Saturday, May 29, 2010

The whole nine yards...

...all the better to hang yourself with.
I've been delaying the inevitable: reviewing the terrible The Ninth Gate
I wanted to like this movie, I really did. I love Roman Polanski. I love Johnny Depp. It seemed only logical that the combination of them and a movie about the gate to hell would be awesome.

But it's just not. Johnny Depp is great as Dean Corso. Polanski gives us a wonderful winding mystery tour in candle-lit and shadowy old buildings. And as far as secret religious message movies go, The Ninth Gate kicks the crap out of The Da Vinci Code. Because watching Johnny Depp in a not-so-great movie about the occult is better than watching a doughy Tom Hanks in a painfully bad movie about how the last scion of Christ can't defend herself and needs a pudgy middle-aged college professor to save her from bad guys.

The problem with The Ninth Gate is that Polanski's movies usually have a great ending. A big payoff for all that suspense and tension he's been building up over the last two hours. But The Ninth Gate doesn't have a payoff. It's like sitting through near three Jodie-Foster-filled hours of Contact and not even getting to see any aliens!
You spend two hours on the edge of your seat as Corso unravels the mystery of ancient engravings said to lead to the gate of hell. There is murder, mystery, intrigue, and supernatural forces. You're waiting and waiting for something big to happen, but the most climactic thing that happens is Frank Langella lights himself on fire and Johnny Depp has graphic sex with Polanski's wife, Emmanuelle Seiger, next to a burning castle. But then it doesn't end. You think "Here we go... here's the big finish..." and then... nothing!
We get no answers, in particular why a former skeptic- or any sane person for that matter- would want to cross the ninth gate to hell. Granted, Corso isn't supposed to be likable, and that's part of the reason this movie doesn't work, but it still defies logic. Is Corso under the impression that something great is going to happen if he enters hell or conjures Satan? Did he think "Gee, being chased and almost murdered by crazy Satan worshippers was so great, I'd like to meet their boss!"??? I know he's a greedy mercenary, but he's supposed to be a smart greedy mercenary. And anyone with half a brain knows that no one ever gets anything good out of a deal with the devil.
My other issue is that this movie is incredibly cheesy. Rosemary's Baby's creepy cult worked because you didn't see them do any of the cheesy hooded-cloak-chanting-blood-drinking weird stuff. And it seems like the film-noir style of this movie is almost cartoonish. I could only accept this movie if it's meant as a winking satire to the whole occult genre, but it's not. It's like Polanski's Temple of Doom, except devoid of campy charm.

I can best sum up The Ninth Gate in relating this real-life exchange between Dan and I:
Me: (walking into the living room after showering and getting dressed) "What are you watching? Ugh! You're watching The Ninth Gate?"
Dan: "Yeah, why?"
Me: "This movie is awful."
Dan: "I've never seen it. Why, what happens?"
Me: "Nothing happens."
Dan: "What do you mean?"
Me: "I mean nothing happens."
Dan: "Oh, stop it."
(Here, Dan insists we can't leave until the movie is over. So I sit down, comforted only by the fact that he'll realize I'm right in about 20 minutes. So 20 minutes pass.)
Dan: "Who's that girl? Isn't she the one he had sex with? What's going to happen?"
Me: "Nothing. Nothing is going to happen."
Dan: "Stop it! What's really going to happen??"
Me: "Nothing!"
(and then the credits roll after Corso walks through the gate)
Dan: "That's it?!!"
Me: "I told you."
Dan: "You don't get to see hell or the devil, or why he's going in there?"
Me: "Nope."
Dan: "That's lame!"
Me: "Yes. Yes it is."

Trying to explain the criminally unsatisfying end of the movie is like playing some cruel real-life version of "Who's on First?". No one is going to believe the answer, even though it's true.

Some critics say that this movie is underrated and will develop a cult following. Theonly reason I believe that is because every movie featuring a cult develops a cult following. Weird, but true.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Because it feels good to know i'm not alone...

I give you this excellent opinion piece about rating movies on a star or point scale by Ty Burr of the Boston Globe. Bold and italics added by me:

Critic's Notebook

Star wars
A movie critic’s conflicted, if not disdainful, feelings toward rating films
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / May 25, 2010

Whenever I get a reader gripe about the number of stars I have (or haven’t) given a movie, I think of that old Zen saw about how the hand pointing at the moon simply ain’t the moon. Then I send them to Movie Review Intelligence, a website ( that is to movie ratings what Sabermetrics are to baseball batting averages: glorious, statistics-crazy overkill.

