The Blue Planet: The Deep

Prod: Alastair Fothergill
2001
After watching Finding Nemo,
by chance a DVD I had ordered came in the mail the next day ready to complement Pixar’s fishy fantasy. The Blue Planet is an 8-part documentary miniseries about the ocean, narrated by Mr. Nature Doc himself, David Attenborough. The episode called “The Deep” explores the deep ocean like never before, discovering all sorts of freakish and often unnerving species living in the dark. The depth means that very little animal or vegetable matter is floating around, making the water (when lit by the submersible) as clear as air. On DVD, this makes for some sharp-as-tack photography, and this hour-long episode is pure eye-candy all the way. As the camera crew–in this tiny diving machine designed to withstand the incredible pressures–descend the discoveries become more incredible. We’ve all seen the angler fish, with his little glowing lure and huge teeth, but did you know as some points in the ocean there is a lake at the bottom? Or that around the volcanic vents in the continental shelf there are worms and crabs designed to live in boiling water? This is a DVD sure to astonish anybody and I’m sure will hold up to several viewings. (There’s another episode on the DVD, “Open Ocean,” but I haven’t bothered with it yet!)
Side note: The reason I bought this is, well, for some time I’ve been interested in deep sea fishes and other creatures (among thousands of other interests, but it’s filed away in the brain). The other day somebody posted a selection of astonishing photos on Metafilter, causing me to link to it over on Stone Cold Pimpin’. In Metafilter’s comment section, one poster mentioned this video. I followed his link to Amazon and bought it used. I mention this because there is no way any computer algorithm could figure I’d be interested in such a project. Amazon’s still recommending I buy “Poison Ivy 2” for goshsakes.

Finding Nemo

Dirs: Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich
2003
Yes, well, now I see it.
Although I don’t have any kids tugging at my arm, I do have my wife, who, though not too interested in Disney, feels the need to keep up with movies discussed around the water cooler at her job. And the office women seem to like “Finding Nemo”. Plus her sister keeps going on about it (she kept saying “You made me ink!” over and over on holiday, and ruined that joke for me). So here we are.
I will go and see Pixar films; they are a separate entity from Disney (especially now), and I did really like “A Bug’s Life” for it wealth of background jokes and well done supporting characters (the pillbugs especially). I saw “Monsters Inc.” last year and that was okay.
“Finding Nemo” had some good moments, but I feel this is the most “Disney” of the lot–too much saccharine, too many ‘life lessons’, too much “I love you dad!” moments. Characters come, do their shtick, then go, such as the surfer turtles, the vegetarian sharks, and the rest, all feeling quite programmed after a while. Undoubtedly, many children’s books also go with this structure when there’s a journey narrative–just think of Wizard of Oz–but it becomes very obvious here.
Just as there’s too many supporting characters (Nemo’s fishtank friends are reduced to one or two gags each), the film is almost too beautiful. The realism and the minute craftsmanship that goes into every single backdrop means even the scary parts are comforting. The light upon the water, the transparency of the ocean, the fluorescence of the coral reefs, the textures of sand and rock–it’s all very amazing.
But having watched this in the same week as “Laputa,” I can remember much more of that film’s characters than here. I also became very aware that the two main characters are Ellen Degeneres and Albert Brooks. I couldn’t separate them from their animated characters. I could just see Albert and Ellen in the studio, improv’ing it up. On the other hand, I had no idea that was Willem Dafoe as the battle-scarred tropical fish, Gill.
In the end it was the small things I liked: the arguing Boston lobsters near the steam vent, the gulls (a design nod to Aardman?) who just say “mine. mine.” when food is about, and the French shrimp (“I shall resist!” he says when told not to clean the tank, a line that no doubt goes over all the kids’ heads and most of the adults’).
Yes, it’s funny, but the humor comes from the concessions it makes for the adult audience. Kids get thrown pretty colors and an ADD-inspired adventure tale; sappy adults get thrown a father-son tale about “letting go as a parent,” while the adult jokes and sitcom delivery please the television watchers.
This is still “separate-but-equal” entertainment. Many children’s filmmakers have decided that their product will be unwatchable to adults unless a second level is added. Do we have the ability to make a film that succeeds with all ages without dumbing down or snarking up?
By the way, when we were in the video store, we watched a young father trying to find movies to rent for his two kids, who I guess were 5 and 7, maybe younger. He was trying to rent “The Apple Dumpling Gang,” presumably because he loved the film as a kid and wanted to initiate them. “But is has guns and explosions in it,” he explained to the little boy, “You’ll like that!” The boy wasn’t having any of it. Parents: will they ever learn?

