FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON: Reviews of District 9 and Moon


I know I’m absurdly late in reviewing District 9 (as well as Moon, but no one cares about Moon that much, which is a shame because it’s just as worthy as District 9 in being talked about). Both are sci-fi stories about an idea: District 9’s is political and in your face while Moon’s is existential and introspective (which may tell you why District 9 got all the press).

District 9, written by Terri Tatchell and Neill Blomkamp (who also directed) has a clever premise (though not an original one; it’s already served as the basis for a couple of films and TV series) and is ultimately moving, but it’s also one of those movies in which I turn out to be a party pooper. I’m sorry, but I simply didn’t like it as much as other people did. The most interesting aspect of the story was how four people, three of them white and one black, all think they are the center of the universe and simply can’t conceive of the idea that they aren’t, in spite of the fact that the earth has now been visited by aliens. For three of these people, this leads to their death (though the hero, played by Sharlto Copley, finds redemption) while one, the owner of a private security firm (can you say “Blackwater”), who also happens to be the hero’s father-in-law, escapes totally unscathed. For me, the whole movie suffers from structural weakness (it starts out with one plot and then halfway through changes horses and goes in a different direction) and a story that doesn’t always convince. The first half revolves around a mid-level bureaucrat (Copley—see my review of Inglorious Basterds) having to railroad a group of space aliens out of their ghetto into a new, even worse ghetto. The move, backed up by the private security firm, is so poorly organized and sloppily carried out, it’s never really believable (though it’s difficult to say whether it truly is poorly organized or if the director thought a well organized, more believable relocation would be too dull to put on camera, so he jazzed it up with hand held camera work and a lot of manufactured chaos). When the hero gets infected by something and starts turning alien, his father-in-law abducts him for his own nefarious reasons; at this point, the story has one of those twists that is utterly ridiculous—once the father-in-law determines that the hero is no longer useful, he plans to off him. This would never happen since the hero is still very useful; there is still too much to study and the hero is worth more alive than dead. But if the father-in-law doesn’t make the decision to kill the hero, then the second half of the movie can’t transpire (isn’t it nice when one of the characters knows they’re in a movie and is willing to do what needs to be done to keep the plot going the way the author wants). Once the hero escapes, the movie becomes a rather routine, though exciting and well executed, chase picture in which the hero decides to help some aliens return to their home planet. Here the hero goes through that traditional character arc so beloved of books and film school classes on screenwriting. In one way, I don’t want to knock the movie; considering the relatively small budget, the writer, director and technicians have achieved something somewhat remarkable. But, though enjoyable, I’m just not convinced it rises above what it is. And perhaps I wouldn’t even have a problem with it not rising about what it is if everybody else didn’t keep saying that it does when it doesn’t.

Moon, written by Nathan Parker from a story by director Duncan Jones, in many ways had a deeper emotional effect on me, perhaps because its themes, for whatever reason, have a deeper resonance for my life. In the future, Earth needs supplies and is getting them from the moon by way of a mining factory run by a single person, played by Sam Rockwell. Rockwell is counting down the days until he can return home to his wife and daughter on earth, but then something strange happens. He has an accident while out investigating a malfunction and wakes up in sick bay, saved by his 2001 type Hal robot (with the silky voice of Kevin Spacey, an existential nightmare in itself). Well, accidents happen; the problem is that when Rockwell reinvestigates the incident, he finds that he’s still there. He brings his double back to the mining base and slowly discovers the real truth: he himself, along with his twin, is actually a clone of the original Rockwell, who is still on earth, much older and now a widower. Every so many years, as a Rockwell clone runs down, it is replaced by another clone (there are thousands of them) with a false memory of having been in an accident where they lost consciousness and are now waking up. But now that Rockwell is aware of who he is, the question then becomes, who is he? Moon asks the same question as movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and Screamers: if one can’t tell the difference between a robot, android, clone, etc. and a human being, then is there a difference? If you can’t tell them apart, then what makes a human being a human being? Of course, this is in many ways a philosophical question that one usually only deals with late at night in college when one is drunk, mainly because no robot or android has been created that one can mistake for a human being; the question is academic. At the same time, that doesn’t stop it from being haunting with a deep emotional resonance for many people (including moi). So when Rockwell decides to fight for his existence, I became deeply involved in his desire to be considered fully human. As I said, this suffers from the same structural problems as District 9. Moon starts out as a meandering story about someone trying to survive being isolated on the moon. Then it changes when Rockwell discovers his double and the story arc changes. In addition, the transition between the two story threads is weak. In District 9, it’s not believable that anyone would want to kill the hero; in Moon, Rockwell’s reaction to finding his double is too low key and not convincing. Neither story really takes off until they get past these problematic areas. Both are examples of scripts with week first acts, but strong final ones.

