Archive for category 1991

Slacker

Slacker

An odd day’s journey into even odder Austin oddness.

“Slacker” feels a lot like an acid trip, sans the hallucinations. The film meanders from one bizarre conversation to the next, unable to linger too long on any one topic but always fascinated by whatever is happening in whatever instant it is in.  These conversations consist almost entirely of absurd, self-aggrandizing banal nonsense, and yet you can’t help but be excited by the manic energy of the philosophizing weirdos uttering it.  It is like they are determined to find the truth in the mundane, or the mundane in the truth, plausibility and conventionality be damned. In the end, it may be just an extreme form of mental masturbation, but brains have needs too.

I for one am glad there are oddballs like those in “Slacker” out there in the universe, championing whatever causes strike them. If you’ve spent any substantial time in a liberal college town, you can’t help but run into them. Some are students, but even more seem to have wandered in from the sociopolitical wilderness of surrounding communities to wrap themselves in the warm intellectual cocoon of the university, or they seem to have grown from the fertile landscape of the city  itself, feeding off of radical ideas  like eccentric wildflowers. They aren’t just in the city. They are the city.

I have never been to Austin, but I have heard rumors of its prodigious peculiarity. I hope that these rumors are true, and that “Slacker” does it justice. In the film, we arrive in town as passive observers, wandering through the town and soaking up its otherworldly ambiance. The film eavesdrops on a variety of oddities, including a woman trying to sell Madonna’s pap smear, a pop-tart chomping man surrounded by televisions, a robber that is charmed by an elderly anarchist, an expert on JFK assassination theories, and a couple of hipsters positing conspiracy theories related to children’s cartoons over beers. This is by no means an exhaustive list. Many of these characters are as ephemeral as ghosts, drifting back into the ether of Austin as quickly as they appeared, not unlike an early 90s Austin-version of Alice-in-Wonderland.

Whether and to what degree any of these individual ideas appeals to you is, I suppose, a matter of personal ideology. (I don’t have any problems with the theory that some children’s cartoons teach children to expect rewards for completing tasks. Not that this is a revelatory concept.) However, it isn’t the content of any of these ideas that matters. It is the spirit of these conversations which counts. These people are on self-defined crusades against abstractions of all shapes and sizes. I find their rebellion against normality comforting.

“Slacker” provides a strange viewing experience. Aside from evoking the weirdo-derived ambiance of Austin, the film seems to be utterly devoid of agendas. In that sense it feels incredibly unique. I was mystified for its duration, and the odd reaction it generated lingered long after the film is over. Not unlike an acid trip.

4/5

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Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Star Trek VI

Amidst twelve Star Trek films, it is really easy to forget just how good this film is. When we talk about the best of the Star Trek films, “Star Trek VI” belongs in the same discussion as “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” While “Khan” is admittedly the more iconic film and houses the better villain, “Star Trek VI” has a much tougher job. Needing to part ways with characters that have resided in the pop culture for over two decades without devolving into shameless pandering while still appealing to a mainstream audience, “Star Trek VI” gets the job done by mixing in real-world cold war politics with bits of a murder mystery, a prison escape, and a splash of courtroom drama.

Director Nicholas Myers’ (who also directed “The Wrath of Khan”) most inspired choice was his decision to integrate the end of the Cold War era with the end of this particular iteration of “Star Trek.” Entire generations of children grew up the 60s, 70s, and 80s intuiting that the U.S.S.R. was the enemy of the United States. They heard about the Cold War on the news, read about superheros fighting Communists in comic books, and saw James Bond outsmarting the Reds in the movies. With the collapse of The Soviet Union nearly formalized in 1991, a Brave New World began, in which Russia is an ally and kids like me grew up thinking Russians were just a bunch of bearded guys in silly hats drinking vodka in the snow.

