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The Black Swan: Darren Aronofsky is a genius and I hate him

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I hate horror flicks, particularly slasher-style horror that is shot and edited in a fashion that makes you jump. These horror movies are in a duel with shitty throwaway romantic comedies for my least favorite movie genre, beating out classically bad genres like insipid children's animated parables, stupid baby-boomer family comedies, and even corporate-funded work-training videos. I do not like the jump. I do not like the claustrophobic shot of the heroine, where we wonder what's behind her. I do not like the music ramping up suddenly with a boom of timpani and a saw of violins.

And all of those things are present in Black Swan.  And that's why I hate Darren Aronofsky, for making me sit through an experience that so drained me, that so resonated, that I wanted to hate the movie so bad, but I couldnt.  The other, non-horror aspects of the film are too well-crafted and the story too compelling to dislike the movie.  So I sat, enraptured by the movie, wishing that I couldn't care so much and could remove myself so that I wouldn't have to jump everytime there was a startling cut, but unable to do anything but be enraptured. 

And I wasn't the only one who caught the emotional resonance, I have not seen a more subdued audience after a movie.  I took my time before getting up, taking in some of the credits as I digested the movie.  After a good half-minute of sitting there, I finally started meandering out, and there were plenty of others sticking around.  I filed past a large number of people, still sitting in their seats, staring shell-shocked at the screen.  This movie has an emotional resonance that I haven't felt since Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream.

Although I don't like to do this ordinarily, I'm going to reveal a few spoilers in the last part of the movie.  The movie is worthy of analysis that can't be done unless you've seen the movie.  So if you haven't seen the movie, you may want to think twice before you read the rest.  If you're still with me, just follow me past the break.

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King of Kong

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Watched the King of Kong for the second time.  It's amazing how life imitates art sometimes.  If you wanted to draw out a better white hat/black hat storyline, you couldn't do it better than the real-life rivalry of Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell.  Wiebe is the outsider, breaking into the establishment, and he's a lovable everyman.  Mitchell is the entrenched champion, not above dirty tactics to keep his title. 

What sets the film apart, though, is the extreme nerdiness of the players.  These are people who have, for one reason or another, stuck with retro video games and gotten really, really good at them.  And as with any obsessive hobbyist, it becomes very clear just how much more they see in their hobby than the outsider.  These people take games very seriously.  They have special gloves for playing games.  They think video games are better than smoking, drinking, or drugs.  They obsess over high scores and the status that comes with them.

It must be said, in defense of the extreme retro arcade nerds: This is no different from your hobby.  Yes, it's tempting to take potshots at the players, saying "They're such nerds," but you may want to think about just how frequently you watch that TV show you like, or just how many bobbleheads you have in that collection, or just how many frivolous kitchen utensils you have.  Now think, if you've stuck with your hobby for five years or more, just how much detritus and overly-specific knowledge you've accumulated.  I'm certainly far enough down the board game rabbit hole that I appear obsessive to others.  All my friends have some kind of knowledge similar to this about something, some minute aspect of life.  I'm sure you're no different.  So take it easy on the nerds, 'kay?

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Milo and Otis

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Yup, I watched The Adventures of Milo and Otis on Friday night.  This is my Rosebud, an old childhood favorite that gets inside my cold, black heart and floods it with warmth and cuteness and farm animals.  I don't think that I had watched this in 10+ years, but I had dragged it with me on many moves, and it was time to pull it out when Tara and Theresa, both avowed cuteness afficionados, claimed that they had never seen it.  I'm not quite sure how that happened, as I'm sure we were the perfect age when it came out in the US in 1989.

Watching it again was both a reaffirmation and a disillusionment.  The reaffirmation came with the extreme cuteness of the movie, and the amazing footage that was captured.  This is, despite having absolutely no humans in the film, a compelling movie.  You feel for the main anthropomorphized animals.

