Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Holy Mountain - 1973

"The Holy Mountain" - 1973
Dir. by Alejandro Jodorowsky - 1 hr. 54 min.

Theatrical Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

So, there are two kinds of movies.  Stop me if you've heard this before.  There are many types of movies, but in this regard, there are only a couple of kinds.  There are the movies that are plot-driven, and then there are movies like "The Holy Mountain," which are experience-driven.  It's not that there isn't a plot, it's that if you were trying to describe what you'd just seen to a friend, you wouldn't go through the "this happened, and then this happened" explanation.  If I tried to explain the plot, it wouldn't help you understand anything about the movie.

"The Holy Mountain" is a first-rate experience.  On one level, it's a visual feast.  Even when making little sense, you can still watch what's happening with sense of wonder and awe.  Above all else, director Alejandro Jodorowsky knows how to make a scene, in the sense of a spectacular event.  Those scenes are frequently sacrilegious, because Jodorowsky is a button-pusher, but also because those images are recognizable.  One example, we're introduced to the main character (who not only bears a strong resemblance to Jesus Christ, but a cast is made from him later to create paper-mache Jesus figures, and is at one point tied to a cross) with his being passed-out drunk in the street, urinating on himself.

This is a very tough film to write about.  I'm, of course, aware of the "dancing about architecture" line, but most film directors don't make it that tough to write about their movies.  "The Holy Mountain" is the exact opposite of a film like "Rear Window;" every scene is radically different from the previous scene.  And, as I was watching the film, I was aware that these visual treats were all made prior to green screen technology.  Everything that you see had to be real (or convincingly faked).  That leads into the main point that makes this film so watchable: commitment.

When a filmmaker makes a movie about mystical or religious things, it can be a tough sell for a lot of viewers.  Once people settle into a belief system, anything foreign to that can be greeted with hostility.  It's not enough to have an original thought (or mishmash of thoughts), it's not enough to have wildly original visuals or shocking occurances caught on film.  The one thing that you have to have, and cannot fake, is absolute commitment to the reality of the story that you're telling.  Anything less turns a mystical movie into spouting gibberish from a soap box.  It's not a coincidence that this is one of the central tenets of "The Holy Mountain."  The Thief (Horacio Salinas) groups together with a band of eight other criminals (all of whom are introduced in vignettes in their natural setting, each from a different planet) to try to achieve immortality.  The shared trait that they all have is that their success comes from doing things that are largely immoral - their only commitment is to making money.  Early in the process led by the Alchemist (Jodorowsky), they are all instructed to burn their money.  Putting that misdirected commitment firmly in the past is a necessary part of moving forward.

This idea of whole-hearted commitment is present from the opening scene of the film, where the Alchemist strips two women (who bear a passing resemblance to Marilyn Monroe), wipes off all of their make-up, and then shaves them bald.  There are a number of reasons why this film could not be made right now, and even in it's time, I'm sure that "The Holy Mountain" was an audacious, shocking piece of work.  But even more than the "content" of the movie, the earnest entreaty to commit oneself entirely to something is idea that a good number of people might find very uncomfortable in the age of irony and winking in the audience's direction.  For the radical idea of commitment to take hold, you have to go through the vignettes to see how disconnected each of the group is from the consequences of their actions.

This was the second time I watched "The Holy Mountain," and I enjoyed it almost as much as I did the first time.  On a first viewing, it's a barrage of ideas and visuals, and a knock-out punch of an ending.  The second time around, the element of surprise is gone, replaced by the nagging question of what exactly does all of this mean?  I don't have the mystical or theological training to even hazard a guess, but what it adds up to is one hell of a ride, and the kind of film that just doesn't happen (in the sense that it's both completely insane, but still makes sense).  If you have any affinity at all for crazy 70's art films (or just crazy-ass films in general), "The Holy Mountain" is about as good as it gets.

5 / 5 - DVD

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

21 Jump Street - 2012

"21 Jump Street" - 2012
Dir. by Phil Lord and Chris Miller - 1 hr. 49 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Going in, I was simply hoping that this would be as good as "Starsky & Hutch."  Of all the TV show remakes, that represents the baseline of entertainment I hope to get out of these kinds of films.  Often times, the only option for resurrecting these franchises is to turn the largely-forgotten situations into a comedy.  There's no good excuse for digging up these corpses (which is the point of Nick Offerman's scene here, playing a police captain), but that doesn't mean that the result is legally required to suck.  Thankfully, "21 Jump Street" understands that, and thankfully does not suck.

