Thursday, November 26, 2009

"Five Obstructions" comments by Andy

Um....I thought I was becoming more mature in my movie tastes. I considered myself to be growing and learning, much the result of the movies we've been watching for this blog. I guess I'm not as far along as I thought. I didn't really get why we needed "Five Obstructions."

I get that it was a short film that Jorgen Leith did many years ago and that Lars von Trier obviously loves. I'm just not arty enough to understand why Jorgen needed to do it again with different constraints.

I think that's what I'm struggling with in my movie-going maturity - can I appreciate art films with no plot???? I don't know. This had interesting parts, I guess, but on the whole I didn't enjoy it, nor did I appreciate it's artines. It's beyond the line for me. I needed to watch a good big-budget mainstream movie just to get back to center.

But I'm still interested in a challenge, and I'm in no means swearing off odd films...

thoughts by Andy

Thursday, November 12, 2009

"The Five Obstructions"

by Jason Pyles

In keeping with the spirit of this unusual documentary, I’ll place an obstruction on my review and limit myself to 500 words or fewer to hone my craft.

For those who are unfamiliar and therefore unprepared, “The Five Obstructions” documents a contest between two gifted filmmakers, Lars von Trier, and his mentor, Jorgen Leth.

The latter made a 13-minute, experimental film in 1967 called “The Perfect Human.” Von Trier apparently has always loved Leth’s film and has watched it numerous times. But von Trier wanted to challenge Leth to remake five variations of his movie, with each new attempt having some sort of handicapping stipulation(s) inhibiting the filmmaker. In fact, the obstructions often are multi-faceted.

I won’t list the obstructions here, because learning of the new requirements is part of the fun. I will say that many of them are technical with regard to filmmaking itself, but not all. Intriguingly, von Trier tries to delve uncomfortably deep into his mentor’s psyche, seemingly wanting to punish him but “for his own good.” (Why is this is not surprising coming from the maker of “Dogville,” “Dancer in the Dark” and “Antichrist”?)

It is a wonder that Leth agreed to entertain von Trier’s bizarre challenge, which takes a couple of years to play out, and involves location-scouting, casting, etc. But what is most endearing about “The Five Obstructions” is Leth’s sincere determination not only to hurdle over each obstruction, but also to make a film that excels in spite of it. Watching the seasoned filmmaker work out these cinematic puzzles is what makes this film worth watching.

Still, “The Five Obstructions” is the kind of art film — much like “The Perfect Human” — that leaves moviegoers with a distaste for art films, in general. Indeed, I suspect that only those viewers who are filmmakers or film art scholars, or both, would truly enjoy this documentary. I’d wager that most people I know would shut it off because of its “weirdness.” As for objectionable content, this unrated film would probably be rated R (though the original 1967 version of “The Perfect Human” would be approximately PG).

A note for those who plan to watch this on DVD: I have three exercises for you that I think will enhance your enjoyment and appreciation of the film:

1.) Before watching the documentary, go to the DVD’s “Extras” and watch the original version of “The Perfect Human.” It is interspersed throughout the feature film, but I personally wish I had seen it first in order to gain my bearings.

2.) Watch the documentary next.

3.) Watch the U.S. trailer and observe how a trailer can be effectively cut together to make a film seem like it has widespread marketing appeal. The Danish trailer wasn’t nearly as appealing to my American sensibilities.

By the way, my favorite new versions are the results of Obstruction 1 and Obstruction 4.

Word count total: 497

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Kill Bill Vols. 1 & 2

by Jason Pyles

Quentin Tarantino’s two “Kill Bill” films have an undeniable video game quality. This is not uncommon in modern action films, but these two examples are special because each one has a different video game emphasis. In “Vol. 1,” Uma Thurman’s The Bride character slices and dices numerous victims — many of them nameless, faceless blanks. Gamers are accustomed to mowing down hundreds of place-holders, such as these.

“Vol. 2” — as well as the two films collectively — illustrates the way one must progressively climb the ladder of “bosses,” having prerequisite, episodic showdowns that must be won in order to face the biggest boss at a long-awaited finale. I love that.