The disillusionment is more complex.  It's pretty clear that these animals are frequently unhappy, even on camera.  This was not particularly upsetting to my young self, but I feel a lot more empathy for a cat going down a waterfall in a box.  Or falling off a cliff.  Or a dog getting pinched on the nose by a crab.  It's a certainty that, given when the film was made, these stunts were real.    So, is it okay to mildly distress an animal for the sake of a greater narrative, and for a cute movie?  If not, is it okay to let the animal get into its own mischief, or not warn the animal when mischief may occur, like when Milo gets his tail bitten by a fish that thinks its edible?  The film's a lot more morally gray than I was able to see when I saw it as a child.  I'm not sure what I think about it now.

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Inside Deep Throat

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Inside Deep Throat is not a porn movie itself, but it is a movie about a porn movie.  It sets out to tell the story of Deep Throat, the porn movie of the 1970s that was a symbol of the sexual revolution.

The documentary could be great, but instead, it is middling.  The subject of Deep Throat and what it meant for American society is fascinating, but the documentary movie itself is not that thrilling.  A good documentary is about style as much as substance, and the style of Inside Deep Throat is lifeless.  It's not due to the interviewees.  Everyone from Gore Vidal to Camille Paglia to the male star and director of the original movie is interviewed for the movie, and some of them have interesting stuff to say.  But overall, the movie says too much about the movie, not enough about society.  Too much of the movie is chronological history of the movie, and not enough is social analysis.  There's some illuminating moments here and there, like when they talk about the effect that the Nixon era presidential study on porn had on lawmaking, but there's not enough to really hold the movie together.

I will say this about the movie.  It made me want to go out and see Deep Throat.

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Leon: The Professional

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Léon: The Professional, a.k.a. Léon, a.k.a. The Professional, is a fucking awesome action film.  But it apparently is out to confuse anybody who's interested in it.  Not only does it have three different titles, it's also a French film, by a French director, with a French actor (the indomitable Jean Reno) playing the lead role.  But, to keep from being too clear, it is filmed in English, with supporting roles played by an Englishman (Gary Oldman) and an Israeli-American (Natalie Portman).  So even when you know what you're watching, you're still wondering just what the hell you're watching.  Fuck, I had somebody ask me what I was watching when they wandered in and saw it on the television, and I had to throw my hands up in exasperation.  You can only get so far into the sentence "It's a French-American-English action drama about adoptive households and the impact of role models on younger children, including child-crushes on authority" before the asker rolls their eyes and makes it clear that you're full of shit.

But if you get past the movie trying to confuse the hell out of you before you even see it, Léon is a great movie.  It's been a while since I've seen an action movie this good.  This film manages to hurdle the "hurr durr 'splosions and guns" stereotype to say something about society.  Most action movies rely on Bruce Willis to blow away terrorists just frequently enough to keep the overcurved-hatbill-fratboys' cocks from going flaccid. Not Léon.  Yeah, it sounds like arthouse speak, but this film really has something to say about role models, the children that fall through the cracks in society, and what it means to be alone in the world.  It manages to be the best, most poignant action movie I've seen since I saw the sci-fi action crossover District 9 early this year.  And before that... well, I don't remember the last action movie I've seen that really made me think to that degree.

The acting deserves a brief note.  Natalie Portman is mindblowingly good as the sometimes lolita-esque girl who has been clearly forced to grow up way too fast.  Jean Reno, a personal favorite, doesn't disappoint.  The scene where Portman and Reno play charades instantly vaulted into one of my favorite scenes of all time.  There's a shitty out-of-propotion YouTube version here.  Very funny, and pretty creepy.  Gary Oldman also shows up to do a turn as the psychotic cop bad guy, similar to the turn that Willem Dafoe did a few years later in Boondock Saints.  It's over-the-top, and the one bad part of the movie, but luckily, not enough to drag it down.

If you like movies, you'll like this movie.

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Ken Burns' The War

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The War is Ken Burns' attempt at World War II.  I have been really into Ken Burns' stuff, particularly after watching The Civil War recently.  His ability to tell a story from a dry history is amazing.