There are other rating-aggregate sites out there: Rotten Tomatoes is the one everyone knows about ( It remulches each print and online critic’s rating (stars, grades, whatever) into a purely on/off proposition: red tomato good, splatty green tomato bad. I prefer another site, (, for a number of reasons: The 1 to 100 scale is literally 50 times finer-grained than at Rotten Tomatoes, and the editors stick with the major newspaper/magazine/online reviewers.
Movie Review Intelligence, though, busts the entire rating-ology concept wide open. The brainchild of media researcher David Gross, the site collects all the major reviews and ratings for a movie and slices them into infinite pieces of pie. MRI’s page for “Robin Hood,’’ for instance, assigns an aggregate rating (55.1 percent out of 100 possible points overall), then breaks that number down among Broad National Press (56.2 percent), Local Newspapers (60.7 percent), Alternative/Indie (63.9 percent), Highbrow Press (35.0 percent), Movie Industry (43.5 percent), and major, semi-major, and mini-major urban markets.
The approach has its flaws (because Peter Travers in Rolling Stone hasn’t been “alternative’’ in at least two decades, he skews the average for that category) but also yields the kind of wonky, borderline useless insights stat-freaks love. The “review mixture’’ scattergram — a scattergram! — for “Clash of the Titans’’ indicates that critics in smaller cities were more positive than those in mid-size cities. The “review timing’’ bar graph for “Date Night’’ shows that reviews that came out on the film’s opening day were more positive than those that ran earlier.
What does this mean? To quote Pee-wee Herman, “I don’t KNOW!’’ But I’m really glad someone’s doing it and that he’s got an iPhone app to boot. For one thing, it takes the pressure off me when people complain that I gave “Robin Hood’’ three stars rather than two and a half. (Sue me, it was two and three-quarters; I like to grade up.) But that’s only part of it.
I understand the reasons people like visual ratings on movie reviews. Really, I do. We’re all pressed for time and unless you’re a movie fanatic or a member of our immediate families, you’re not going to slog through all six to 10 of the Globe’s Friday movie reviews from top to bottom. We’re a goal-oriented society, and we crave knowing what’s worth it and what’s not. The weekend box office is perceived as a competitive race with clear-cut winners and losers, and star ratings are the Olympic judges holding up numbers. Is it two stars or three and a half? Should I pay attention or move on? But that’s still putting more weight on the ratings than the critics often do themselves. As cultural filters go, the stars are absurdly blunt instruments. They have nothing of value to say about which audience a movie might be best for and in fact assume that all movies want to appeal to all audiences.
But they don’t. A few months ago I met a lovely elderly couple who assured me they only went to movies to which I’d given three and a half or four stars. Needless to say, this had blown up in their faces more than a few times: “Borat,’’ for one; “I’m Not There’’ for another. Whereas other, less starry movies might have spoken to them more clearly and meaningfully than they did to me, a point I often try to make in the body of a review but which by default can’t be reflected in a two or three star rating. They might have preferred “Cheri,’’ say, or “The Duchess,’’ or, who knows, “Shortbus.’’

Another flaw in the star ratings is that they can’t signal when a movie has parts that work and parts that don’t. I recently gave the Annette Bening/Naomi Watts drama “Mother and Child’’ two and a half stars, not because I felt lukewarm about the movie but because what cruises along beautifully for 80 minutes falls prey to overwriting in the last act— too many coincidences until you have to cry uncle. Or I did; as always, your mileage may vary. But the rating won’t tell you that, since it’s a nine-point scale (if you count halves and zeroes) that most readers interpret as binary: yes or no, good or bad. You very well might love “Mother and Child’’ — I wanted to. But first you have to consider it as more than a rating.
A further case in point: “The Art of the Steal,’’ the documentary about Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation that is woefully partisan yet great for starting arguments about who owns art and what their duty to the public might be. As a work of persuasion it’s flawed; as provocation, it’s inspired. Two and a half from me and that didn’t keep it from running for weeks at the Coolidge, which is just as it should be.
In general, though, does colleague Wesley Morris’s or my giving less than three and a half stars doom a movie — specifically, the kind of off-studio nonblockbuster that depends on reviews for survival? More than I’d care to admit, and the fault lies in part with you, dear readers, as you perform pop triage and try to figure out what to see and what not to see on a Friday night. This drives at least one studio executive I know absolutely crazy, and after a three-and-a-half star review runs he has been known to e-mail me to sarcastically ask if I “couldn’t squeeze another half-star’’ out of my pen.
I understand where he’s coming from, even as I’m helpless to do otherwise. (Do you really want me giving more stars to a movie I didn’t much like just because I think it should be seen by one audience or another?) With fewer and fewer arthouses still standing and with all the movies that get pushed through that narrowing window, it’s pretty much four stars or death. Because anything less is unimportant to you, anything less is useless to the studio executive who wants to sell his movie, to which I have to say “tough’’ but also “sorry, the people you want to talk to are over there skimming the paper online.’’
I sometimes wonder: What would happen if we just trash-canned the things and went the way of The New York Times and Wall Street Journal? Would you read more of the review or none of it? Do you really need the star ratings, and, if so, why? I get it: To request nuanced attention of a reader — regularly, five times every Friday — is almost an affront when we spend most of our days wading thigh-deep through e-mails and pop-up ads. But what happens if by skipping a two-and-a-half star rating you miss the movie that changes your life?
The Movie Review Intelligence website takes the exact opposite approach: It fans the stars out into an infinitude of statistical slices and hopes for meaning and guidance to emerge. It’s a fascinating place to surf through, but I suspect it still misses the point. What draws an audience to any piece of culture, pop or otherwise, isn’t dingbats but words: words of enthusiasm or sometimes even just words of qualified recommendation. If you rest your intake solely on what the ratings say is the best, you risk missing far too much of what’s simply good.
Ty Burr can be reached at