Of course, I don’t think it was necessarily Tarantino’s objective to bring a Double Dragon-like video game to the screen. No, according to the Making of “Kill Bill” short film that accompanies the DVD with “Vol. 1,” while QT was filming “Pulp Fiction,” he and Thurman came up with the concept of this Bride character as a woman-scorned, revenge flick. In addition, as he is wont to do, QT also intended to draw upon his vast knowledge of the Kung Fu film genre to weave an amalgam of Hong Kong cinema, ‘70s grindhouse cinema, exploitation cinema, samurai films and the spaghetti western.

The more one knows about these various genres, the more one will appreciate what QT has done with his “Kill Bill” creation. I don’t claim to be an expert on any of these genres; however, I do know a thing or two about martial arts films, which enhanced my appreciation for “Vol. 2” specifically.

The concept of having a vendetta — especially one that could develop within a young person whose loved one(s) has been slain — is a prominent martial arts film theme. Spoilers ahead: Knowing that we were watching a Tarantino film, there was no doubt that Copperhead’s little girl was going to witness her demise. And following the genre, The Bride tells the kid to come find her when she’s older if she’s still sore about her mother’s death.

Another common martial arts theme is having foes who are specially trained with one, unconventional weapon, just as GoGo is with her chain mace.

Perhaps the most prevalent martial arts film theme is the student’s unconventional training by a superhumanly powerful master teacher. Accordingly, The Bride learns the mysteries of Kung Fu under the cruel tutelage of Pai Mei. Now, this sequence cashes in — thrice — on the screenwriter’s technique of set-up and pay-off, which is where information planted earlier in the film comes back around later. Also, I would note, there is something in The Bride’s education relevant to battling each of her three foes in “Vol. 2.”

The Bride’s training of being able to punch through wood from only three inches away addresses her escape from Bud’s seeming death sentence. (This sequence, by the way, is masterful: The way the screen ratio claustrophobically changes while she’s in the coffin, as well as the initial pitch blackness with incredibly haunting sound effects of shoveled dirt, constitutes the film’s most effective — and affecting — portion.) And naturally, the way The Bride plucked the eyeball (Elle Driver) and the superb execution of the five-point-palm exploding heart technique (Bill) were also set up during The Bride’s training. Because it was a set-up and pay-off scenario, I wasn’t disappointed with this seemingly anti-climactic, fatal blow: Again, and maybe this convention comes more from martial arts video games than films, but it is common for a martial artist to have one finishing technique, ie., Daniel Larusso’s Crane Kick in “The Karate Kid.” Finishing moves are a big deal when you’re a Kung Fu master.

Just a quick actors’ note: Michael Parks, who plays his usual character Earl “Pops” McGraw in “Vol. 1” and then Esteban in “Vol. 2,” is one of my favorite character actors. He was also in the exceptional introductory sequence of “From Dusk Till Dawn.” I wish that guy had also been squeezed into “No Country for Old Men.” Anyway, he’s a dynamic actor who’s worth mentioning. Also worth noting is Daryl Hannah’s passable performance: After seeing her execution of her role in “Wall Street” (1987), I seriously had my doubts about her acting abilities. (A quick check at the reveals that she won a Razzie Award for that role, as well as for two other performances.) In any case, I liked her in these films.

Though they inspire much discussion, the “Kill Bill” films are two of those rare motion pictures that are difficult to describe because they speak for themselves. I feel that way about “Mysterious Skin,” too. I realize that I’ve likely contributed very little above to the pages and pages of writing about the “Kill Bill” films. They combine to form so rich a work, that it’s a challenge to write commentary beyond scenes I admired.

I will agree with Andy’s post below that the second film is slower, but it also features better storytelling. (It probably doesn’t help that it’s about 44 minutes longer than the first film.) Nevertheless, I found it engaging upon my first viewing, which this was. That brings me to Andy’s point: This was Andy’s second viewing, and I could see where these films would not hold up us well with subsequent viewings. After we’ve already learned the tricks of the narrative, we’re left with video-game violence and lengthy dialogue, which is still intriguing, but not the way it is in, say, “Pulp Fiction” or “Reservoir Dogs.”

As for Tarantino’s purpose in slicing “Kill Bill” in two (and it looks like three, slated for 2014), I’m sure there are official answers for this, but my speculation would be that this is an example of a notably extravagant filmmaker who has indulged himself in the work of constructing an epic.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

"Kill Bill" Andy

For our movie this week we decided to review both "Kill Bill" movies. I've seen them before, and I remember them much more fondly than I feel now.

