Here is the second part of my rundown of films I watched during July and August:
After the WTF-ness of Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales (even more bizarro than Donnie Darko), Kelly plays it a little more straight. Based on a Richard Matheson story (Button, Button), this 1970’s piece has some intriguing sci-fi and philosophical quandaries: If you could win a million dollars at the expense of one person’s life, would you do it?
There are some parts to Larry Clark’s controversial film that are cringe worthy, and I’m not even talking about the date rape. A few kids come off hackneyed, with words dripping from their mugs that sound like an 80 year-old trying to be “fresh.” Other times this film evokes memories from middle and high school. So despite its problems, it is a solid documentation of teenage life, but not a good fit for those who have forgotten their own teenage stupidity or that of their friends. Pair it with some Gus Van Sant (Paranoid Park) and you’ll have a good coming of age double feature.
If you’re really into film, Watch.
Return of the Living Dead Part II
I’m going to be honest and let you know I didn’t finish this. It is rare that I will just not finish a film, but my philosophy is why watch a really bad film when there are so many good films you could be watching? The original Return of the Living Dead was comedy/horror gold and this sequel tries to mimic its predecessors success (another pairing of young/old guy dealing with the zombies as comedic fodder), but throws in some annoying kids (not like the cool ones in The Monster Squad). Even for the special effects, not worth it.
The Iron Giant
This animated film has come across my path several times since it’s directed by Brad Bird, who did The Incredibles. The art work is the first item that grabs your attention; it lacks the slick quality of Disney flicks of the 90’s (Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast) and appears both aged and advanced (the way the Giant moves has some CGI elements).
The film is great, showcasing a palpable relationship between a huge robot from outer space and a young boy. However, I have one fat slug of a problem and that concerns the ending.
SPOILER ALERT, SKIP REST OF REVIEW
When the U.S. military sends a nuclear bomb to destroy the Iron Giant, which just so happens to be in a large populated area, the giant flies up into the sky to stop the bomb, thereby sacrificing himself for the lives of others. Brad Bird and crew have done such a great job building a believable character out of this hunk of metal that you’re bawling your eyes out as he chooses to save people’s lives instead of being “a gun” (he transforms into killing machine whenever someone pulls a weapon on him).
So the Iron Giant sacrifices himself and we see months later that the town that first feared him have now erected a statue in his honor. The boy (his mother didn’t do him any favors by calling him Hogarth) is sad that his friend is gone, but he and the audience both are okay because he died a noble death.
BUT WAIT! He’s actually just in a million different pieces and gradually re-assembling himself in the icy North!
Here’s the thing: you have already made your audience immeasurably sad as he flies up to meet his demise. You then try to soften the blow by showing the statue and revealing Hogarth to be sad, but okay. So there is NO REASON to have some last second, “Just kidding! He’s okay!” It cheapens the Giant’s sacrifice and is manipulative (not to mention impossible). Even though this was a kids film, children can deal with the character’s death since the film already provides some solace (statue and Hogarth’s acceptance). As Terry Gilliam said, kids are tough, “If you drop them, they will bounce.” Great film, stupid, horrible ending–stop it after the statue is revealed, as Hogarth’s posse is walking away.
PS, my wife and I DIED laughing as the credits revealed who grunted through the role of the Iron Giant: …Vin Diesel
King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
While I was Film Chair at the University of Louisville I missed more than 3/4 of the films we screened and this was one of them. A documentary on Donkey Kong players will grab some attention and the film is worthy of it. It’s a classic good vs. evil showdown between old-school player Billy Mitchell and new kid on the block Steve Wiebe. Mitchell says some incredibly arrogant, pompous things that makes you want to vomit through your ears. Wiebe just wants to play the game and have his high scores recognized.
Turns out, however, that most of the events in King of Kong are heavily manipulated or outright fabricated. The film is centered around Wiebe trying to break Mitchell’s score, but apparently Wiebe was already on top and was trying to beat his own score. Also, there were other Donkey Kong kings competing for the top spot other than Wiebe and Mitchell. The wiki page listing some of the discrepancies is just the tip of the iceberg (see disputed facts here).
If anything these questionable items makes the film more interesting and worth a watch, especially if you go into a documentary assuming the presentation is 100% Truth. The power of editing is a powerful thing.
Watch, but investigate afterward.
Even though Mel Gibson is now well known as a loon, that doesn’t change his abilities as a director. First off, how many directors try to make big budget films with non-English speaking characters? He also earns bonus points for not using a white male character to show us the world of the Yucatan in the early 16th century (coughAvatarcoughcough). Instead we follow Jaguar Paw, one of few survivors of a recent raid by the Mayans who are capturing nearby villages for slave labor and human sacrifices.
This is a great action/drama. We get a good sense of village life prior to the Mayan attack and when we see the Mayan city-center it is awe-inspiring. Gibson eschewed CGI as much as possible, actually building most of the Mayan towers seen in the film and using 700 well dressed extras. Gibson knows how to show action, build character, and deliver a solid story – something more action directors have yet to learn. Though he’s catching headlines for being a nutter, I’d still watch the next film he directs (as long as Jesus isn’t involved; Passion was a brutal guilt trip).
Big dumb action film with a sci-fi story that could have been better explored. Director Jonathan Mostow (yep, the guy responsible for Terminator 3) awkwardly abuses deep focus and diagonal framing where it never seems to serve a wider purpose.
Find something else.
The Yes Men Fix the World
My documentary filmmaking professor suggested this film and it was quite entertaining/depressing. The Yes Men go around identifying themselves as representatives of big corporations and saying things they’d like corporations to say. For instance, in 1984 a Union Carbide chemical plant exploded in Bhopal India, an estimated 16,000, and leaving half a million injured. This is the largest industrial accident to ever occur, yet Union Carbide made a settlement with the government that gave only about $1,000 to each victim. So the Yes Men went on the BBC masquerading as a representative of Dow Chemical (who now owns Union Carbide) saying they would accept full responsibility for the accident and pay victims out of a 2 billion dollar fund.
More or less The Yes Men want a little truth from these entities, so their stunts and the causes they are highlighting make this an educational, entertaining, hopeful documentary.