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

In Ford we trust

Sorry for the hiatus on Polanski posts. I've been watching "Twin Peaks" on DVD, venturing outside, and being otherwise distracted/occupied.
Not that I think you've been holding your breath in anticipation, dear readers. I'm just stating the facts.

In 1988 Polanski teamed up with one of cinema's most bankable stars, Mr. Indiana Jones himself, Harrison Ford. This was a wise casting choice given that the film Frantic rests squarely on the shoulders of the lead actor to carry, as Polanski's films often do.
Harrison Ford is a master of subtlety. He's not the over-acting leading man of Mel Gibson's or Tom Cruise's ilk. You only catch him screaming or blubbering when it's truly called for. In the meantime, he's kicking ass and taking names.

Frantic tells the story of Dr. Richard Walker who's visiting Paris with his wife. She mysteriously disappears, and he must search for her, frantically (yeah, I went there. Deal with it.). The police are of little help, the language barrier complicates things, and with every passing moment Richard feels the situation become more sinister, and more dire.

The cinematography and lighting in this film support the building tension nicely. Paris' underbelly is exposed, gritty and garish. This is not a tourism picture. It's what the TV show "Locked Up Abroad" tries so hard to be. Frantic turns the glamourous Paris into a dark and frustrating puzzle that Richard is determined to unlock, though his hands are shaking and sweaty. However, don't expect a frantic, action movie pace. This is a thriller, but not a thrill ride. Polanski builds tension slowly and methodically. Look for his cameo as a taxi driver.

Emmanuelle Seigner (Polanski's wife) turns in a great performance as Richard's unlikely ally, a street punk girl who's gotten mixed up with the wrong crowd. Seiger has a magnetic charm that steals every scene she's in. A quality that is excellent in Frantic, but failed to save The Ninth Gate.

The best parts of this movie are when Richard is trying to get help from the unflappable French police or US Embassy. They are calm, and trying to calm him, and his frustration is palpable.

-- Noel
Sent from my T-Mobile Sidekick®


Sunday, May 16, 2010

Wolves in green clothing

So, I finally saw Avatar in IMAX 3D. By this point, after all the awards season hoopla, I thought I knew what it was about. Nature loving aliens make a marine have a change of heart all Pocahontas style.

Insetad, I caught onto a disturbing subtext that I'm not entirely sure was intentional.

But I'll get into that in a moment. Visually, this movie is fantastic. Pretty blue aliens in a gorgeous CGI world full of wondrous flora and fauna.
If you're looking for great performances and brilliant dialogue- go elsewhere. Sigourney Weaver, Giovanni Ribisi and Zoe Saldana are the only bearable actors. I have concluded that Sam Worthington has sold his soul to the devil in exchange for otherwise inexplicable success in Hollywood. That, or he's a cyborg. Either way, he always looks dead in the eyes and is entirely incapable of inhabiting a character believably.

Okay- now for the disturbing subtext: SPOILERS TO FOLLOW

You see, the plot is that the military has been employed by a corporation to subdue the natives so that the corporation can better access the valuable material found underneath their land.

The natives consider much of their land holy, and these intruders corrupting it for the sake of money is deplorable to them.

The corporation has tried to reach out to the natives and give them technology and education, but the natives are not interested in that. They have their religion and their way of life. That is all that matters to them.