Laputa: Castle in the Sky

Dir: Hayuo Miyazaki
1986
Recently released domestically with a disposable dubbed soundtrack
(James Vanderbeek, eek!), Laputa is another classic from Miyazaki. I haven’t seen all his films yet, but each time I do, I’m astounded by the breadth of his vision. He puts other animated film directors to shame. For this story of a young girl and her mysterious amulet and the rough and tumble lad, Pazu, who tries to help her escape the clutches of bad governmentals who are after her, we are treated to two hours of exquisite landscapes, stuff that dreams are made on. Pazu’s mountain village is an impossible architecture of village England crossed with Alpine cliff dwellers; the Army base is a round and geometric prison; the pirate ship they escape on is steam-punk before there was such a word (nods to Captain Nemo abound); and the Castle in the Sky contains four to five distinct environments. I’ve had dreams like this–Miyazaki brings them to life.
On top of that, the story is a rip-roaring boys’ and girls’ own adventure, plus an ecological fable that doesn’t hit you over the head. Miyazaki also treats his working people with respect, like he does in Princess Mononoke. The villagers mine the earth, but they respect it. The air pirates are scary, but they’re more romantic outlaws and mostly buffoons. The true villains are the army (blockheads with big weapons) and government officials (who quickly corrupt themselves absolutely).
Plus, such is my fear of heights that I found a lot of the suspence near unbearable, as Pazu’s often winds up hanging by the skin of his teeth from the bottom of the sky city.
Most excellent!
Just one example of Miyazaki’s subtle touch: When Pazu agrees to join the sky pirates and go in search of the girl, he is in essence growing up and agreeing to leave home for the greater world. We see him leave the dovecot open and wish his doves well. A few scenes later when he and pirates pass back over the valley, we get a wide shot of the village and we can just make out his house. And in fact, there’s a small flock of doves flying nearby. Miyazaki succinctly sums up Pazu’s feelings right there–that his former life is nearby but very far away, not really a part of him now. (One can imagine the Hollywood version: “Wow, I can see my house from here! And there go my doves! Fly and be free, doves!” probably with a shot of the airpirates’ craft from Pazu’s old house.)

The Weather Underground

Dirs: Sam Green and Bill Siegel
2003
This was up for an Oscar for best doc (didn’t win).
A well done history of the Weather Underground, the “Days of Rage” that sprung out of the frustrated anti-war movement, and what happens with middle-age and reality catches up with student radicals. The Weather Underground is one of those historical docs that reframes history so that not only does its subject become the center of attention, but alters how you look at its surrounding people and places. Green and Siegel succeed in making the actions of the radicals, though in the end futile, seem initially creditable. They did manage to explode bombs without killing anybody (except when it was themselves), they did do it for a reason (all bombings were in protest to some grave injustice by the police or the governemtn), they did successfully elude capture and become some sort of political force.
One of the interesting points it brings up about the Weathermen is even in the radical/neo-terrorist movement, their white skin offered them privileges. Whereas they were surveilled and tracked, members of the Black Panthers were assassinated outright.
Green and Siegel use a nice blend of footage, and don’t blink from showing us the atrocities that Americans were subject to through the TV of our foray into Vietnam. In fact, this is the first time that I’d seen the full footage of the assassination in Hanoi (TV, if it shows it at all, cuts right after the gun goes off–actually the cameraman continues filming as the blood spurts out of his head in a drinking-fountain arc). They use amateur animation and a soundtrack full of Aphex Twin and Sonic Youth.
The film ends suggesting that the ’80s curdled the dreams of the ’60s radicals, and that the remaining Weathermen live with a palpable ambivalence over what they did. The filmmakers also end with two ironic clips–“Hanoi Jane” Fonda turned in a workout video guru, and the fact that one of the Weathermen went on Jeopardy and won $32,000. Not too shabby.

Enki Bilal’s IMMORTEL

Enki Bilal should be familiar to all fans of early Heavy Metal comics, sci-fi tales full of sex, machinery, and ancient gods. You can now watch a HUGE (32 meg) trailer for the film version of Immortel, which opened today in France. Directed by Bilal himself, it looks pretty faithful to his look.

Suicide Club (Jisatsu Saakuru)

