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Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky's Blog
• Location: Wesley Chapel, FL
That Time of Year Again: Episode 1
Welcome to awards’ season. Around mid-November of every year, I start to get packages from movie studios who want me to vote for their pictures for the Online Film Critics’ awards. Since I have a brand new baby, a three-year-old daughter, and a busy work schedule, I don’t get out to movies much in the theater these days. The end of the year is a good opportunity for me to play catch up. Some of these award screeners are just off-the-shelf commercial releases, sometimes repackaged with “For Your Consideration” labels. Some are DVDs of films still in theaters, or even just about to be released. Sometimes, studios send swag along with the movies, in an effort to win my approval. For example, a couple of years ago, DreamWorks (who always seems to send the best goodies) mailed me a signed litho to promote Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. The movie sucked (it would have been better as a silent picture, lacking Matt Damon’s patronizing narration and Bryan Adams’ painfully obvious pop songs), but the litho was gorgeous. So I framed it for my children’s’ room -- and voted for Spirited Away (which Disney never even sent me a screener for) as Best Animated Feature.
Anyway, my plan is to offer capsule reviews of these award screeners as I watch them, with a few comments thrown in about any gimmicky packaging or promotional stuff the studios send along. Why? Well, for the same reason the studios send this stuff in the first place: they want me to tell you what I think. And maybe I’ll be able to tell you about some overlooked gems from 2005.
Crash: Ok, so the first film that arrived this season isn’t so overlooked. It also wasn’t so shiny a gem as some have made it out to be. Paul Haggis’ sometimes moving, sometimes ponderous ensemble piece wants to offer a profound take on race relations. But ensemble pieces like this work only if two things come together: 1) the good subplots outweigh the tedious ones, and 2) the intersections among the characters are not so improbable as to strain credibility. Matt Dillon’s performance as an angry cop who compensates for his own inability to help his father by spitting racism is riveting. Terrence Howard’s meltdown as a black television director insecure about his own identity works too. (Howard is having a hell of a great year as an actor.) But a subplot about an Iranian store owner and a Latino locksmith (with a little girl who almost glows with the angelic power of Hollywood sentimentality) strained my patience. And I saw the tragic end of Don Cheadle’s subplot coming a mile away. Overall, when I believed in the characters as people, the film worked. But when Haggis turned actors into archetypes, the film became too “meaningful” and “inspiring” for its own good, lifting itself away from the real complexities of race in America and into movie fantasyland. Overall: B.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room: A slightly overlong, if generally successful effort to explain one of the biggest business debacles of the last decade. Director Alex Gibney occasionally misleads the audience (an opening sequence recreating the suicide of an ENRON bigwig never quite meshes with the story that emerges through the course of the film), but he still manages to explain ENRON’s complicated schemes to rake in loads of profit at the expense of everyone who wasn’t an ENRON executive. Starting with aggressive marketing, moving to unethical manipulation, and climaxing with outright fraud, Ken Lay, Peter Skilling, and their cronies walked off with millions by building what one observer in the film calls “a house of cards that had been built over a pool of gasoline.” They turned their belief in Social Darwinism into an arrogance that blinded them to the lessons of real Darwinism: adaptability and cooperation will ultimately beat purely predatory behavior in the long run, because the predators will eat themselves out of house and home. Unfortunately for the victims of ENRON, the ruin left in the company’s wake will take years to repair. Overall: A-
Cronenberg's Natural History
All of David Cronenberg’s movies might be called histories of violence. The car accident. The deconstruction of the body. Violence in Cronenberg is not cathartic. There is no purging, no clean slate. Aristotle would find nothing redemptive about these collisions. Instead, violence in a Cronenberg film is transformative, additive. It doubles the self, produces an other inside oneself. All agents defect, and all resistors sell out, as Naked Lunch tells us. You play both sides, betray yourself, and thus open yourself up to the other. Only in becoming other, through the collision, can you approach the ethical connection with another subject.
Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a family man, an all-American good guy. He lives in middle America (Indiana, no less), runs a little diner where everyone knows his name, has a wonderful family. He is so nice that he even goes down on his wife without being asked. Good old Tom. He’s such a good WASP that his name is even an anagram for “lost lam(b).” So when Tom defends his friends from some “bad men,” gangsters who cruise into town looking to start trouble, even he is shocked by his aptitude for violence. He finds himself a stranger.