“Star Trek VI” begins with a massive Chernobyl-esque explosion generated from a moon that serves as the primary source of energy for the entirety of the Klingon empire. (Note: in the metaphoric realm of “Star Trek” the Klingons are the equivalent of the Russians.) With that energy source now gone, the Klingon empire is given an expiration date of 50 years.The Klingons have long been the chief antagonists of the Federation, but instead of reveling in victory, the Federation makes plans for talks with Klingon leader, Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner) in order save the Klingons and usher in a new era of peace between these long-warring species.

The Federation sends old battle-ax James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and the hardened crew of the Enterprise to meet Gorkon and get him safely to the peace talks. After a contentious meal between a rash of Klingons and Federation officers, the situation unravels. Amidst a surprise attack from the Enterprise, two of its crew beam aboard the Klingon ship and murder the Chancellor.

Kirk, who has hated and fought the Klingons for most of his life, must rely on diplomacy, not force, to get out of this particular pickle. He and Enterprise doctor Bones (DeForest Kelly) are taken prisoner by the Klingons, convicted of murder, and sent to a brutal prison camp amidst a chilly asteroid. Meanwhile the rest of Kirk’s crew must solve the crime and expose the traitors, before the situation between the Federation and the Klingon empire boils over into all-out war.

One of the most captivating parts of “Star Trek” the television show, is the complex political situations that the Enterprise finds themselves having to navigate. Rarely does this translate onto the big screen, but in “Star Trek VI,” it does.  This is as sophisticated a narrative as you will find in a “Star Trek” film. It is as efficient as it is exciting. The dialogue is sharp, to the point, and thematically rich. Without revealing much more, it is one of film’s better touches that the actions of the culprit(s) ironically endorse a view which is antithetical to their own goals. The film contains numerous reminders that everything expires and that change is unavoidable. These functions both in terms of the changing worldview required of people who have long grown comfortable with despising each other, and as a bittersweet reminder that the original Star Trek crew is about to dissipate from the currents of pop culture. It incorporates all of this without derailing the plot or sacrificing its need to entertain.

Some other highlights include Academy Award-winner Christopher Plummer as a Shakespeare-quoting Klingon, future “Sex and the City” star Kim Cattrall as Spock’s Vulcan protege,  and what is perhaps the most violent act that the now-in-touch-with-his-emotions Spock Leonard Nimoy) has ever performed. All of this fits seamlessly into the confines of narrative which successfully carries a massive load on its shoulders. Needing to say goodbye and accept change is not  a notion limited to the fickle fields of cultural relevance. Life inevitably marches on until eventually it marches without us. As the cliche goes, “All good things must come to an end.” Regrettably, such a statement even applies to “Star Trek.”

4/5

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Naked Lunch

The narrative threads tying together the hallucinogenic setpieces and sexualized biomorphic oddities contained in the film are perhaps more striking then the visual effects themselves. After all, Cronenberg had been perfecting these sorts of polyethylene body horror effects for over a decade, but who could expect such a coherent and tightly structured film from a supposedly unfilmable William S. Burroughs novel? This isn’t to suggest that the film is straightforward, but that there is a sort of logic connecting the psychological implications of the William Lee character’s bizarre hallucinations and “reality,” which presumably manifests itself upon further viewings.

Films about the artistic process very often run the risk of being extremely tedious, as though we must share in the artist’s labor in order to appreciate their work. Based on the William S. Burroughs novel “Naked Lunch” about William S. Burrough’s writing of “Naked Lunch,” “Naked Lunch” is anything but dull. Working as an exterminator in 1953, William Lee (Peter Weller) is convinced by his wife Joan Lee (Judy Davis) to inject some of the bug powder used to eliminate pest into his bloodstream, because it is a very “literary” high. In that sense it works, as what follows is a days/weeks/months/who knows how long drug-induced trip in which Bill visits a bizarre India-inspired reality called Interzone while writing “reports” to his “handler” which will eventually constitute the manuscript for the book upon which the film is based.

