaining about the old plan. But now that they hear Bush say it they don't like it. "Yes, yes," they seen to say, "more troops, clear and hold, pressure Maliki to get tough with the militias, more focus on controlling the borders. You're close Mr. President, but you still have it tragically wrong. It's Humpty DumBROWski."

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Cheap Critic: Santa Clause 3


Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause is not exactly a "great" movie in any way, if you catch my drift, but you gotta give it credit for not being the real stinker that we had every reason to expect. The first film in the series had a presentable enough premise: Whenever Santa Clause dies the next person to put on his coat will magically assume his office. Our hero, Tim Allen, is a likable ordinary, everyday workaholic who has neglected his family. He sees Santa slip, fall off a rooftop, expire and disappear -- leaving only an indentation in the snow and an empty Santa suit. When Allen picks up the red coat and tries it on he has set himself on a course to a new life with lots of lessons to learn along the way -- mostly lessons about what a useless schlub he has been all his life and how he has ignored the people who ought to have mattered.

Like I said, a presentable premise, one that is markedly similar to Piers Anthony's On a Dark Horse -- the first book in his Incarnations of Immortality series -- where our hero becomes the incarnation of "Death" by being the closest person when the previous holder of the office died. The parallels between the worlds presented in Anthony's Incarnations and in The Santa Clause are so close that it is difficult to believe they are accidental. And while it took Anthony seven books to run out of ideas, The Santa Clause was overdrawn at the concept bank by the middle of film two and there just wasn't anything left, by way of new ideas, in the third film.

So the film should have stunk, but it didn't... for the most part. What it lacks in plot it makes up in amusing "bits" and grim determination on the part of the cast. Everyone did a good job: Allen is always reliable. Alan Arkin might have wanted a bit more to work with but he did a very workmanlike job as the father in law and Ann-Margret was perfectly OK as the mother-in-law. Martin Short worked very, very hard to do something with his role as Jack Frost (the villain) and Liliana Mumy (the daughter) was endlessly cute (and yes, she is Billy Mumy's daughter.)


There is one sequence in the film where one cannot help but notice that it is not just the series that is getting old, but that the actors have not escaped the effects of the years since the release of the first Santa Clause in 1994. (God, has it been 14 years?) The latest film has a sideways-in-time, alternate history sort of plot and there is one scene where they use footage from the orignial film to establish the different events that lead to the film's dystopian alternate present. While it is fun to contrast the younger and the grown-up versions of Eric Lloyd (who play's Allen's son) at the same time on is struck by how young Allen seemed in the first film compared to the latest one.

On the other hand, growing older generally beats the alternative. Santa Clause: the Escape Clause may turn out to be the last film for the great and immensely good-looking Peter Boyle who was in all three films. (Yes, people do tell me I look like him; why do you ask?) According to IMDB Boyle has one more film in pre-production, due out this year, but it's difficult to know if they got the footage they needed before he passed.

So, in conclusion, Santa Clause 3: the Escape Clause is a pleasant enough film with very little about it that is new or different. This makes it a perfect film to watch with small children and autistic adults, two groups who find repetitive entertainments reassuring. For the rest of us... well... there's no particular reason not to watch it if you have a spare 98 minutes.