In recent years, David Cronenberg has shifted slowly away from dissecting bodies toward dissecting psyches. His work has always been underrated for its psychological insight, but nowadays he tends to get more credit for these things. A History of Violence is less about the violence itself than about the history, before and after. What are the consequences of violence on our own identities? On our wives and children? How does the cycle of violence perpetuate itself, even when we try to escape? Cronenberg might be making a sort of Western here, an updated version of The Gunfighter in which each act of violence (and Josh Olson’s exquisitely timed screenplay tightly wraps each of the film’s three shocking assaults in messy little packages) leads inexorably to another. And each one makes us a little more alien to ourselves and to one another. No wonder the shelf next to the Stall’s front door has little blocks displaying the letters “ET.”
These are all random thoughts right now, since it is both very late at night and I am still feeling rattled by Cronenberg’s fresh take on this material. I want to reconcile A History of Violence with all the previous writing I’ve done on his work (and the film fits in neatly with my analysis of his previous films in my book, summarized by the first paragraph of this review). I want to piece together a sustained review of this film, although that may have to wait until the DVD comes out (and perhaps I will have gotten some sleep by then). But for the moment, my initial reaction is that A History of Violence is the best film I have seen so far this year. Emotionally wrenching, tautly directed, and philosophically rich – was there any doubt Cronenberg would nail this one?
Ghost Stories, Volume 1 (Preview Disc)
Ghost Stories: Semester 1 – Freshman Frights
Of course, the old school is full of malevolent ghosts. The big bad is a demon that feeds on fear and seems to know Satsuki. Satsuki finds her late mother’s old spell book and banishes the demon. Well, sort of. The spell sends the demon (“a Keebler elf reject with bad gas,” according to Satsuki) into the cat.
And so the show is off and running, as Satsuki and friends defeat the monster of the week and deal with the demon cat’s empty threats. Episode two features a bathroom ghost. (Expect lots of poop jokes.) Episode three revolves around a cursed play and Leo’s stage ambitions. The characters are pretty standard anime stuff, and the voice actors hit their comedy beats in reliable fashion. The standout here is Monica Rial as Momoko: making her character a sweet but judgmental Christian was an inspired move and provides the show with much dry wit.
As you can probably guess, Momoko was not a Christian (nor was Leo Jewish) in the original Japanese version of the show. Gakkou no Kaidan (“School Ghost Stories”) was a short-lived series (only 19 episodes) directed by Noriyuko Abe, better known for the similarly themed hit Yu Yu Hakusho. ADV plans to release the first three episodes on October 25, just in time for your Halloween shopping binge. But American otaku are already apparently talking about Ghost Stories, mostly because producer Steven Foster’s English dub is largely improvised by the voice cast. The basic plot stays faithful to the original, but the characters and dialogue have been tweaked, in some cases (like Momoko) quite extensively.
I have no qualms about ADV’s efforts here to punch up the comedy by allowing the voice cast to improvise jokes more appropriate to their American audience. It makes the show funny and accessible to viewers not intimately familiar with Japanese culture. And if anime is ever going to completely cross over into the mainstream without thoroughly bastardizing itself (“Ash Ketchum,” anyone?), there must be a compromise between faithfulness and freshness. Ghost Stories seems as good a place to start as any.
I am sorely disappointed that ADV did not include the original Japanese soundtrack on this review DVD. Hopefully, the final copy will have it. Given the controversy generated by this freewheeling translation, having the original Japanese track (with subtitles, of course) would allow the audience to compare. When Satsuki assures her brother that “monsters only get evil people, like Republicans,” I wonder what the original slam was. When the lecherous Hajime ogles Momoko and quotes Family Guy’s Quagmire with a “giggity giggity,” or when Leo remarks that he is Jewish – these are not too distracting. Producer Steven Foster also tried a liberal English adaptation of the bizarre and opaque Super Milk Chan, which is enough to drive anyone around the bend. The jokes in Ghost Stories blend in nicely – most of the time at least – and the show is entertaining.
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