The War doesn't grab me quite as well as much of Ken Burns' other work.  There's several reasons why.  I know more about this period of our history than most of his other topics, so the series isn't as informative.  The biggest failing, though, is Burns' style.  Burns isn't quite as adept at weaving live footage into his narrative style and his romantic simplification of history works better when we are more chronologically distant from the event at hand.  It works much better when Burns flattens George Meade to a caricature of his Civil War self, because we as the reader are at more liberty to understand Meade for what his eventual result on history was.  When you take a real person that many people still alive saw, heard, or knew in their lifetime, like General McArthur or President Rooseveldt, we still have a much more complex understanding of him in our social ethos, and simplifications ring hollow.  We aren't quite willing to swallow the romanticization.

The War also comes across as trite.  There's a little bit of a "Greatest Generation" gung-ho spirit about it that glorifies the struggle.  Burns doesn't analyze as much as I wish he would, and tries to keep his editorial voice out of the movie.  Burns is at his best when you understand his slant, and he's not afraid to tell you what happened and who screwed up, and who was a hero.  You can hear Burns' viewpoint coming through sometimes, such as when he discusses the foolishness of General Dahlquist, or the shortsightedness of Roosevelt when signing the executive order to create the Japanese internment camps.  But for the most part, he takes too much 'removed chronicler,' and not enough 'analytical historian.'  Burns' strength is synthesis and explanation of viewpoints about past events, and it feels like he held himself back in this film, sticking too much to the cultural myths of the 40s and 50s of the Greatest Generation.  Burns could dig a little deeper.

I sound very bitter, and I don't think I'm being completely fair.  Burns does tell a story, and the overall narrative is sweeping and fantastic.  It's not hard to make a good film about WWII.  There's a reason it's still the most familiar war to most Americans, and that's because it makes a good story on its own.  When a master like Burns turns his eye to a good story, I expect something great.  This series, unfortunately, is not great, it is only good.  I hoped for more from Burns.

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Shopgirl: Steve Martin names a movie about himself after a different character

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Shopgirl is Steve Martin.  He plays the male lead, and ultimately, the movie is about his inability to cope with a relationship.  It's a good movie, but unsure exactly what it's trying to be.  Part of it is quirky independent romantic comedy, part of it is dark relationship drama, and part of it is contemplative lifestyle pic.

It would be a better movie if Steve Martin had not played the male lead.  He is laconic, sometimes too much so.  Because he's the writer, he has a stronger connection to his character, and plays him a bit too understated.  This is a problem, because the movie is more about his character than the shopgirl in the title.  While Claire Danes' shopgirl is the title character of the film, she plays a mostly reactive role.  It is Martin's middle-aged divorcee who sweeps her off her feet, who shows her the good life, and provides most of the drive behind their relationship.  Thematically, too, it is his character who the movie is about.  Without giving away the ending for those who haven't watched it, Martin's character is the most dynamic, and even has the closing monologue written about him.  This type of role needs a very strong performance from a lead actor.  It's clear that Martin is trying to follow in the footsteps of Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adam Sandler in Spanglish, and Bill Murray in Lost in Translation.  However, he plays the role just a little bit too low-key.

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Up in the Air: A review from 30,000 feet

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I watched Up in the Air some time ago, and I kept putting off writing a review about it because my feelings are so mixed.  I don't know that the time has helped me clarify my opinions a bit, but it's getting to the point where I'm forgetting things about the movie, so I guess I need to write down my thoughts, even if they are very muddled.

The movie has a simple, and rather daring premise.  George Clooney is a man who lives out of a suitcase, traveling almost the entire year, staying in hotels, with no family at home and very little personal connection.  He is savvy, and mercenary.  His job is to fire people at large corporations which are doing layoffs.

There are some spoilers ahead as I write about my conflicted feelings, so you'll have to go past the break to find my full review.

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Everybody's All-American

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For a long time, I remembered that there was a football movie I saw as a kid, and that I liked it.  I was young enough to only remember a handful of things about it.

  • I was excited to watch it because it was PG-13 at an age when I was mostly restricted to PG movies.
  • It had John Goodman in it, and he got beaten up by gangsters in the movie.
  • The Denver Broncos were in it.