Looking at William Lee, you wouldn’t suspect a man who is regularly encountering sentient cockroach-shaped typewriters that speak through an ungulating, pulsating, vaginal opening on its back, or giant Mugwumps covered with tentacled phallus which ooze out addictive drugs. Peter Weller’s stern face seldom betrays his reactions. He seems equally unfazed when he accidentally shoots his wife as when he sees a giant centipede sexually assaulting a man in a parrot cage. His calm acceptance and dryly comedic responses to everything he sees takes the edge off of what might otherwise be an unsettling film and adds a layer of humor.

Despite the general insanity on display, the film has a distinctive shape and form absent from other excellent surreal films, such as the works of David Lynch. The ludicrous hallucinations are centered around a spy plot, of all things, in which Bill must uncover a conspiracy involving a company called Interzone Inc. that is manufacturing a drug produced from the stomach of giant centipedes. Aspects of the hallucinations reflect Bill’s guilt about his wife, his ambivalence about his own sexuality, feeling like a sellout for getting money in exchange for publishing his manuscript, and a whole host of other nuances from his personality and views on existence. I am convinced a dedicated fan of the film could determine with a high degree of accuracy whether and to what degree Bill is hallucinating, and when he isn’t. Not that such information would necessarily be useful.

For what it is worth, this film replicates how I have always envisioned the preeminent Beat authors going about writing their great works. Loaded on drugs of all kinds, they project their psychology onto reality, not the other way around, generating a jumbled mix of poetry and prose in the process. Though not having read the book, nor indeed even knowing that much about William S. Burroughs, this might be wildly off the mark, but what other non-drug related explanation for the existence of such a book would convince you?

4.5/5

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Terminator 2: Judgment Day

When it came out in 1991 it was admired for its cutting-edge CGI effects. I find myself, more than twenty years later, admiring it just as much for its practical effects. This film is fantastic example of how to blend CGI effects into a film which exists in a world where the normal rules of psychics (mostly) apply.

Skynet, the tyrannical artificial intelligence of the not-so distant future, sends two cyborgs, called Terminators, back in time. One is sent to 1984 to kill Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton) and the other to 1995 to kill her son ten-year-old son John (Edward Furlong), who will as an adult is destined to lead the humans in a struggle against the machines, who will soon take over the world. While I can’t help but wonder if there might have been a better use of time travel for the machines, that is the strategy they went with.

The humans also send a Terminator back in time. This Terminator, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, is the same model as that of from the first film, only this time, he has been programed to protect John Conner. His adversary, played by Robert Patrick, is the more advanced T-1000, whose body is composed of a liquid metal that enables him to mimic other humans and to transform his limbs into all kinds of metallic objects. When hit with bullets, wonderful holes are formed in his chest, before being quickly refilled.

This is quite easily Schwarzenegger’s best performance. I mean that. He is so stiff, and so wooden in all of his films, that playing a robot is the ideal role for him. It is one of the few times in which Schwarzenegger is on the screen, but I am not consciously aware at all times that I am watching him on screen. One of the running jokes of the film is that John Conner has reprogrammed him in order to help him learn how to be more human. Schwarzenegger attempting to smile and learn human vernacular actually borders on brilliant.

The film has at its core the question of whether or not the humans can do anything to prevent the machines from taking over, in what they refer to as “Judgment Day.” This adds a bit of headiness to the film, but mostly it provides an excuse for lots of shooting and chase sequences, all of which are excellent. The film mixes in the CGI effects of the T-1000 with the practical effects brilliantly. The T-1000, who looks great, feels real, and makes a much better villain then Schwarzenegger in the first film, seems to exist in actual reality, in which actual cars are blown up and actual guns are fired, albeit with blanks. This makes the visual effects that much more satisfying and that much more enduring.

The film has some nice touches, which help give it emotional depth and a sense of self-awareness. The relationship between John Connor and the Terminator is surprisingly endearing. John, concerned with loss of human life, orders the Terminator to not kill. Instead he shoots to maim. The film is not perfect, 14-year-old Furlong’s performance as the ten-year-old Conner is sometimes shaky, the film is at times heavy-handed with its emotional scenes (“Now I know why you cry”), and the causal loop at the heart of the film begs some question, but this is largely irrelevant. The film is technically brilliant and contains effective and even great performances from its actors so that we not only want them to succeed, we truly care what happens to them.

