I watched Animal House for the umpteenth time. Did so cause of the passing of John "Dean" Vernon "Wormer" quotation quotation quack quack. The best part about watching movies over again is finding something new in 'em. Right? Well, I noticed something new to me during the roadtrip sequence -- when Boon is trying to call his girlfriend Katy at 6 AM and she's not picking up her phone (cause she's sleeping with Professor Donald Sutherland) the radio in the background is playing "Hey Paula." That's the song that Boon and Katy sing to each other earlier in the film, when they're high and goofing around with each other. It's an obvious injoke to the couple, and playing it again when Boon first begins to realize their relationship could very well be over is a subtle little ironic underscore. Wonderful.
I know Animal House is seen as a juvenile film, fulla crazy wacky shit that's been forever ensconced in our pop culture pantheon, quoted and overquoted by people who haven't even seen the thing ("Toga! Toga! Toga!") but there really is some solid filmmaking behind it. I do rather like John Landis' stuff, even if he became an asshole later on in life.
Don't know if I got anything new out of Amadeus but I watched it again, too. Amadeus is usually a two-day film for me; Mozart's father dying is a perfect spot for a break, even if the double-sided DVD doesn't seem to agree. I guess this was a Tom Hulce weekend for me or something, I don't know. I always enjoy the chance to get the melodies stuck in my head for weeks afterwards (today: Salieri's little tribute march) and can't get enough of the overpomped opera sequences. I especially watched the parody opera this time around, loving how the audience was shown in such familiar adoration of Mozart's music that they sang and hummed along with each piece as it was parodied, and applauded their favorite characters when introduced. Salieri's monologues tell us Mozart was popular in Vienna; the parody scene shows it.
I was also amazed at how Peter Shaffer managed to piss off both sides of the Mozart/Salieri argument in his bid to rewrite history and present theory and conjecture as fact. Just by reading through some web pages (some a bit more, uh, zealous in their fervor than others but hey, that's the Internet) I see how Mozart's fans are upset that the film shows their hero as an immature, slightly deranged brat with a laugh like a madman, and Salieri's faithful are incensed by the egregous artistic liberties taken with their favorite composer. No, there's never been any evidence that proves Salieri killed Mozart either through poison or psychological duress, and his success and skills as a composer were hardly mediocre (he was a favorite of the Paris Opera, and his pupils included Beethoven, Schubert, and even one of Mozart's own sons.) But it does make for a very clever narrative, you must agree.
There are some who still think there was a real rivalry going on; I found one nifty article that suggests the character of Papageno, the comic birdcatcher in The Magic Flute, was actually a vicious little parody of Salieri. While grasping at straws for some of the arguments (the whole marriage parallel is rather loose) I thought it an interesting read. I really gotta grab me some biographies the next time I can afford to have Burger & A Book Tuesdays again.
Got some new releases out of the way, too. I Heart Huckabees was a solid lock for Silliest Word Substitution Title of 2004, really, until What The Bleep Do We Know? came along, but that's all right. Both try to solve existential dilemmas, but only Huckabees knows it's fictional. Bleep came packaged as an actual factual documentary, complete with authentic-looking scientists who weren't. Good ol' eBert said it best when he said "I knew there had to be something fishy when the expert who made the most sense was channeling a 35,000-year-old seer from Atlantis."
I thought Huckabees was whimsical, if a trifle overwordy, and I really liked how they got the clean, vaguely too clean Target brand image down pat for the "Huckabees" chain of stores. Those in Boston are probably familiar with the little animated Target ad they're running between Harvard and Central Square on the Red Line; look outside the T car and you'll see clean people (are they all white? I can't remember. Surely Target would've pushed for diversity for diversity's sake) enjoying their existence in stylistic environments as the Target logo merrily plays along with them. This kind of image makes me uneasy inside, and I guess it must be existential, as Huckabees tapped that unease just right.