I had always kind of wondered what movie it was, and whether it would be anywhere near as good as I remembered it.  I rediscovered the movie while perusing a list of sports movies.

I probably should have left it in my memories.  This is full of sports movie cliche, and has a large amount of smarminess to boot.  It makes a good movie to show children, because it's full of easy-to-digest parable and over-the-top acting and music.  You can hear the producers thinking "Well, this is a movie about football, with the word American in the title... let's make sure to put some heartwarming scenes in there, and plenty of good-old-boy joking around."

I have a feeling the novel it's based on is much darker.  Dennis Quaid plays a running back, the titular All-American named Gavin Grey, with the nickname "The Grey Ghost."  We follow him through college at LSU, the pros with the Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos, and finally retirement.  It's fundamentally a very dark story with very dark themes.  Corruption, discrimination, gambling, and domestic abuse all make a showing, but the movie handles all of these issues with a healthy dose of sugar.  Multiple scenes follow the pattern of "Character brings up complex issue, other character says something noncommital, both characters have an exchange about how that's how things are nowadays, music swells and end scene."

Oh, and Jessica Lange was a movie vixen at one time, apparently.  I'm so used to her being a grand dame of acting that I never realized she was a sexpot at one time in her career.

By the way, this movie passes the Bechdel test in the most amusing way possible.  Sure, there are multiple women in it, and they do talk to each other about something other than men.  In this case, it's a hilariously UNfunny exchange about how Southerners say 'powder your nose' and those crude yankees say 'pee.'  Pretty hard to top that, I guess.

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Ed Wood, not to be confused with Deadwood

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Maybe Ed Wood is a movie that everybody else knows about.  Maybe the real-life director that the film is based on is a household name.  Both the movie and the man were unknown to me before seeing this movie.  Tara got it for us, and all she really knew about it is that she had wanted to see the movie for a long time, and that Johnny Depp was in it.  It's no big surprise it's unknown, as it's a 1994 movie, which is when both of us were only 12 years old, and it's not like there's a shortage of movies with Johnny Depp in them, both before and since.

For those like me who had never heard of it, turns out that Ed Wood is a biopic of the movie director of the same name.  Wood is famed for making absolutely horrible movies, including the movie Plan 9 From Outer Space, a title that I did not recognize, but realized I was previously familiar with by its reputation as "the worst movie of all time."

When we popped it in, Tara and I had multiple surprises during the opening credit, including the fact that Sarah Jessica Parker and Bill Murray were in the movie, and that it was directed by Tim Burton.  Heck, even the newspaperman from Deadwood is in this, as the phony psychic Criswell.

The film is charming.  The whole film is designed, at least partially, to be made in the style of Ed Wood's movies, which is to say over-the-top, rooted in the 50s, and heavy on the corn.  Yes, the film not only breaks through the metafilm fourth-wall, it pulverizes them into a million black-and-white floral-print pieces.  Depp has an easy part to play, as the so-genuine-it-hurts Wood, and he pulls it off.  The script is good, and Burton applies a lighter touch to the movie.  Because he's trying to consciously emulate and reference another director, he varies a bit from his usual "Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp in a half-sensical movie with an asston of stripy shit," and creates a fresher film for it.  He cautiously treads the line between adopting Wood's horrible directing, and directing this movie as Wood should have directed it.  It results in a rich blend that is quite strong.

Of course, I couldn't help wondering during the movie whether I would have been better served by just watching one of Wood's movies, so that I could see how terrible it was without a filter.  I definitely want to see Plan 9 now.  The terrible features of the films come out as jokes come during Ed Wood, but it may be that it will be even stronger to just see them.  After all, the charm of Wood's films is that he really, geniunely was out to make a good (or at least passable) movie.  Things like the saucers being suspended by fishing line come across as a bit maudlin in Ed Wood, but in Plan 9, you're able to see these items for yourself without having them pointed out for you.  Is the joke stronger in its second iteration in Burton's film, or is it better to see Wood's movie without the additional filter?  I can't answer that, yet.  But there just might be a review of Plan 9 up here soon.

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