First disclaimer: I never watched the original TV show, therefore I do not have any nostalgia for it (nor any awareness of what may or may not have been borrowed for this updated version).  I am aware that Johnny Depp was in the TV show with something called a "Richard Grieco," but that's as far as my knowledge goes.  So let's get into the movie!

The set-up is simple: the two main characters are introduced in high school, where Jenko (Channing Tatum) is a popular jock, and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) is Slim-Shady wannabe, considerably less popular.  Post-graduation, they both end up in Police Academy, and strike up a friendship based on mutual need: Jenko is athletically-inclined but not very smart, and Schmidt is smart, yet not very athletic.  They manage to get each other through, and end up partners as bicycle cops.  When that goes sour, they are enrolled in an undercover program due to their young appearances, and they are placed into a high school where a new drug has popped up.  Goal: infiltrate, and figure out who the supplier is.  Once in the school, they find their roles have reversed since they were students: Jenko's bone-headedness makes him an outcast, and Schmidt's nerdy impulses manage to ingratiate him into the popular crowd.

There are a couple of things that make this movie work pretty well, aside from being pretty funny (if "The Sitter" was possibly the worst thing that Jonah Hill has done, this movie rests in the top half of his work).  First, the role-reversal sub-plot is a solid one.  By the end of the second act, Jenko gets a good taste of what high school must've been like for Schmidt, and Schmidt's sudden, unexpected popularity feeds his need for approval, to the point where he's willing to throw Jenko under the bus at the slightest provocation.  It's a pretty honest look at that comedic dynamic: everything exists solely to feed popularity, and it feels a lot better than alienation.  The other aspect that I really enjoyed was a sort of meta-awareness of the film: it's not oblivious to the absurdity of humping the corpse of an old TV show (the aforementioned Nick Offerman scene goes a long way in that service), nor the absurdity of the standard action tropes (Ice Cube plays Captain Dickson, an Angry Black Man, putting his famous scowl to great use, and there's great running gag about explosions, as well), but it doesn't let that self-awareness get in the way of a good comedy.

And that's the key point, this is a good comedy.  Moreso if you're a Jonah Hill fan - there's a feast of his usual motor-mouthing and dick jokes, which I don't have any problem with.  Channing Tatum is a lot of fun to watch as his character struggles with his movie-star good looks not getting the results that you'd expect.  But he does learn a healthy respect for science, so not all is lost.  The two characters work well off of one another, and this movie doesn't take much seriously other than zipping along and being funny.  Those are pretty important things to focus on, and I was pleasantly surprised that "21 Jump Street" ended up being a lot of fun.

3.5 / 5 - Theatre

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Darjeeling Limited - 2007

"The Darjeeling Limited" - 2007
Dir. by Wes Anderson - 1 hr. 31 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I can understand some of the criticism of this movie, that suggested that it's just another Wes Anderson movie on the subject of father issues, but no one seems to hold against filmmakers who beat the romance-trouble story to death, so I'm not going to hold that against Anderson.  And more to the point, his films up to this point have been different enough from each other, and also represent a steady refining of the subject matter and approach to the subject matter.  I get it if you jumped off-board before "The Darjeeling Limited," but I also think that it's the true gem of Anderson's movies to date.

"The Darjeeling Limited" is preceded by a short film entitled "Hotel Chevalier," about a post-breakup meeting in a Paris hotel room between Jack (Jason Schwartzman) and the unnamed girlfriend that Jack has fled from (Natalie Portman).  It would be possible to stick just to the main movie, but "Hotel Chevalier" does settle the issue of whether or not Jack is a fiction writer (sort of a running gag throughout "Darjeeling").  And, it does offer a stunning view of Natalie Portman, which is worth mentioning.  "The Darjeeling Limited" starts off with a title card saying "Part 2," so you probably should just include "Chevalier" in your viewing experience.

"The Darjeeling Limited" starts off with a cameo by Bill Murray, playing a businessman of some sort who is running late for his train in India.  He tries to run it down, and not only fails, but is also outrun by Peter (Adrien Brody), who manages to outrun Murray and successfully catch the titular train.  Peter is one of the three Whitman brothers, whom he is joining on the train for some sort of spiritual journey organized by Francis (Owen Wilson).  The brothers pop and trade prescription pills, and smoke and drink constantly, although they never seem to lose their composure.  Francis' face is swathed in bandages and walks with a cane, due to a motorcycle accident that leads him to wonder why he and his brothers aren't close (the impetus behind the trip).  There's real tension between the brothers, they take turns telling each other secrets to the people they're supposed to be keeping secrets from almost as revenge on each other.