4.5/5

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Delicatessen

What a bizarre, inventive fun mess of a film. A mix of dark humor, horror, and goofy energy. I don’t quite know what to think of it, which in this case is high praise. The film is original and highly entertaining.

The film takes place in Paris, but this is not like any Paris I have seen. This is some vaguely post-World War II time-period in which famine and poverty are so pervasive, the government has rationed out food and people have resorted to extreme measures to feed themselves. In a run down apartment building, surround by alleys and a perpetual fog is a delicatessen who murders his building managers and feeds them to his other tenants.

Filling this apartment is an odd assortment of characters. A pair of brothers that make salt shakers that moo, two prank-playing little boys, a man in a flooded apartment riddled with snails and frogs, a lecherous mailman that regularly visits and pursues the delicatessen’s daughter, not to mention the delicatessen himself and his live-in girlfriend. Louison (Dominque Pinon) as a former circus performer who finds his way into the apartment building when he responds to an ad offering room and board in exchange for helping to maintain the building.

A good deal happens, but none of it makes a good deal of sense. There is a militant group of vegetarians, called the Troglodites, who agree to kidnap someone in exchange for grain, Louison’s former partner in the circus, a chimpanzee, was eaten by other circus performances when the bad times hit, and there is an unorthodox symphony/montage sequence, in which the sounds of the tenants creates the music. The film ends, of course, a showdown between Louison and the Delicatessen.

The film was directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who directed Amelie. If Amelie seemed fantastical, this film is downright cartoonish, which serves to take the morbid subject matter and zap the darkness from it. You would not think you were dealing with cannibals and murder by the look and feel of the film. I could not tell if this film was supposed to be a cautionary tale for carnivores or if there was some other point. If there was a point, I missed it. Mostly, this film is a ride through absurdity. You do not know where you are going. When you are done, you aren’t really sure where you ended up, though it might be the same place you started. You do know that you saw some strange things and had some fun while you did it.

3.5/5

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La Belle Noiseuse

I imagine the act of painting, drawing, sculpting, or other comparable artistic endeavors are very interesting to the person performing them. I imagine losing oneself in the act, each stroke or scratch on the paper, until something beautiful or interesting manifests itself. However, speaking for myself, watching someone else involved in this process, however engrossed in the act that person may be, is not very interesting. As such, this film is not for me.

Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli) is a semi-retired painter, living in an elegant chateau somewhere in France. Frenhofer is visited by a young artist named Nicolas (David Bursztein) and his girlfriend Marianne (Emmanuelle Beart). This visit inspires Frenhofer, at Nicolas behest, to begin painting again, after a ten year hiatus, using Marianne as his model. What follows are several long takes in which Frenhofer poses a nude Marianne in various positions, followed by minutes and minutes of Frenhofer’s hands sketching Marianne and hearing the scrap of the pencil or the stroke of the brush. At nearly four hours, this film becomes more than a little tedious.

Beyond the parts of the film that focus on the artistic process, there is some human elements to the film. Nicolas is jealous of the bond between Marianne and Frenhofer. Frenhofer’s wife is also jealous of that bond. There is also a subplot of sorts, in which Frenhofer tried to finish this painting with his wife ten years ago, but could not. I found myself not particularly interested in any of it.

I appreciate what painters do. They achieve things that are far beyond my skill to do, and they are contributing something valuable to humanity. I just do not want to watch them while they do what they love to do. Imagine watching Bob Ross for three plus hours. I acknowledge that the painter in the film is more inspired than Bob Ross, and for a time it was interesting watching a lover and master of a craft working at it, but that novelty quickly wore off. I could really be missing something, but I was very unmoved by this film.

