Thursday, March 29, 2007

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America Make For Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

A few short notes on Borat (2006, Larry Charles) [78]:

1. I assumed, after the huge hype, the blockbuster receipts, and the inevitable backlash, that this would never live up to the acclaim and derision. I was very, very wrong. Consistently hilarious -- they had me with "The Running of the Jew".

2. But, as Mike D'Angelo said of A Mighty Wind, there's something to be said for a joke that's been written over an improv. Not that there's anything wrong with Sacha Baron Cohen's improv skills -- how he's able to find just the right (wrong) thing to say and still look like a naif speaks to an incredibly twisted, brilliant mind -- but it's the stuff that's been planned (like the infamous nude wrestling scene) that really kill.

And yet -- while the nude wrestling gets all the hosannas, the scene that really stuck with me was the frat boy encounter. Not so much for what they say -- although the bald racism and misogyny is shocking -- but how the filmmakers manage to incorporate the improvised scene into the narrative. (Borat is on a journey to find and wed Pamela Anderson, and the frat boys disabuse him of the notion that she's a virgin.) Charles and Cohen set up a traditional romantic narrative arc -- boy goes after girl on a pedestal -- and let it grind up against the ugly flipside of that, the madonna/whore complex that both supports that narrative and undermines it at the same time. Pretty bracing stuff.

Also, this isn't satire. Sorry people. It's just a simple comedy, a road trip not unlike, uh, Road Trip, that just happens to have some modern comedic devices. If you're concerned about "regular folks" ambushed on film, two things: a) Allen Funt, and b) this has more to do with our increasingly mediated culture than any "contempt" on part of the filmmakers. If you don't like it, then make an effort to get rid of MySpace, camera phones, and Bush's warrantless surveillance program. Oh, you can't? Then tough, deal with it.

5. Most Valuable Supporting Player: Ken Davitian. I can only imagine what the conversation at his audition was like.

Friday, March 23, 2007

For The Ages: ScreenGrab Posts (3/4/07 - 3/10/07)

After last week's frenzy of posts, things slow way down as the reality of Laura Mae takes hold. This week, I only have one solo post, a personal history of the Watchmen movie. Watchmen is my favorite book of all time, and I've been watching the progress (and non-progress) of this project for nearly twenty years; now that it looks like Zack Snyder is going to do it for realsies, it seemed like a good opportunity to ponder over the various versions that were never to be.

Also, ScreenGrab ran the Top 10 Most Dangerous Films of All Time; I contributed to the write-up on Orson Welles' It's All True.

Saturday, March 17, 2007


A few short notes on 300 (2007, Zack Snyder) [40]:

Fascistic, misogynistic, racist, homophobic... but ridiculously so, so that what should be offensive loops back around into the hilarious. Don't know about you, but I find it hard to take conservative political positions seriously from guys in leather speedos and capes.

2. Unfortunately, while the excesses of Frank Miller's Sin City are redeemed by the (accidental) leap into camp, nothing so alchemical happens here -- 300 remains earthbound. Despite that 90% (or whatever) of the film is CGI, there's never any sense that anything could happen. While Sin City convincingly created a noirish world, this looks like half-naked people wandering in front of matte paintings, proclaiming sub-Shakespearean dialogue. There's no feeling that these shots conspire to create a world; instead, it's like each scene exists in a bubble. You could argue that it accurately replicates reading a comic, each page and frame in isolation from the other, but then I'd ask, why would you want to replicate such a static medium?

Haven't read the comic, so I don't know how much can be placed at Miller's doorstep; nevertheless, I've said it before and I'll say it again: he's a terrible, terrible writer. He's the Ulitmate Fanboy in a way -- for him, the Manichean worldview can always be blacker and whiter, and the heroes can never be badass enough. Will the scrappy army of potters and blacksmiths be allowed a bit of dignity as they fight side-by-side with the Warrior Born? Jesus, of course not. What about the hunchback guy, whom we'll call Rudy? He'll pop up again when everyone leasts expects it and help save the day, right? Nope, outcasts need not apply. And this is what makes Miller such a hack: as cliché as it might be for the little guys to beat all odds, there's a reason why it's rock-solid storytelling. Impossible obstacles stacked against a barely-capable protagonist creates audience empathy. If you don't have that -- if all you have are Spartan badasses who can kill any foe, until, for the sake of an ending, they can't anymore -- you're left with arrogant, boring characters.

4. So what does this mean for Snyder's upcoming Watchmen adaptation? I have no fucking idea. It's still difficult to get a reading on Snyder as a director. This is being generous, but he's almost like a throwback to the studio days of the 40s, a journeyman director who gets out of the way of the story he's telling. Which is good news: if he's willing to let all the godawfulness of the 300 source material stand on its own, then presumably he'll let the virtues and pleasures of Watchmen do the same. Except: the journeymen directors of the 40s that we remember and admire, like Ford and Hawks, still managed to leave a personal stamp on the material. I'm not seeing that from Snyder, but maybe we just need some time and distance to gain some perspective.

5. I liked how Xerxes uses armies from all around the world to take out the Spartans, and when that fails, he's not above reaching into the Lord of the Rings and Hellraiser franchises to shore up the numbers. That's a leader who thinks outside the box.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that if, as reported, Gerard Butler is cast in the Watchmen movie, he'll be playing Jon Osterman, a.k.a. Dr. Manhattan. They'll do some funky body-scan type-thing on him and make Dr. M a CGI creation, of course, but everything else will be him. Reasoning? Well, he kind of looks like Osterman, and I don't think he has the force of presence required to portray the Comedian. You really need to feel the weight of history on the Comedian, and I can't see Butler getting that across. Now, Doc Manhattan, the guy who starts human, then starts to lose those qualities (along with his clothes) until he's kind of a blue blank slate? That I can see.

(Now watch, they'll make him Nite Owl or something.)

Saturday, March 3, 2007

For The Ages: ScreenGrab Posts (2/25/07 - 3/3/07)

A really active week for me, considering baby Laura is only about two weeks old.

This week, I have three YouTube videos with the loose theme of "looking for horror in the wrong places", each with a little bit of commentary: an episode of The Smurfs, a Greg Kihn Band video, and a Sprite commercial. I also found a really cool up-close look at the various media used in Children of Men, and two pieces of news/commentary, one about a possible upcoming Writer's Guild strike, and one about a local (Seattle) controversy surrounding a chopped-up movie review. Finally, there's a short heads-up post about a site that offers public domain movies free for the downloading.

Get readin', y'all.