I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP, YOU KNOW–reviews of Taxidermia, Thirst and Cold Souls


I have gotten so behind on my blog, but I have a ton of good reasons and I’m sure I can come up with a few more if these don’t satisfy. I spent seven days in jury duty (and then this week got another notice for jury service which I didn’t think was funny one bit). After that I needed to earn a living and do coverage work and then I needed to do some work on a screenplay I’m writing with a writing partner. I’ll also blame the hot weather.

So, I’m going to concentrate on catching up on my movie reviews starting with these three fascinating oddities that I’m grouping under a title that is a homage to Anna Russell’s satiric summary of Wagner’s The Ring Cycle: “I am not making this up, you know”. All three are examples of the kind of movie I tend to look forward to, the ones that I’m eager to see while everyone else is talking about the next Batman and Transformer movie. These are smaller, more personal films, all audacious and often foolhardy, made by artists who have a vision; something that feels left out of U.S. films lately, possibly because such a trait is often ground down by film school and books on screenwriting.

Taxidermia is best summed up by the plot: a lowly and incredibly thin soldier who can shoot fire out of his penis has sex with his commanding officer’s heavyset wife; their very overweight son becomes a major competitor in the Olympic sport of speed eating (that’s okay, I never heard of it either); but the son’s son then regresses to being ultra thin like his grandfather (and therefore a disappointment to his father) and spends his time in taxidermy and taking care of his father who is so grotesquely overweight he can’t leave his basement apartment (the movie is sort an after, before, then after ad for a weight loss clinic). Fascinating for awhile on its own terms of utter weirdness, but from a story telling point of view, it feels like a number of scenes were left out between the second and third generation to explain what happened to that relationship. It’s written by Gyorgy Palfi (who also directed and who has gotten a slew of awards and nominations for this and his movie Hukkle) and Zsofia Ruttkay based on some short stories by Lajos Parti Nagy. It’s reminiscent of such movies as Delicatessen, Eraserhead and films by Peter Greenaway, best summed up with the phrase “for those who like this sort of film, it’s just the sort of film they’ll like”. I can’t say I liked it, though; but it certainly held my attention.

Thirst: if someone can write the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, then I don’t see why someone can’t make the movie Theresa Raquin and Vampires, which is what this South Korean movie is. Theresa Raquin is a 19th century novel by Emile Zola about the wages of sin being death; Thirst takes that idea a step further by turning Raquin’s central character, a bourgeoisie roué, into a devout Catholic priest. In this vampire version, a priest, because of his faith, undergoes an experimental treatment for a disease and ends up craving blood. He has an affair with a married woman and together they drown her dull and bland husband, but are haunted by their crime. It’s exciting, unapologetic, violent and at times ridiculously so over the top it reaches camp (though how does one do a vampire Theresa Raquin without some camp sneaking in). It was written by Seo-Gyeong Jeong (who also wrote a movie called I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay) and Chan-wook Park, who also directed and is known over here for the soon to be remade in the U.S. Old Boy.

Cold Souls, written and directed by Sophie Barthes, is one of those movies one describes as intriguing, which is fine with me, though I know a lot of people who consider that the kiss of death (like describing a script as existential to a Hollywood executive). It’s a very clever European type of movie (though its inspiration is Russian writers like Gorky, Chekhov and Dostoevsky) in which an actor named Paul Giamatti played by Paul Giamatti (I know, I know, type casting; but wouldn’t it have been hysterical if he hadn’t got the part and Philip Seymour Hoffman had been cast instead) can’t find the soul of Uncle Vanya, the character he is playing in the Anton Chekhov play of the same name, so he has his soul removed and substituted with that of a Russian poet (by way of a business headed by David Strathairn that seems straight out of a Charlie Kaufman movie). Giamatti finds the soul of Vanya, but loses his own. When he wants his back, he finds it’s been sold on the black market and he has to go to Russia to retrieve it. Ridiculous and absurd, yes, but also ultimately moving and insightful into the human condition (yes, it’s one of those movies; so deal with it).