As is standard with Anderson's films, the key word here is "melancholy."  The characters are uniformly unhappy, although they have their own distinct reasons (and reactions) to their circumstances.  There's a bit of dialogue between Francis and his assistant Brendan, when the train gets lost (yes, really) that Francis sells like it's the big point of the journey.  Brendan tells him, "We haven't located us yet."  While true, the line that gets more to the heart of the matter comes from Jack, after he and his brothers being kicked off the train for persistent misbehavior, is asked by Rita (Amara Karan) what's the matter with him.  Jack thinks for a second, and replies, "Let me think about that.  I'll tell you the next time I see you."  This is the entire point of the movie: the three brothers have shut down following the death of their father, and seem incapable of moving forward.  In a fantastic visual metaphor, the three brothers travel everywhere using their father's luggage (or baggage, if you prefer).  It's a pretty extensive set, and the idea of travelling that heavily is ludicrous, but that point seems lost on them.  They have all reached a point in their lives where nothing is working, not even their relationships with each other, and they've got to sort out their past in order to escape it.  There's a strong parallel to Bill Murray's character in "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," but instead of facing down a lifetime of mistakes closer to the end of their lives than the beginning, they're adults with a lot of years left in front of them.

The characters' narcotic-assisted self-indulgent navel-gazing yields problematic results, and it's not until only partially-averting a tragedy do the brothers have a chance to put their own behavior into perspective.  This renews their resolve to see through the actual reason for their trip: to track down their long-disappeared mother.  There are a number of really heart-breaking scenes in this film, and two biggest are the tragedy in an Indian village (which finally forces the brothers into action of any kind), and their interaction with their mother (Anjelica Huston).  They aren't particularly welcome; she asked them not to come, and reluctantly takes them into the convent that she's teaching at.  When she's finally pressed on why she abandoned them, she replies with a detour - a suggestion that they can communicate better without words.  It's an admission than there's no answer that's going to be sufficient, and that she's not particularly interested in hearing about the results of her actions, either.  So when she's gone without a word or explanation in the morning, it's not a surprise, but it's a confirmation that they've already gotten everything from her that they are going to get.

For such a heavy movie, the visuals are another issue entirely.  Instead of mirroring the darkness of the tone of the story, "The Darjeeling Limited" is alive with color.  Every time I've watched this film, I've found myself at some point just marveling at the colors.  They're not garish, either.  There is simply always one overwhelming color choice made, and then there's the minuscule details that one has come to expect from a Wes Anderson movie.  It simply appears to be a truly different world, which is the case.  On a similar note, the soundtrack choices are in the usual Anderson wheelhouse (a trio of vintage The Kinks tracks and a similar vintage The Rolling Stones song are present, along with a lot of Indian film songs), but they're not obvious choices, and add a considerable amount of atmosphere to the movie.  As for the acting, it's so closely tied to the story, and that seems like a victory.  As I mentioned before, the brothers all act out under the pressure of the weight they're all struggling under.  Jack finds solace in women, Peter is a sort of kleptomaniac, and Francis reverts to his attempts to control everyone (and we find out where he gets it from, too).  Despite the stylized dialogue, the characters feel real, as do the tensions between them.

"The Darjeeling Limited" is my favorite film by Wes Anderson so far.  I've enjoyed all of his work, but in this case I don't want to play along with the "I liked your first album best" instinct.  This movie feels like a distillation of and improvement on what the previous films have been dancing around, and with a fantastic backdrop to boot.

4.5 / 5 - DVD

Sunday, March 11, 2012

WarGames - 1983

"WarGames" - 1983
Dir. by John Badham - 1 hr. 54 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

If people don't hold it against "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" that it shows dated technology, then there's no reason to do so against films made in the 1980's, either.  And once you've eliminated the fact that "WarGames" shows what was once cutting-edge technology as a source of derision, what you're left with is a damned fine film.