So, the corporation funds an avatar program. They genetically engineer a native's body and make it so that a human can control its nervous system. (The moral ramifications of creating such shell organisms is never covered, and that was troubling to me. How could they possibly not have minds and personalities of their own? But, I'll suspend my disbelief.)

After infiltrating and living amongst the natives, the main character Jake Sully converts and turns against the corporation. Prior to being an avatar, Jake was a crippled marine. His brother was murdered, and he was lost and depressed. A young, unmarried man who believes in nothing and has nothing to lose. This is exactly the kind of person who is most prone to being seduced by an exotic religion with a strict sense of right and wrong. A religion that will give him direction in life. And that direction is holy war against his infidel race.

Bear with me here.

Replace the forest with a desert. Replace the unobtanium with oil. Replace the natives' goddess Eywa with Allah.

Basically, the natives have decided that the only way to stop the non-believers from disgracing their holy land in the name of a valuable material is to start a holy war. Their holy war is successful because Jake converts and Eywa turns out to be real and joins in on the war.

This was extremely disturbing to me. If Allah turns out to be real and listens to the Jihadists engaged in holy war, America is screwed. If all the nations that have issues with us band together and decide to do something about it, goodbye USA.

I'm as liberal as the next guy. I voted for Hillary. I'm not saying I didn't like this movie because it sympathized with people defending their holy land. I thought it was a really interesting perspective. In fact, my only issue was the whole "The army is bad and full of sadists" thing. I don't think we have any business being in the Middle East.

But I don't endorse holy war. I really don't think religion is a great reason to kill people. I'm all about religious understanding and being sensitive to sacred sites and all that. I just couldn't root along for the Na'vi (the natives) while they will killing a bunch of soldiers who were only carrying out orders.

I know that the radical Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan are just trying to defend their home. I know that it's their religion. I know that they believe to their cores that it's the right thing to do and that God is on their side. I know we really have no business being there because we're not a DemocracyMart that delivers fair and functional governments to other people, whether they want it or not. But I don't think the men and women who are serving over there have any say in the matter. I don't think they deserve to die. Not even if a morally devoid Giovanni Ribissi and a maniacal general are giving the orders. Not even if the only reason they're there is to tap an underground resource.

If this one marine could have a change of heart after only 3 months, couldn't they have changed more hearts and minds?

It just doesn't sit right with me. It also didn't sit right with me that Jake Sully never accepted and adapted to losing the use of his legs. He was either fixated on getting surgery to repair them or going into an alien body to escape his disability. I wonder how that made any wheelchair-bound viewers feel? "Hey, not being able to use your legs sucks so bad that any self-respecting person would rather die or live vicariously through another body!"

If James Cameron wanted to make a film about valuing nature, I think making the army the bad guy and hiding behind religion is a lousy way to do it.

Also, science and religion are unlikely allies in this film. The seemingly supernatural way the environment Pandora is interconnected is explained as electro-magnetic pulses, much like our nervous system or brain neurons. Yet, the head scientist, Sigourney Weaver, whispers to Jake that Eywa is real- wait, what? Real as in explainable by science, or real as in supernatural? Because if Eywa is supernatural, then how is the way the Na'vi communicate with her completely explicable? If they are exchanging information via a synapse-like interface, and all their memories and other data is stored in some unseen database, then wouldn't Eywa just be the metaphorical OS of Pandora? Like Master Control Program in TRON? Or is she a long-deceased spiritual leader, like Jesus or Eve who is preserved via the data system like everyone else? Since it was never explained, I'll assume I wasn't supposed to think about it.

I just can't buy science as the ally of religion and an army being the enemy of religion. Historically it's been the other way 'round.

Overall, Avatar is worth seeing. Just don't think too hard about it. Shut your brain off and let the Hollywood glow wash over you.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Dream a little dream of me...

Sometimes, you have to love something for what it is. And that's why I loved the new A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Yes, you'll be distracted by the terrible acting of all the 25-year-olds pretending to be teenagers. Yes, if you've seen the original, you know how everything pans out for the poor kids. But, Jackie Earle Healy is just so awesome as Freddy. His growling voice playfully turning every line into a wink at the audience.

Freddy's here, let him entertain you.

There are jumps a plenty- and isn't that what you want? Even while you're laughing at the would-be thespians while they telegraph every plot twist like a clumsy boxer, you're on the edge of your seat. The gore is fantastic. I didn't think a Freddy flick could get any bloodier than they already were, but CGI creates a splatter we could have only imagined before.

This film focuses more on the story of Freddy. It even delves a little into the science of sleep deprivation and how it can drive you crazy, make you hallucinate, and even kill you. But all of this is the inconsequential cake of the film. The fans are only interested in licking off the violent icing.