But the story is flawed, wraps up too nicely, there's sex thrown in for the sake of sex and it's a parody of sex, which isn't bad when done right but this was done wrong, and ... well, unfortunately, it suffers from Jason Schwartzman Syndrome. I don't know what it is about him, he's a very capable actor, but he's the reason I disliked Rushmore. I had no sympathy for Max in Rushmore; he was annoying and grating and thus, as he was the hero, I was unable to find any reason to root for him. His moment of trimuph and happy ending rang hollow for me (though I will admit the staging of his play was hilarious, over the top, and well-done.)
This is the same problem with his character in Huckabees. His environmental crusader is convinced his bad poetry should be the flame that keeps his political action group alive, even though really it's the bad poetry and his ego that he wishes to uphold. Ok, I can understand that -- who doesn't want to stay on a project they themselves created? But when it's revealed he's also been visiting a celebrity memorabilia shop so he can slyly insert his own signed headshot into the collection of autographs (oh don't worry, I didn't spoil nothin) I lost all respect for him. The respect was not gained back. I don't believe it should have been, either. He's an anti-hero, sure, and sometimes anti-heroes just don't get the redemption from the audience they seek.
I also thought the philosophy given by the film was a bit presumptuous. I realized this when, after the credits rolled, a single phrase came up on the black screen: "How am I not myself?" It was the mantra that gives one character in the film his great Moment of Enlightenment, and no doubt it was displayed after the credits in a shameless move to try and get one audience member to have their own Moment of Enlightenment as they walked up the aisles and threw their empty popcorn bags away. This must explain why, when Huckabees was playing in a theater around here, I heard so many people hollering "OH HOLY CRAP THAT'S IT! THAT'S SO IT! I'M SELLIN ALL MY SHOES AND MOVING TO BALTIMORE!"
No, wait, they were saying that as they came out of A Dirty Shame. Tee hee.
I did like watching Mark Wahlberg get his brain around the too-complicated philosophical dialogue -- you expect Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin to do it and make it look easy, but Wahlberg holds his own admirably. It's great to hear him discuss being and dichotomy and the horrors of petroleum products in the character of a blue-collar firefighter (who never takes off his fireman's boots, by the way.) Jude Law fared considerably worse with it, though, and honestly, I can't say I'm digging him as an actor. His British accent wasn't what Sky Captain & The World of Tomorrow needed (they really needed a square-jawed American type in that role, a modern-day Buck Rogers or, hell, even a Commando Cody) and his American accent in Huckabees was only mildly passable. He did look the part of the dumb blonde jock-businessman type, though, so I guess he almost worked.
There was one technical little joke I admit I was pleasantly amused by, in the scene at Schwartzman's parents' apartment. One character drops a dramatic bombshell of a statement, one that you know needs to be accompanied by music when it's said in a movie, and what do you know, there's a music cue. Only it's wildly inappropriate -- it's an upbeat country song instead of a dramatic sting. Turns out it's coming from a stereo which, earlier in the scene, was shown to be on the fritz. A cheap gag, but since the music cue caught me off guard and had me wondering "where the hell is this segue going?" until the joke was revealed, it worked.
And after watching The Life Aquatic, I know what I want out of life. A Brazilian who sings David Bowie songs in Portuguese and a topless script girl. That's all. Okay, and a million bucks. Brazilian David Bowie, topless script girl, million bucks. I think that'll do. Oh, and Abbie wants a side of beef. So, uh, Brazilian David Bowie, topless script girl, million bucks, side of beef for the cat. My apartment's on the third floor. Yellow house, mansard roof.
While I don't think it's Wes Anderson's best work by a long shot, I enjoyed myself greatly watching his latest. The Life Aquatic is a nice little portrait of a declining man and his declining ensemble cast which doesn't shy away from veering into the absurd when it wants. That can be both good and bad, of course, but for the most part it's good. And it's layered like a mofo -- ok, let's break it down. A fictional movie shot with documentary themes (handheld cameras, titles like a film serial, etc) about a documentary crew which shoots their product almost like a fictional movie, with contrived re-enactments of key moments and bad dialogue. Got it? (Reminds me of Noah's idea to make a movie about a documentary made during a community theater production of Kiss Me, Kate for -- ready now? -- a play within a play within a film within a film. Then I suggested "Why not also shoot a 'The Making Of' featurette for this movie and really blow some minds?" and reality as we knew it imploded and ceased to exist, the end.)