Dir: Shion Sono
2002

I’m always up for a good Japanese horror movie, but this one didn’t do it for me.
The film felt like it began with a series of striking images (a mass suicide in front of a train; a roll of stitched-together flesh; a woman blithely cutting off her fingers; a theater filled with scary-looking children) and then a script was written to contain them.
Taking a lot from Kiyoshi Kurosawa (especially his classic “Kairo”–you should know this is one of my favorite films from the current Japanese horror renaissance), Sono creates a whole lot of questions, emotional and logical, and then confuses not explicitly answering them with not having an answer.
The plot centers around a rash of group suicides around Japan, and the detective (Ryo Ishibashi) called in to solve the case. The film opens with a bravura set piece where 50 or so high school girls jump in front of a subway. Trouble is, the editing reveals the budget, and the soundtrack (a kooky march) ruins the shock. It’s actually (intentionally?) funny. Big waves of blood shoot out from beneath the train as it plows through the tender flesh–it’s something that Dario Argento would love. But it is rather silly.
Much better is a later mass suicide set on the top of a high school where horsing around leads to the entire rooftop of students jumping to their deaths (although we get some more buckets-o-blood splashed on the ground floor windows). It’s a well-written scene and the tone is just right. No marching music either.
Then there’s a completely unrelated sequence set in a hospital with two nurses and a security guard–this is shot very dark, and is reminiscent of Kurosawa or Nakata (Ringu). In the context of the film though, it doesn’t follow the “mass suicide” theme. Seems to me it’s either mass suicide or just random suicides–Sono seems to change his mind depending on the effect. When things drag, Sono goes back to this set up for one more scare with the security guard–where he sees the nurses’ ghosts. But this isn’t a ghost story–and so we never see anything like this again.
Then there’s some bits about an online Suicide Club (a bit reminiscent of Kairo’s ghostly website); a mysterious child who calls the detective and offers up cryptic clues (don’t they all?); and a 5 member “idol” group, a bit like Morning Musume, who seem to be everywhere, and who also seem to be singing cryptic messages. Gee, you think…? Naaaah.
Then there’s Rolly. Who? Rolly.
This guy is a sort of glam rocker who was popular when I lived in Japan. Think Ziggy Stardust, but less subtle. He turns up as the head of a murder (or is it suicide?) cult in the third reel, and, whaddya know? he sings a song! I don’t think this sort of thing has happened in film since Mick Jagger’s Memo From Turner walked onscreen in Nicholas Roeg’s “Performance” and baffled all. The movie really skids off the rails when this campy fella turns up.
Suicide Club wants to make us think, but more importantly, it wants to make us quietly depressed, like…well, like “Kairo” I’m afraid to say. But thinking back over the film only reveals its weak points. If young children are behind the murders, then who is producing the music, filming the shows, setting up the websites? Who is the (adult) guy in the executioner mask who planes off the victim’s flesh? If–as we see–it’s that hard to get into the flesh-planing place to start with, how come more and more people are offing themselves, as membership suggests? Well, you see, the film sort of falls apart.
The reason why Kurosawa is so good at his horror films is that, in Cure and Kairo in particular, once the “mystery” is solved, the film doesn’t end–the knowledge is the horror, not a solution to it. Kurosawa takes the solution then expands it beyond what we’ve expected. Sono doesn’t do that because, as I said at the beginning, he’s working backwards.
For a rave review, for I could be wrong, check out the one at Snowblood Apple, although I feel Mandi Apple is reading way too much into the film.
Oh, and this is one of the first DVDs released by TLA Entertainment. I don’t know whether the lack of a 5.1 mix is their fault, but unremovable subtitles? C’mon now…

David Lynch’s Cigarette Ad

Dating apparently from 1998, this is one of a series of cigarette ads for French cinemas only. Other directors included Wim Wenders, Roman Polanski, and the Coen Bros. Lynch’s commercial features his usual obsessions: fire, electricity, smoke. But it also features two black dudes who seem to entice fish to rise up into the sky. If this is selling out, go for it.
You can see other Lynch commercials at Lynch.net, and the other cigarette commercials over at LDM Productions.

Matrix Revolutions

Dir: Andy and Larry Wachowsky
2003
I come not for the philosophy, but one law: the law of diminishing returns.
The Matrix “trilogy” is over and thank goodness. Revolutions is essentially two hours of being hit over the head with a electric hammer. So disappointing to see that all the philosophical conundrums of the first film are solved in Zion with a big gun battle and hitting the smart bomb button on the game console, and then in the Matrix with a punch-up in a mud puddle. And so once again science fiction in American film is reduced to “things-blowing-up-in-space”, what was once exhilirating is now mastubatory, what was once multilayered is now Bush Administration good-and-evil. “Agent Smith is the yin to Neo’s yang” is not the most revelatory observation by a long shot, but it’s presented as such. Holmes/Moriarty, anybody? Superman/Lex Luthor?
Setting most of the final film in the “real world” of Zion makes for some great questions: If an EMP (or whatever) blast from a ship has the ability to knock out all the metal squid monsters and the fair people of Zion have enough technology and skill to build the city in the first place, why didn’t they set up their own EMP system as civil defense? Also, knowing their enemy, why weren’t the exoskeleton robotech machines designed to protect their pilots? As it is, it leaves the pilot exposed to the claws of the squids. I mean, ask a crab–does that have its tender juicy meat on the outside?
And so now Zion is saved, who really wants to live there? How depressing a place–if they’ve had to live there for centuries, couldn’t someone splurge on a coat of paint? What’s the economy of Zion? How does it feed itself? Who grows the space-cotton to make all those wool sweaters?
I don’t blame the Wachowsky Brothers for not letting a good idea alone, but it just looks like they couldn’t answer their own questions. And maybe the secret is that they weren’t supposed to.
And why do evil places have to have such bad weather? If you controlled the earth, wouldn’t you make sure you chose the best spot to set up HQ? I hear it’s often sunny outside the offices of Halliburton, so what’s the deal?

SANTA BARBARA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL’S GALA OPENING: Film locally, screen globally

4.1.1

From environmental artists to family dramas that span generations, this year the Santa Barbara International Film Festival is more home-grown than ever, with many films and many more of its filmmakers sporting Santa Barbara addresses. And the festival’s new artistic director, Roger Durling, said it’s about time.

“This year we’ve put much more thought into (the Santa Barbara filmmakers) section,” said Mr. Durling. “I’ve been banging the drum about this since we started. We should be more community-focused.”

To attach Santa Barbara to the name and not show our own artists, he said, “would be hypocritical.”

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