Since the original was so truly original, any reboot that aimed to be a better film would have missed the mark and we'd have another Clash of the Titans on our hands. Nightmare hits it's target audience like Freddy's glove slices his victims: Effectively. It was made to be a popcorn slasher film. And because I haven't seen an honest-to-goodness popcorn slasher film in so long, I can truly appreciate that.

It doesn't take itself seriously, it doesn't try to be a heady thriller, it's the model of self-awareness and acceptance.

Welcome back, Freddy. You haven't lost your touch.

For Rent

Roman Polanski's "Apartment Trilogy" consists of Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and Le Locataire/The Tenant. Each movie is subtle and terrifying. They each revolve around an apartment that brings it's tenant into sinister situations. Paranoia, isolation, claustrophobia and evil abound.

Polanski directed and wrote (all or in part) all three films.

Repulsion tells the story of Carole, a young woman whose fear of men sends her spiraling into madness when her roommate leaves for the weekend. This is the only black and white film in the series, yet the imagery is still vivid, and Carole's isolation and resulting insanity are palpable. Here, the apartment is a reflection of Carole's mind. As one deteriorates, so does the other, yet Carole doesn't seem to notice. She is plagued by terrible hallucinations. But her unfounded fear of others keeps her from discovering that what she should truly be afraid of is herself. The cinematography here is striking, and Catherine Deneuve gives an amazing performance as Carole. The hallucinations are so well-done. The rape scene in particular was every bit as scary as the infamous bed scene in Nightmare on Elm Street. But Polanski doesn't need buckets of blood to make your heart pound. Unlike the other Apartment Trilogy films, there are no sinister outside forces. Carole's greatest threat is her own sick mind. Will she be saved?

Rosemary's Baby takes us on a 180 as Rosemary's paranoia is entirely founded. Yet, she is so distrustful of herself that she cannot seem to accept it. Much like the next film, Rosemary finds herself in a horrifying situation all because she was unlucky enough to take an apartment. She is in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I thought knowing Rosemary's fate (and who hasn't heard about it?) would make the movie less scary. But the music, the ever-tightening camera shots showing the isolation and claustrophobia are all the more frightening because I so badly wanted her to get out. Mia Farrow is the perfect blend of innocence and strength as Rosemary. Polanski extracts wonderful performances from his leading ladies. He had wanted Rosemary to be a full-figured, girl-next-door type. Like his wife Sharon Tate. Yet Farrow works because she is so fragile. She seems like a feather would break her. Her struggle is heartbreaking, and you root for her every step of the way.
Now, I cannot imagine what it must have been like, having just experienced huge success on the heels of a movie where an innocent pregnant wife is victimized by a fiendish cult, for Polanski to have lose his own innocent pregnant wife, and their unborn baby, to a fiendish cult. A cult that targeted them simply because they lived in the house of someone who had once wronged Charles Manson. Sharon Tate was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The coincidence is chilling.

Le Locataire/The Tenant takes the fear of ourselves and the fear of others and blends them. It was clear in the prior films what was real and what was not. In this film, it is not clear. Polanski stars, uncredited, as Mr. Trelkovsky. A man who rents an apartment, and learns that the prior tenant met an unfortunate end. From there, he is drawn into a whirlpool of paranoia. The neighbors are paranoid, he is paranoid, and it seems that no one can be trusted, not even himself. This movie has so many twists and turns, and the subtley of everything makes it all very disturbing. We're riding right along with Trelkovsky. Reality and paranoid hallucinations begin to blend. The pressure builds, and Trelkovsky is slowly driven insane, but no one else seems quite sane. His own actions and the actions of others are equally responsible for the tragedies that are occuring.

It is no surprise that the terror in this film is blamed on both the outer and inner forces, seeing as though Polanski blamed himself for his late wife's murder as he did the Manson Family. He was unfaithful, he should have been home that night but chose, instead, to stay in Europe a little longer.
All the three films start out quite bright, and as the tension builds, they become progressively darker and darker, until it seems like it is always night, and the main character is living in a nightmare.

These are the kind of thrillers that put slasher films to shame. Slasher films build to a jump every few minutes, until the jumps come so closely together that you're on the edge of your seat.
These thrillers build and build and build- but the jump never comes. You are left squirming on the edge of your seat, begging for the jump. Begging for a gush of blood or monster to emerge simply so that the suspense can end. But your relief is delayed, and ultimately denied. The knot in your stomach never unties, and the credits roll. You're left disturbed and haunted.
That's something you'll never forget.