WAR IS HECK: Reviews of Flame and Citron and Inglourious Basterds


Though it sounds like a drink created by Absolut, Flame and Citron is really one of those new fangled movies in which the writers (Lars “Adam’s Apples” Andersen and Ole “Prague” Christian Madsen) and director (Madsen redux) want to complicate the myth that World War II was the good war and that all the Germans were bad and all the non-Germans (or at least those who worked with the resistance) were good. The U.S. did this sort of thing in the 1960’s and 70s with Westerns like Little Big Man. The problem is that often all that movies like this do is just reverse who the good guys and bad guys are without bringing any new insight into the situation. And to be honest, it’s a little unclear that movies like this one, as well as Blackbook and A Woman in Berlin, are any more successful at the remything thing than the U.S. was. But it was bound to happen sooner or later, so one might as well just bend over and take it like a man. Flame and Citron, though, is perhaps the best of the bunch. The characters are the most interesting so far, especially Mads Mikkelsen of Casino Royale, Prague and After the Wedding fame, as a sweaty resistance fighter (spritz girl, spritz girl, we need the spritz girl) who’s equally resistant to being a good father and husband—he’s one of those guys whose marriage is falling apart and he’s the only one in the world who doesn’t understand why. Also on hand is Christian Berkel, reprising his nasty bald headed German role (I can say that because I’m also follicley challenged) from Blackbook—he’s quickly becoming the new Otto Preminger, the German we all love to hate. As exciting and interesting as Flame and Citron is, it does suffer a bit in the storytelling department. It’s a little unclear whether these two assassins were always being manipulated into killing the wrong people, or were only tricked into it once their leader realized that the Germans were going to lose the war and he needed to cover his business dealings with the enemy. It also seems a little odd that the Germans can’t find any members of this underground group since they did little to hide it and even had a daily meeting of drinks and gossip at a local restaurant. But the film is lovely to look at and the period detail is strong and fortunately it lacks the over the top, often camp, melodrama of Blackbook.

Inglourious Basterds (written and directed by some guy called Quentin Tarantino) also has one of those Germans we all love to hate, this time played by Christoph Waltz (he’s one of those actors no one in the U.S. had ever heard of before now, but has made such a mark for himself, he’s now signed up to be in movies like The Green Hornet—lucky him). Waltz plays Col. Hans Landa. One might say he’s sort of a Karl Rove/Dick Cheney type character, someone who runs everything behind the scenes; from the way the script is written, one might even believe it was Landa who came up with the final solution, not Eichmann or any of those ilk. Landa plays a type of person who has become very popular in movies lately—the mid-level bureaucrat who actually is the real mover and shaker of world events (like Rove and Cheney). One can also find this character played by Sharlto Copley in District 9 (this actor is being rewarded for his success by being cast in The A-Team—I tell you, like no good deed, no good performance goes unpunished) and Peter Capaldi in Torchwood: Children of Earth. Such people are given the responsibility to take care of a situation, yet are often chosen so that if things go wrong, they can be the perfect fall guy. Waltz’s character is the cleverest and most powerful of them all: so powerful he can rewrite history. He’s the mid-level bureaucrat’s mid-level bureaucrat, the one that everyone hopes to be, but only a few can achieve. All that aside, there is little I can add to what everyone else has already said. From what I can tell, how much one likes this film depends on how well one likes Melanie Laurent as the Jewish movie theater owner: since I found her bland and unexciting, I found too many of her scenes the same. But the film is audacious and in your face and I loved the homages to Ernst Lubitsch’s film To Be or Not To Be (also a controversial film about World War II, though made during World War II) in which Hitler attends a theatrical performance. To be petty, I also found a couple of the scenes to go on too long and the final bloodbath at the theater to be too short. But no matter what one thinks of it, it’s hard not to come away in admiration of Tarantino for his insistence on doing what he wants (while also having something to do—not everyone who does what they want does).

NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK: Scott and Phillips take over At the Movies


I watched A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips’ first day out on the At the Movies after replacing Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz. Like many people, I was never that big a fan of the two Bens, though I wasn’t always sure why. Their opinions were no better or different than many other critics (I was surprised at times, both pleasantly and unpleasantly, by the things they liked and didn’t like) and I doubt that when it comes to opinions, Scott and Phillips are going to be any different. They will like things I hate and hate things I like and like things I like and hate things I hate.
But after watching Scott and Phillips, I think I know why the two Bens just didn’t work for me. It wasn’t what they said. It wasn’t even Lyons’ often unbelievably stupid comments on films. It was the two men themselves, their personalities. They always made me, well, nervous. They had this weird intensity and focus that drove me up the wall. This was especially true of Lyons; he’s the sort of person who would walk into a room and the energy level would instantly change (for me, for the worse). I’m not convinced that this was as true for Mankiewicz; I suspect that his freneticism was a direct reaction to Lyons.
So in watching Scott and Phillips, that was one thing I was grateful for. I was no longer nervous and on edge listening to their opinions. These two critics were calm, erudite, intelligent. They made comments, especially in the way they would put a movie in context of other films, that were intriguing.
At the same time, as much as I’m glad to have Scott and Phillips, I have to admit that they are also a bit dull. They may not have the uncomfortable frenetic energy of the two Bens, but at the same time, they also don’t have a great deal of charisma either. Scott seemed particularly uncomfortable this first night.
Hopefully, this might change. As the two newbies grow into their roles on At the Movies, they may loosen up and have a more immediate connection to the viewers. But even if they don’t, I still would rather have them than what was there before.

MOVIES TO THE LEFT OF ME, MOVIES TO THE RIGHT OF ME and not cel to see


In spite of what a lot of people say, L.A. is a great place to see movies. At any one time, we get first run movies before other cities; we have tons of film festivals from countries one didn’t even know existed; we have a second run theater or two; and we have lots and lots of film programs where you can see films that haven’t even come out on Netflix. So why is it that every once in awhile, a weekend comes and it turns into cable TV–all those extra channels and you still can’t find anything you want to watch.
This weekend became one of those times. Weekends are the times I especially look forward to in going to movies because the options seem endless, often frustratingly so (do I go to that Lower Slobovian film by that director whose name no one can pronounce but if I don’t go see it now, it may never show up in L.A. again and without seeing it my soul may be irreparably damaged and I’ll miss another gut wrenching journey into the depths of humanity, or do I see that double feature of Anthony Mann films since somehow, for reasons I can’t explain or justify, I’ve never really seen an Anthony Mann film–believe me, from a film goer’s point of view, that’s a tough call) . But this was not to be one of those choice filled Friday through Sundays. Which was doubly frustrating since it was so hot and movie theaters are a great escape from the heat (see, movies have their practical side, too).
In deciding what I want to go see in a theater on the weekend, I never start with first run theaters for no other reason than the prices are much higher unless I want to go to the first show. For example, weekends immediately take out any Laemmle Theaters (like the Sunset V) because Tuesdays are $6.00 ticket days, so I usually wait until then and make a smorgasbord of it all. And I almost never go to the Arclight anymore because of the ridiculously high prices (and ofttimes many of the tent pole films open at places like the Vista, which are cheaper–especially the first shows–and just as nice). For example, I still haven’t seen (500) Days of Summer and I waited until Cold Souls moved to Sunset V.
Transportation is another issue. I don’t have a car so I’m one of those people who according to Joan Didion don’t exist in L.A. I take public transportation. This removes from consideration places like the Landmark or theaters in Santa Monica and puts on the back burner theaters that require me to take the bus home late at night where if you miss one, you may have to wait an hour for the next one.
I also don’t want to go all the way out to the Nuart unless there’s also something to see at the Royal since they are so close together. The Nuart only has matinees on weekends, so I don’t want to travel all the way out there just to see a 5:00 show during the week. But I’m willing to make the trip if there’s something also at the Royal and I can kill two birds with one stone in the bush. In addition, the Royal has weekday matinees (and is a Laemmle, so it’s also a $6.00 Tuesday theater) so I usually don’t go to them on the weekend.
Stop me if this starts sounding more and more neurotic like I’m in an episode of Monk.
In addition, I only go to the Beverly Center during the week. It costs just a semi-thin quarter to take the DASH bus there (which doesn’t run on Sundays) and the theater also has cheap matinees. The Beverly Center is also a great place to catch up on movies you missed since it almost, but not quite, acts like a second run theater. One has to put up with the small screens, but one can’t have everything.
So there was nothing at the first run theaters that pricked my ears or that I could get to or that I was willing to spend an outrageous amount of money on. Which was fine, because I usually like going to second run or film programs anyway. I usually find the movies more interesting and I can see films I didn’t even know existed, which means I can bore the shit out of my friends when I see them next and they ask me what I’ve seen lately (something they seemed to have stopped doing lately–I wonder why). Believe, nothing stops a conversation quicker than telling someone you saw Thirst last week while they’ve seen District 9.
The Fairfax is a good second run, though it’s also cheaper during the week. The main problem there is that they had only one movie I wanted to see, Funny People, but they’re only showing it at night. Since this means I have to take the Fairfax bus home, I usually don’t like to go during that late.
Which leaves five places to see the sort of films that really turn me on. The New Beverly; the UCLA Archive at the Hammer Museum; LACMA; The Silent Movie Theater; and the American Cinemateque. I always look at the American Cinemateque schedule first since it is only a few blocks away. But this weekend, they’ve rented out the place to Cinecom, an organization that shows rare to see films, which would normally interest me, except that you have to buy day passes or run of the fest pass, which is too expensive.
I’ve seen the movies at the New Beverly (which is usually the case). Both LACMA and UCLA Hammer weren’t showing anything for the Labor Day Weekend. Which left the Silent Movie Theater. But this particular weekend they were only showing one film I was interested in seeing, Joseph Losey’s The Criminal. But it was showing with Get Carter, which I had already seen. Plus it has the same problem of my having to take the bus back, which can be problematic at night.
So that was that. Nothing to see, so this weekend I’m doing Netflix and On Demand. This means Catch 22 and Divine Intervention as well as a French movie about a serial killer that dresses his victims like dolls, and the second season of Dexter. All in all, the weekend turned out just fine after all, except for the heat, but you can’t have everything.