I fully admit that I fall asleep during movies. In fact, it is very rare for me to stay awake for an entire movie. I do better in action films, but even that's not a guarantee that I'll stay alert. I fell asleep during my first viewings of "Batman: Dark Knight" and "Inglorious Basterds" (both were late showings). I'm not proud of it, but movies help me unwind and fall asleep. I have trained myself to fall asleep during movies. I even do it friends houses. If I want to watch a movie, I need to take a nap before, and generally watch it during the morning. Anything after 6pm and I'm toast.

Why do I bring this up and what does it have to do with "Kill Bill?" Generally, when I watch a movie, I'm doing it just for entertainment. I don't have intelligent thoughts about many movies - I just watch them for fun. But when I watch a movie for the blog, I try very hard to stay alert. Staying awake doesn't help me write better or more intelligently, but I put forth the effort anyway.

I really thought I'd be able to stay awake for a full viewing of "Kill Bill." I've stayed awake for marathons before. I did all of "Lord of Rings" and even such films as "Lawrence of Arabia" in one session. Four plus hours is a lot for a movie, but I started at 7 and I had good violence to anticipate throughout the film. Right?

Wrong. Yes, I'd seen the movies before, but it's been a long time. I forgot just how terribly boring the second movie is. In preparation for writing, and to try and come up with some answers, I did some quick research. No, the film was not shot as two films, so Tarantino can't blame changes in production staff on the slow second film.

I honestly don't get it. He obviously understood what we wanted. We start out with a glorious battle between "Black Mamba" and "Copperhead." It was quick, but it was fantastic. And what was next: terrific story development about "Cottonmouth." Lucy Lu kicks butt, and so does her staff. She was fabulous playing a half-deranged mob boss when she cuts off the other boss's head and then calmly tells the other bosses that "her door is always open" to discuss their concerns, ideas, and needs.

Following that character development aside, we come to the end of the first film, and one of the best choreographed fight scenes in film. "Black Mamba" single handedly destroys "Cottonmouth's" entire organization. And Tarantino wisely broke up the scene into several distinct sections, leaving "Black Mamba" to kill each of "Cottonmouth's" major subordinates one by one. And then, just to be ridiculously awesome, "Black Mamba" takes on the entire gang - somewhere near 88 (hence the name, "Crazy 88"). And after all that build up, she finally takes on "Cottonmouth." Wonderful. As "Cottonmouth" fell to the ground, scalped from "Black Mamba's" priceless hand-made Hanzo Hattori samurai sword, I couldn't help but anticipate the second film.

In retrospect, I did remember the fight scenes in the first film, but not the second. I now know why. The second film's fights suck. There's no other way to describe them. She doesn't even get to kill or get even with "Sidewinder," even after he shoots her in the chest with rock salt and then buries her alive. No, some idiot writer thought it would be better if "California Mountain Snake" did him in with the bite of an actual black mamba. Stupid. And why is she called "California Mountain Snake?" The name is not catchy, and with so many other snakes with much more terrible reputations, why that one?

And the fight between "California Mountain Snake" and "Black Mamba" was terribly short. In fairness, I did like how it ended, with "California Mountain Snake" wandering blindly around a trashy trailer with a black mamba waiting to kill her, but why did the fight scene have to be so short? Aren't the villains supposed to be getting more difficult for "Black Mamba" to kill?

And then the finale. Or should I say anti-climactic ending? She finally gets to "Bill." They have a very long dialogue discussing why "Bill" did what he did, and why "Black Mamba" did what she did. I get it. I didn't mind the dialogue. But damn it if the fighting scene was so short I had to scan back because I missed it reaching down to get a little drink. They didn't even get out of their chairs before she had perfectly executed the five-finger-exploding-heart trick punch.

Terrible ending. And I fell asleep twice in the second film. Why? What would have possessed Tarantino to make such a boring second part of the film?

So here's my theory - Miramax broke up the film into two parts because they knew that if they release the film as a whole, it would do terrible at the box office. This way, tons of topeople would see the first film, love it (and it was deservedly great), and then see the second film. I'm shocked volume 2 did as well as it did in the theaters. Maybe the juxtaposition of both films in the same night brought out more boredom than seeing them several months apart. I don't know. What I do know is that I'm kind of bummed about how much I didn't care for Volume 2.

thoughts by Andy