After a number of soldiers fail to "turn the key" in a real-life simulation of the beginning of World War III (in that no one knows it's a test as events proceed), McKittrick (Dabney Coleman) suggests taking that decision out of the soldiers' hands and automating the process.  This will allow important decisions to be made "from the top down," not allowing the pangs of conscience from lower-ranking soldiers to keep big decisions from being carried out.  Over objections from General Beringer (Barry Corbin), the plan moves forward.  Meanwhile, in Seattle, we're introduced to David (Matthew Broderick), a gamer (Galaga!) who shows up late for school and doesn't get very good grades.  Jennifer (Ally Sheedy) also fails the same science test that David has, but more because she's more interested in giggling with her girlfriends.  Jennifer gives David a ride home on her scooter, where we discover that David doesn't have much parental supervision, and that he's a hacker.  David feeds on Jennifer's attention, and breaks into the school computer system to fix their failing grades, thus avoiding summer school.  One of his pet hacking projects is to try to figure out what a game company has been teasing in their print advertisements, and David ends up stumbling on a computer that doesn't identify itself, and quickly boots David out when he doesn't log in correctly.  David does get a game list out of the computer, from which he is able to discern who made the program in the first place.

After some research (and I mean journals and microfiche research, not just Googling something), he's able to  log in.  David opts for a game called "Global Thermonuclear War," assuming it's just some kind of war simulation.  Instead, he's managed to hack into the Department of Defense's system, and the same computer that's been tasked with controlling all the nuclear bombs in the U.S. is playing against him.  Since David has chosen to play as the Soviet Union, it feeds information to the DoD computers indicating that the USSR has actually launched missles.  The U.S. responds in kind, and suddenly, we're on the brink of an actual World War III.

There are several reasons why this movie works so well.  First off, each of the character's motivations are crystal clear, and not muddied up.  General Beringer is in charge of defending the United States; it's not complicated and confused by injecting politics into the mix.  He believes that the U.S. military is up to the task, and therefore doesn't see the need to use technology to usurp their power.  McKittrick is frustrated with the fact that decisions from the top aren't being carried out, and sees all of this amazing technology around him.  He makes a logical conclusion, and tries to use computers to solve a very real problem.  They're both dedicated to the same goal, united by Cold War-era fear.  David is pretty much just trying to impress a girl with the skills he has at hand; his foresight extends about that far.  And Jennifer is kind of over her head, enjoying David's peacocking, adding a positive attitude but little knowledge.

So when David blunders into something that he clearly didn't intend to happen, it sounds fishy to McKittrick.  I'm not even sure if "hacking" was in the national lexicon in 1983, so the idea that someone would break into someone else's computer over a game is absurd.  McKittrick's got an amazing piece of machinery in WOPR that can do amazing things, and he's also tasked with national security, so the answers that would make sense to him would have to do with espionage or warfare, not some dude showing off for his girlfriend and getting in over his head.

Another thing that works really well is the approach that Broderick takes with his character.  If this movie was made now, the character would likely be written as a cocky, wise-cracking asshole who can get away with taking everything lightly because he's a fucking genius, and he knows it.  You know, just like every other movie involving teenagers.  Broderick's character is none of those things; he's not particularly socially well-adjusted (not tragically so, just a little awkward), he'd rather spend time alone playing games or dicking around on his computer than dealing with schoolwork (which is evidenced both by his grades and his kick-ass array of early-80's electronics), he's not anti-social or anti-authority, and he doesn't have any poker face to speak of.  When he catches a TV news story about the initial misunderstanding that led to the military lowering the DEFCON rating, he's horrified.  The inadvertent consequences to his actions are overwhelming, and for the bulk of the movie he's trying to think his way through a heavy fog of panic.  There are consequences to his actions, and he takes them seriously.

There are other things that are great about this movie, too.  The chief thing is that the story hums along, and it builds real tension.  People get frustrated with each other, and it doesn't feel like it's just because they need to in order for the story to advance.  Perhaps the biggest example of that is when David and Jennifer finally track down Professor Falken, who is not just waiting around for one more adventure.  He's resigned to his fate, and doesn't seem to have much fight left in him.  He doesn't just fall into line because David and Jennifer ask him to, it takes a real confrontation between them and then some for him to muster the will to act.

One last bit of praise for this film: beyond just being an entertaining and interesting piece of work, "WarGames" does pose a serious ethical question, appropriate for its time.  Morally speaking, what are the consequences of separating action from consequence?  That moral question is what kept many of the soldiers from launching the nuclear missiles in the first place - just because someone tells you to, are you obligated to turn a key, knowing that doing so will end in possibly millions of deaths?  If you have that sort of power at your disposal, a certain number of people aren't going to be able to separate the action from the consequence, even knowing that failure to act will also result in the deaths of millions.  This film's answer comes from WOPR, the computer that can learn.  It decides that the only way to win "Global Thermonuclear War" is not to play in the first place.  When there is no way to win, when there is no correct answer, you simply must not put yourself in the position to have to answer whether you can separate action from consequence in the first place.

5 / 5 - TV