JUST BLOWING OFF SOME STEAM


I haven’t added anything to my blog for some time now and I always get nervous when I don’t. This probably wouldn’t be that big a deal to me, but I’m suppose to be existential which basically means in this context, this is a blog, therefore I should blog. Lacking anything incredibly meaningful to say, I thought I’d just write down what’s going on with me and my life. You know, the sort of thing that I find boring and makes other people want to hang themselves.
I may even try to do it on a more daily, dear diary sort of schedule. Which means in addition to being existential, I’m also a tad pathetic. But isn’t that the definition of a screenwriter in LA?
I’ve been a little frustrated this week because I’m suppose to be doing the next installment of a screenplay that I’m writing with a partner. The reason I’m frustrated is because the screenplay is actually going very well. I think we make a good partnership and the whole thing feels right. So it’s just annoyingly maddening that I’m not writing my guts out.
My main problem is that I’m busy with work, which is a good thing. The Slamdance Screenplay Competition and Regent Entertainment/Here! Networks has been keeping me pretty busy. So I’m not complaining. Well, I am complaining, that’s pretty obvious, but I’m trying to do it in a noncomplaining way because with the economy the way it is, I’m happy to have money coming in.
I was also suppose to have a staged reading of my screenplay Rough Trade in New York in October to start off a reading series for OTF (Out in Television and Film), but I couldn’t find a director. I found this quite mind boggling, but there it is. However, it turns out it might be for the best. One of the reasons I was going first in the series was that the one who was running the series was having difficulty finding a script to read that he liked (which made me feel pretty pleased with myself, to tell the truth). But it no longer looks like that is a problem and instead I’ll be kicking off the LA staged reading series beginning in January. The stress is off.
I’m also behind at doing my reviews of movies I’ve seen. In many ways, this is the area where I am most frustrated with myself. If you talked to my friends, they would all tell you that I can rarely shut up about the movies I’ve seen. But I still haven’t put my thoughts done on such flicks as Flame and Citron and Inglorious Bastards, among others.
Well, no matter what else, I got it all off my chest for a little while at least.