Ten Recent Views

Wild in the Streets (dir. Barry Shear, 1968) -
From the director of Across 110th Street comes this look at the youth movement of 1968, something viewed with a total fear and cynicism from its adult filmmakers. In it, a pop idol (who encourages racial and gender equality and is homo-friendly) creates a wave of political change across the nation by encouraging his youthful following to overthrow the adult authority ruling the country by pairing with an ambitious senator who helps pass legislation lowering the voting age to 14. Naturally, the film finds that once it happens and the youth begin altering national policy, their choices are foolish, quickly lowering things to a totalitarian state. Its contempt for youth is constantly highlighted by how shallow, selfish and stupid they're made to appear, while most of its adults seem similarly ridiculous and idiotic. A time capsule of reactionary forces speaking out in a progressive time.

The Tale of Despereaux (dir. Sam Fell/Robert Stevenhagen, 2008) -
I'm not sure if the pacing and structure is ingenious or unknowing. I think that a lot of the bad reviews for this films stem from the fact that you have a film about a cute little mouse in a swell hat and yet it doesn't kowtow to Disney-fied cuteness, doesn't pander to the audience and offer the adorable little hero they expected. That said, I think its ambitions outstrip its reality, taking on several subplots that don't entwine together, just sort of co-exist. It reminds me in this way of Bergman's Persona, which never seems to be able to make up its mind if it wants to be a heavy psycho-drama or an avant-garde experiment and ends up treading a somewhat unsuccessful line between the two, just as Tale of Despereaux still comes on charming and interesting without engaging as fully as it could (or should). It's never cloying and cutesy, so I appreciate that for sure, but it also never goes a step beyond and turns its bounty of ideas into something better.

Patrick (dir. Richard Franklin, 1978) -
Everything you need to know about this film is on the outer packaging. An Australian film about a telekinetically endowed young man in a coma, in which a nurse begins to suspect that he's not the vegetable that everyone else believes. Also important on the outer packaging is its rating - PG - which tells you about how intense they're going to allow it to get. Given that it's my namesake, I really hoped for more - I've actually had this movie in the back of my head since I first heard of it 31 years ago - and it just didn't deliver, despite a few interesting ideas and pieces. Good concept, but it builds endlessly toward a very anti-climactic climax. Ho-hum. Even Spielberg did more with a suspenseful idea and a PG rating.

Tropic Thunder (dir. Ben Stiller, 2008) -
When Stiller is the main creative force behind the characters and the story, he's approximately 6000 times funnier than when he's hired on as actor for someone else's film. Though he'll never be as artsy or experimental he reminds me of John Cassavetes, taking on mainstream work to make money to fund his more esoteric ventures that are always more interesting. This one's no exception, making character the central idea over plot - no surprise to me that Downey got a nod from the Academy for his work here even if I didn't think it was as great as they did; he took an idea and ran with it. But Stiller's brand of humor is all over this, starting with the great opening sequence of clips setting up each of the main characters and then developing them over the film, rather than just having one-note characters who have some change late in the film, as in so many so-so comedies out of Hollywood. And when it starts getting less funny and winding you up in the lives of the characters they've invested the time to make, it works there too. I prefer the goofy stuff of course - when Stiller is on stage in a drug lord's prison camp recreating a role his captors know from their only video tape they have for entertainment, you know they've made something special - but the fact that they don't only do pratfalls and kick-in-the-balls type of humor makes this different from most Hollywood fare.

The Last Wave (dir. Peter Weir, 1977) -
Probably the best of Weir's early films, beating out the L'Avventura Redux of Picnic at Hanging Rock for my tastes and way more coherent and thought through than The Cars That Ate Paris. Richard Chamberlain plays a lawyer hired to defend an Aboriginal accused of murder. As he gets deeper into the case things start to get weird, finding an apocalyptic prophecy and possible evidence of magic that seem tied into things - and into his own life. I like that it remains ambiguous, like the overall feel of the film, there's some great imagery - and I still think it's an interesting view without loving the film. But I'm sure I'll watch it again, for all the reasons listed above.

Milk (dir. Gus Van Sant, 2008) -
I should love it as a film and I don't - it's a little too obvious in spots - but as a social document I have to give it major props. It's a fairly uncompromised view of the gay world that's making major inroads to all kinds of viewers, not just a ghettoized version that stays within a gay (and gay-friendly) viewership. Like a lot of Gus Van Sant's films, especially recent ones, there's an underlying (implied) motif of the violence resulting from repressed homosexuality - in this case, that of Dan White, who murdered both Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk. Van Sant's been more effective recently, but I guess his reigned in/more audience friendly version of the stories that have been fascinating him lately - less experimental than Elephant and Last Days and Gerry for sure, even if it's related - still tells a story worth telling (and seeing, of course), and the fact that it's gotten such a great reception is gratifying and encouraging. Not my favorite Van Sant, but if you don't know the Harvey Milk story, this is a good dramatic representation of it. Proceed directly from here to the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. And as a last note, Sean Penn deserves major props for his representation of Milk here - there was not a moment of the film that I thought of it as Penn playing a character, he simply vanishes into the role.

Iron Man (dir. Jon Favreau, 2008) -
Self-deprecating humor throughout, and Downey is great in the title role. It's "just" entertainment of course, nothing loftier but if you wanna see A) shit blowin' up real good and B) and enjoyable couple hours of well made popcorn movie, you've got a fine pick on your hands here. Comic book reading is not a pre-requisite, either, you can walk into this without knowing the name Tony Stark and still have fun with it - if fun's what you're looking for. I think you'd be stretching things beyond their substance to try to read anything about a political situation into this, other than a generalized set of ideas about current concepts of war and the role of industrialized warfare in the U.S.

Kung Fu Panda (dir. Mark Osborne/John Stevenson, 2008) -
Not bad, I guess for an animated set of watered down eastern-isms. I just wish that they'd made it funnier than it was, or more serious, or maybe just less predictable. Fluffy, and if I had kids it might be the way i'd introduce them to concepts that I'd be forcing on them more and more later. But I don't have kids, so the likelihood of me watching again is pretty damn slim.

Onibaba (dir. Kaneto Shindô, 1964) -
A strange little story of evil and demons and human desperation that probably has a lot more resonance with people who might've grown up with a background that included the folk tale(s) that formed part of the story - or at least studied them first - than it did with me. That said, it's a great visual story and a really engrossing - albeit grim - tale of people living in dire straits, carving out their survival by any means they can in a surprisingly brutal and frank manner (especially for the time). There's a lot going on here that I feel went over my head on the first viewing and it's definitely a film I'll be going back to.

Big House, U.S.A. (dir. Howard W. Koch, 1955) -
Lots of nice Colorado footage here - always a plus for me - but the story's really the thing that powers this. Ralph Meeker plays an opportunistic sociopath who kidnaps a lost boy when he finds out the kid's family has money and ultimately is tracked down and ends up in jail, denying his involvement all the while. He's pretty great as the absolutely cold-blooded criminal, perfectly illuminating the character he's given - nicknamed "Ice Man" for his cool demeanor and refusal to crack under pressure from the feds once he's inside - but Broderick Crawford is given a great role here and steals the show as a crime kingpin. He's planning a jailbreak and Meeker's Ice Man being dropped into things only means his plans need to be altered slightly, with or without Ice Man's acquiescence. The breakout and subsequent action are where it's at though, even if the lead-up feels nicely gritty and intense. Lots of fun, even if nothing incredibly special.

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