2/5

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The Double Life of Veronique

The Double Life of Veronique is a film in which I can appreciate the beauty of the cinematography and the quality of the acting, but I cannot claim to be overly interested or moved by the film. It is pretty to look at, but the film does not seem likely to stick with me.

Irene Jacob plays two women, Weronika and Veronique who share a supernatural bond. Both are on some level aware of this connection, and neither one feels alone. One of these women lives in Poland, the other in France. Despite this difference, they share many of the same attributes (which includes an affinity to music) and own many of the same objects (such as a little crystal ball.) Except for a brief glance when Veronique is visiting Poland, the two never meet.

The film begins by focusing exclusively on Weronika. Weronika is a singer who lives in Poland and gives up her life to move to Krakow to pursue a singing career. While performing a concert, Weronika dies due to a genetic illness, which is immediately felt by Veronique. After this, she abandons her own music career and begins to teach instead. All the while, Veronique is pursued by an intriguing and somewhat mysterious stranger.

The movie looks at these two women and never explains their connection. It is implied that they were born on the exact same day on two different continents. This rules out the possibility of twins, so it appears that these are the same woman, born into two different lifestyles. How are they different? How are they the same? Are they bound to the same fate? Do they have choice? What makes them different, genetics or culture? These ideas seem to exist somewhat in the film, but it regards them more in a romantic way, instead of following more thoroughly the possibilities and implications of this film.

I confess there are parts I find intriguing, and there are two scenes which I particularly struggle to make sense of which I will not reveal. The acting, compositions, framing, and camerawork are great. Perhaps I may feel differently about this film later. I simply was not overly moved by this film. Nevertheless, I do not deny that overall, as a film, it is quite good and there are probably aspects to this film that wiser people will get that I do not.

4.1/5

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Raise the Red Lantern

Raise the Red Lantern is sharply filmed. The camera does not move often, and films its target from straight ahead, usually from a higher angle. It has something to say about marriage, gender roles, and repression.

The movie star Gong Li as Songlian, a young woman who drops out of a University after her father dies. With few options, she decides to marry, becoming the fourth wife of a man referred to as “the master.” Seen only in medium and long shots, we never really see what he looks at, nor do we learn much about him. We do not know what he doe for a living. He appears weak and spoiled.

At the Master’s house, Songlian no longer possesses a name. She is referred to only as fourth mistress. Songlian quickly comes to realize the nature of the situation. Every night, the Master chooses which of his wives he is going to spend the night with. After this decision is made, red lanterns are lit all throughout the house. When the red lanterns are lit, the woman inside gets many privileges, including respect from the servants and choosing what food items are on the menu. This status leads to a fierce competition between the women over who the Master will sleep with.

The first mistress is old and matronly. She is resigned to her fate and excepts that the Master will not sleep with her. The Third Mistress is still young and attractive, but struggles to deal with the new, younger mistress getting the Master’s attention. The Second Mistress however, is the most vicious. She is older, and her looks are fading, but some of it remains she can still bear children. She knows she does not have much time. Her desperation makes her a dangerous foe. The women squabble and plot, desperate for the Master’s attention and the status it brings.

The color gray dominates this film. The wives’ homes are drab and relatively colorless. When the lanterns are lit, it injects color and significance in their lives. This is the only way for them to find significance and merit in their lives. The camera is often straight on, emphasizing the rigidity in the power structure of the place. The camera focuses in on the wives’ faces, picking up the subtle twinges and lip curls that indicate success or failure.

 

Gong Li is great as Songlian. She does not seem the least bit interested in the Master, but is more interested in the foot rubs given to her when he chooses to stay with her. While we want to side with her as the protagonist, she fails to realize how her actions are furthering the competitive atmosphere of the houses and making the innocent suffer for her petty jealousy. Without getting into details, Songlian will make a desperate move to garner attention and when the move fails, someone else pays for it. When she gets drunk, she makes another mistake that will cost someone else.

 

Raise the Red Lantern is excellent. It looks great, it is well acted, the colors are gorgeous and the movie has a lot to say about gender roles.

4.6/5

 

 

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