It's also quite clear that Steve Zissou's life is much more fascinating than the aquatic adventures he films, so Wes Anderson has done him a favor and made that movie for him. I've enjoyed Anderson's approach to giving films the structure of some other form of media -- Rushmore and theater, The Royal Tenenbaums and the novel, and now Life Aquatic and documentary film. I like his tableaux and I like his touches.
However, this is why The Royal Tenenbaums works so well story-wise and Life Aquatic flounders (and honestly, I didn't choose that word for the obvious seafaring pun.) Tenenbaums has a novel structure, the story really moves, backtracking when needed, and wraps up satisfyingly at the end. Life Aquatic has a definite story structure, but its flow just isn't as strong, and the ending is also rather weak. Wes Anderson likes to end his films with a shot that gradually changes to slow-motion, and it works well for him as a nice way of just putting a period on the end of his final sentence. However, when I saw it coming in Life Aquatic, I was peeved, for I didn't think it was time to go all slow-mo just yet. We just didn't have enough to wrap up at that point.
The walking cast credits sequence, though, which Anderson has admitted is a direct gank from Buckaroo Banzai, is terrific. And it's cool that Jeff Goldblum got to participate in both.
Anderson's still got some inventive chops to him. The cross-section of Zissou's ship Belafonte is absolutely brilliant. It's a movie set for a set, though it's never treated as "a movie set." It's just shown as one. As the action in a scene progresses from room to room and deck to deck, the camera is able to follow as it moves along the cross-section, showing exposed woodwork between floors and the like. And, mercifully, it's not used too often. Just enough to give a good "wow" when it happens. Restraint like that is a hard quality to find in a director, and I gotta give Mr. A the props he deserves for making that decision.
The cast is all very good, even if Angelica Huston doesn't have much to do and there's absolutely no Kumar Pallana to be found. It's great to see Jeff Goldblum in a non-neurotic uh er that is to say what I mean ha-haa! scientist-like role. He gets to be a real dog-slappin' asshole and that was refreshing. Bill Murray, predictably enough, plays Bill Murray, but he plays Bill Murray The Oceanographer (as opposed to Bill Murray The Tired Actor in Lost In Translation, Bill Murray The Army Guy in Stripes, and Bill Murray The Hunter S. Thompson in Where The Buffalo Roam. Actually, scratch that last one, because while it's a funny joke, he really did a great job as HST in that film.) Cate Blanchett starts off real strong (a pregnant reporter who finds her way to Zissou's island on a rowboat, bribing native fishermen, after Zissou's crew forgets to pick her up) but sort of peters off into a vulnerable little girl type near the end. Owen Wilson is an earnest Kentucky gentleman, but his character has little to tell us. Nice to see Bud Cort after all these years, even if he now looks like Milton from Office Space -- or, if you want to use the original joke I had here, "more Maude than Harold." Willem Dafoe, however, absolutely shines as Klaus. "Brilliant. Efficient. German." He plays equal parts authoritative and petulant, and frequently gets the scene.
I suppose I can't talk about the movie without mentioning Henry Selick's stop-motion animation, seen only a few times in the film. The underwater creatures are great, and I realize they're supposed to look artificial to help the film's layers along. Those who are complaining "wah, the CGI was poorly done" are sadly misguided and I hope they burn in a flaming pit of poo. If I have to be a pedant, I'll be the one who says "It wasn't CG! For once!"
I also saw I, Robot but I can't write about it tonight cause I'm tired. I will say, however, that it was not as terrible as I feared, and it actually had some interesting sci-fi angles and brought up some good sci-fi issues, but I swear to god Will Smith should have been as far from this project as possible. I want to write a screenplay for a Will Smith vehicle and name it simply "AW HELL NAW." Anyway. I'm off to obsessively edit this post a zillion times, and then pass out.